There is now a new reality for Liverpool, who last went to the Etihad Stadium in April as a contender in English football’s great hierarchy and return there on Thursday as a different beast altogether: the team that no one has found a way of stopping.
Certainly not Arsenal, demolished in little more than an hour by a team with an aura that suggests they can beat anyone, perhaps even Pep Guardiola’s champions, who lost to Liverpool in that Champions League quarter-final second leg and are again on the back foot. That said, there are 18 games left in Liverpool’s season, which for a club that has tossed away championships before still feels like a lot of potholes to negotiate.
The game against Manchester City will be the next test of Liverpool’s consistency and their powers of concentration. There is no team playing at a higher level currently than Jurgen Klopp’s side, with City’s three defeats in four and Tottenham Hotspur stumbling again. The question is whether Liverpool can last the ride now to make history. If the clock ticking on the club’s 19th league championship is to stop at 29 years in May, then they will have to break the resolve of those challenging them.
By the end it was hard to remember that Liverpool had initially fallen behind, for the first time at Anfield in the league for almost a year. They came roaring back with a hat-trick from Roberto Firmino and a goal each for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. Guardiola will see that Arsenal play a much inferior version of the City model and yet he can hardly ignore the fact that Liverpool ripped their opposition to shreds.
City will not, one assumes, be as disastrously naive as the Arsenal defence was, conceding two penalties and generally allowing Firmino to weave through their central defenders as if he were stepping over a much-loved pet that suffered spatial awareness issues. Unai Emery picked an expansive team who at least came to Anfield to attack, which is more than many other sides will do this season.
Even so, many of his players went over to their travelling support at the final whistle more in apology than acknowledgement. Just one win in his last four league games has reminded Emery of the limitations of this Arsenal squad and although he protested that the two penalties conceded by Sokratis Papastathopoulos in the first half, and then Sead Kolasinac after the break, would have been overruled by a video assistant referee, he seemed more annoyed at his own team.
There was a defiant response when asked about the absence of Mesut Ozil, whom Emery said has a knee problem, although he was not prepared to elaborate. He pushed his wide players, Alex Iwobi and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, up high to try to stop the Liverpool full-backs and insisted his side press Liverpool at goal-kicks. It was between-the-fingers stuff at times, when Arsenal tried to play out from the back, and against the best team in the league they eventually came a cropper.
Perhaps Arsenal and Emery will look back upon this game as the day they learned the hard way how their own pressing, high-energy game should be played. They will know they have a very long way to go. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had 13 touches of the ball and six of them were the large number of kick-offs Arsenal were obliged to take. Even so, it was a magnificently open game at times, which saw three goals in the first 16 minutes when mistakes were pounced upon.
Arsenal turned the ball over in the 11th minute and Iwobi got straight at Liverpool, crossing to the back post where Maitland-Niles had anticipated the ball arriving. It had been 364 days since Liverpool had last fallen behind in the league at home, when Jamie Vardy scored for Leicester after three minutes, and Klopp’s team responded without a flicker of doubt. Now it was Arsenal on the back foot and as they stuck to the ambitious game plan that Emery had set out, Liverpool struck again and again.
The early lead last barely three minutes and the equaliser came via the first of many errors between Arsenal’s defenders. This time Stephan Lichtsteiner played a clearance against Shkodran Mustafi and suddenly Firmino, who had started the move, was in. There are few players as composed as the Brazilian with just the goalkeeper to beat.
Firmino had his second within two minutes when Mane pinched the ball from Lucas Torreira in midfield and suddenly Arsenal’s defence was backpedalling as Liverpool’s No 9 bore down on them. Firmino could see that Mustafi and Sokratis were hesitant and immobile and as the Liverpool man stepped past one and then the other, they never looked like tackling him.
The third goal showed a different dimension, with a weak corner from the right cleared to Andy Robertson on the halfway line. He switched the ball onto his left foot and picked out Salah in the box; from there it went first time to Mane, who finished beautifully. This was a more direct approach but again the question begged itself: where was the Arsenal defence?
The fourth was a penalty, conceded when Sokratis ran into the back of Salah. The move had been expertly started by a drilled drop-kick from Alisson out to Firmino and Sokratis gave Salah just enough to go down. There were protests but the Egyptian picked himself up and drilled his penalty straight, so much so that Bernd Leno got a hand to it but could not save.
Angry words were exchanged in the tunnel at half-time, with Sokratis enraged about the award of what Arsenal viewed as a soft penalty, although it quickly became academic. Michael Oliver, the referee, was obliged to award another in the second half when Kolasinac pushed Dejan Lovren over at a corner. Salah gave Firmino the ball – “a Christmas present”, said Klopp – and the hat-trick was dispatched in front of the Kop.