Neil Atkinson’s post-match review for The Anfield Wrap after Arsenal 0 Liverpool 2 in the FA Cup third round at the Emirates Stadium…
THE Magic Of The Cup gets a lot of chatter.
A magical thing about the cup is that it creates frameworks and reference points in the way a league campaign doesn’t. Every league campaign contains everything, especially when you tend to be as good as Liverpool.
But every cup campaign is different, often curtailed, occasionally glorious, its moments frozen in amber.
Today was so reminiscent of Leeds away in the fourth round in 2001. A good side, a genuine rival, a hard early draw and a lot to survive before two late goals, the last thrashed into the roof of the net to answer the final question with aplomb.
I loved that day. Today, seeing that massed end, seeing those 7,000 Liverpudlians giving it the big one against a side who are our rivals, a side who have lost three on the spin, a side who had chances first half, a side who are wracked, rightly, with insecurities, seeing that 7,000 making their point was as sweet as it got.
Because like in 2001, the feeling persists, this lot, decked all in white, this lot, they may just not be our business. For all their clear quality and unbelievable shape and phased excellence, we may just be that bit more malleable, that bit more nimble, that bit better.
This comes as a surprise. Because, well, I saw the teams. I saw the benches.
I saw the team. Imagine Liverpool without Mo Salah and Virgil van Dijk. I looked at the bench and thought, well, these will need to win it for us. Not much to twist with today.
I saw the team and how wrong I was. Today, at the Emirates, no need to imagine. It was utterly brilliant. Ibrahima Konate fights back against Arsenal’s relentless attack, your captain Trent Alexander-Arnold is everywhere, and upfront it’s not that we don’t miss Mo, but rather Luis Diaz offers us something different. Not better. But good different.
I saw the team and how wrong I was – of course he can twist. Liverpool and their smiling, clever manager twisted and twisted. Twisted like Manchester City, organised and reorganised and asked more questions, different questions and found new angles to ask them from.
They weren’t good for extended periods. And for the opening Arsenal are brilliant again. They control the space and shape on the pitch. Liverpool’s passing lanes are shut down completely. We play football in their margins.
The press and counter pressing is at breakneck speed. Neither team can afford to be without the ball for long and, in the first half, it is Liverpool who come under sustained attack.
Liverpool were brilliantly pressed, smothered and found naive, uncertain, but constantly determined. Constantly focused, constantly full of belief they could stay alive, could dig their teammate out, could delay and obfuscate their opponent just long enough.
We get in at half time level, but we sort of knew we would. There were few actually good Arsenal chances first half. Martin Odegaard should score and on a couple of occasions, in the round, Kai Havertz should do a teeny bit better. But Liverpool always had men back and, truthfully, Arsenal are not that great an attacking side. Their excellence is in shape, not execution.
Half time and we knew we carried a threat. The manager twists it, because of course he does and suddenly Liverpool are dropping bombs behind full backs. Suddenly they are in the game and suddenly Arsenal can see the chasm beneath them, suddenly they know this is a game on a tightrope. Liverpool beg further questions and finally there are no answers.
There was more to do. Luck needed to be rode. Balls could ricochet anywhere, but they bounce in Liverpool’s favour. Gabriel Martinelli – who should be Arsenal’s first sub – comes on and is a livewire.
Liverpool stay alive and scrap, and suddenly what was relentless relents. Liverpool drop their bombs and suddenly backwards steps are taken. The game is stretched and that suits The Reds in purple and Arsenal are turned around.
When the time comes for subs, for all the subs, we see that it is possible for the bottom of Liverpool’s squad depth to be reached. And yet there is still more Liverpool for Arsenal to contend with. We end the game with no:
Virgil van Dijk
Alexis Mac Allister
That’s when we win the game. With none of the above on the pitch. Diogo Jota is incredible, the game’s best attacker. None of theirs can live with him. Darwin Nunez is not to be kept out of the action and finally Luis Diaz gets to be Emile Heskey at Elland Road, the ball arrowing into the roof of the net, the roof blown off an away end.
Before then, Conor Bradley had done brilliantly and Bobby Clark should have asked the referee for the yellow card at the end of the game. Before then, there was Joe Gomez getting to grips and finally controlling Bukayo Saka, Trent Alexander-Arnold running the show and Ryan Gravenberch finally getting away from Declan Rice.
Before then, there was Jurgen Klopp doing that thing where he trusts his boys and where you should trust them too. I should trust them.
I saw the team and how wrong I was, how right Liverpool are, how infectious their belief is, how glorious must all those journeys home be. Jürgen Klopp giving 7,000 of ours the big one post match, the Emirates his and ours and most definitely theirs.
That’s the magic of the cup I care about. Liverpool obnoxious, and loud, and risk-taking, and backing the boys. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpudlian, in front of our end and straight down the camera on primetime, on your BBC One. Diaz into the roof of the net removing all doubt. Ibou Konate winning all his battles and our rivals broken, confused, confounded.
Because Liverpool aren’t messing about. It isn’t magic as such.
It is just what we do.