Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker saved Arsenal’s season

We spend a lot of time trying to unearth the little tactical nugget, or superlative performance from one player, or decoding the 3D art that most soccer matches at the highest level usually are to figure out why one team won or lost and why this team is higher in the table than the other. But sometimes, even with two of the best teams in the world, it’s just the two of them hurling themselves at each other as if trapped in a particle accelerator and one of the leftover neutrons goes rogue (I have no idea how any of this work and my first viewing of Oppenheimer recently didn’t help my confusion).

Arsenal v. Liverpool | PREMIER LEAGUE HIGHLIGHTS | 2/4/2024 | NBC Sports

You don’t need an archaeologist’s touch to decipher that one.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t fascinating aspects to the match between these two title chasers. For the third time out of three in matches between these two, Arsenal had Liverpool flummoxed at the beginning of the match. With Kai Havertz switching to a false-nine position, Arsenal ended up boxing Liverpool’s midfield three with four players, with Havertz dropping off the front line to complete the square. It constantly gave Alexis Mac Allister a choice of who he was going to mark, Havertz or Martin Odegaard on the other side. The opening goal came from this kind of set-up:

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Screenshot: NBC Sports

In the build-up to Saka’s opener, Mac Allister followed Havertz, who had dropped into midfield. Liverpool’s two No. 8s, Curtis Jones and Ryan Gravenberch, are pushed up against Arsenal’s deep midfielders – Declan Rice and Jorginho – the latter’s addition to the starting lineup changing Arsenal’s usual shape as he plays much deeper than their usual dual 8s look. No one is around to mark Odegaard, so van Dijk steps out to him. But without a normal No. 9 to pin everything to, Liverpool can’t really set up their usual high-line/offside trap because Ibrahima Konate has to worry about Gabriel Martinelli at the top of the screen. Van Dijk is no longer the reference point, which he always is.

Liverpool couldn’t deal with this for all of the first half. But just like the other two matches between the two, Arsenal didn’t take full advantage of their dominance, and, in fact, actively chucked it away. Like, literally.

Arsenal v. Liverpool | PREMIER LEAGUE HIGHLIGHTS | 2/4/2024 | NBC Sports

Liverpool came out in the second half and dropped Curtis Jones alongside Mac Allister, and between the 45th and 65th minute, until van Dijk and Alisson both lost feeling in their legs, the match was pretty much even, with Liverpool maybe shading it. But you can’t legislate for this kind of mistake from two players who make Liverpool what they are.

Arsenal are now very much in it, and their schedule the next little bit will only help, as they now have away dates with West Ham and Burnley, and a home match with a quickly crumbling Newcastle. Their next real tester, likely, isn’t until March 30th when they go to The Etihad.

It may feel troubling for Liverpool, who now have City sitting right off their flank and the jockey is merely twirling his whip. However, it’s probably important to remember that Liverpool went through almost all of January without Mo Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dominik Szoboszlai, Wataru Endo, and basically no left back, and won two rounds in the FA Cup, put four up on Bournemouth and Chelsea, went through to the League Cup Final, and their only blemish was losing away to one of the six or seven best teams in Europe. It could be worse.

What else went down this weekend?

4. I’d like to buy this Douglas Luiz pass a stiff Manhattan

Sheffield United v. Aston Villa | PREMIER LEAGUE HIGHLIGHTS | 2/3/2024 | NBC Sports

The best part of this pass, and there’s a ton of them, is that the ball doesn’t end up passing Sheffield United defender Anel Ahmedhodzic by all that great of a distance. But the bend and pace on it leaves him utterly no chance to intercept it. This Call of Duty stuff (I’m told, never played it, first-person shooters make me nauseous. I know, I’ll never know true joy).

Luiz has been one of the best midfielders in the league this season, and it would be truly sad if Villa have to lose him to settle their FFP accounts as has been reported this week. Especially if Villa actually do nab a Champions League place.

3. We thought it couldn’t get worse for Chelsea

They got utterly thwacked on Wednesday by a team that they still consider themselves on the same level with. Backing that up by getting clubbed at home by Wolves was certainly a unique follow-up.

Chelsea v. Wolves | PREMIER LEAGUE HIGHLIGHTS | 2/4/2024 | NBC Sports

It’s hard to know where to start with Chelsea, but it seems like Mauricio Pochettino isn’t going to be able to save himself from this morass. He wouldn’t be able to put up much of an argument, as other than Cole Palmer, who didn’t have a track record at all, every player seems to be playing worse this season than they did before. Moises Caicedo was stripped of the ball for the Wolves’ first goal and then was run past all day. The defense is at sea.

The fans are also in open revolt.

If you’re pining for Jose Mourinho, you are truly lost.

2. The calming influence of Jordan Pickford

Everton were getting rolled by Tottenham for the first part of their match on Saturday, and watching Jordan Pickford telling his defense to calm down, keep the ball, try to find a teammate with a pass occasionally kind of looked like this:

But . . . it worked? Everton were able to bombard Spurs with enough set-pieces sent right under the crossbar to turn Tottenham keeper Guglielmo Vicario into a puddle, and Sean Dyche’s instructions were perfectly aligned with how Tottenham play, i.e. get the ball wide as soon as you win it, especially as Spurs’s fullbacks are tucked inside and up the field.

It may prove to be a very valuable point. It’s hard to project what Everton’s immediate future is like until we know if and what their second points penalty might be, but in the next month and half they have to go to both Manchester clubs as well as Brighton, and host the Merseyside Derby. Luckily for them, Luton also play both Manchester teams and Liverpool and Villa in that time. But merely being even with Luton with runway running out and that possible points deduction hanging over their heads like Damacles’s sword is going to make for a pretty stressful time.

1. Ok, time to worry about the USMNT’s defense

Good news, Gio Reyna got on the field!

Bad news, Auston Trusty and Chris Richards featured in Premier League defenses that combined to give up nine goals. At least Tim Ream is healthy again? Also, Nottingham Forest bought a new keeper specifically to punt Matt Turner out of the starting role. So, great.

Better hope Miles Robinson starts out the MLS season on fire for FC Cincinnati. 

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