Why Liverpool beating Arsenal’s direct approach can be the catalyst for change against weaker opposition

And so it was Liverpool who won the hashtag derby.

Social media watched and waited to go into overdrive whatever happened at Anfield on Saturday evening, with either the Reds or Arsenal primed to be the targets of the videos, the memes and the retweeted hysterics.

Given the status and profile of both clubs – with their global following only matched by Manchester United in this country – this is always a key game for media companies, and in terms of generating stories it didn’t disappoint.

Liverpool’s 3-1 win was a welcome one for Jurgen Klopp, a timely boost in a season which hadn’t so much gone off the rails as veered off into a station in a different postcode. But from the moment Georginio Wijnaldum joyously swept in the third goal following that clinical, Adam Lallana-inspired counter-attack, the Reds had ceased to be the subject of most interest. In truth it was probably the case before that.

Because the story, as it so often has been in what seems like his swansong season, was Arsene Wenger.

A brilliant and revolutionary manager in his time – and a man to be eternally admired whatever happens between now and May – Wenger did what all ageing legends playing to a stadium full of people tend to do on their farewell tours. He tried out something new. 

And just like when a rock god tries to throw in something from his latest album when all people want to hear are the greatest hits, it didn’t go down well.

But was the decision to leave out Alexis Sanchez as puzzling as it seemed?

Although reports of a training ground row between the Chilean and some of his team-mates have to be respected, Wenger’s claim that he wanted to start with both Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck in order to go with a more direct style of football was certainly an understandable one.

Six of Liverpool’s eight defeats this season – Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull and Leicester in the Premier League, and Wolves in the FA Cup – came against teams who don’t care much about how their style of football is perceived. They’d be strong, solid, direct and try to strike at the heart of the Reds’ clear weakness, namely a defensive vulnerability stemming from the goalkeeper and two centre-backs. Liverpool played the more attractive football, but it got them nowhere.

Southampton – who deservedly won both legs of the EFL Cup semi-final – could legitimately claim to be the only team to have ‘out-footballed’ Liverpool this season, as they took advantage of an alarming lack of confidence to reach their Wembley final in a stylish manner.

And so what Wenger did kind of made sense in the context of almost reducing Arsenal’s quality in order to go to a more rudimentary style of play, thereby hitting Liverpool where it hurts the most. He asked his team to be a Burnley or a Hull, basically.

But Arsenal will always be Arsenal, and Wenger’s brave decision ended up failing on three fronts. 

First, the decision to drop Sanchez may have upset his team-mates, who perhaps would have felt that they were more than capable of beating Liverpool by playing their natural game. Second, Sanchez himself – with the profile he carries and the intrigue around his future – would have made it a bigger issue than it could have been (perhaps Wenger’s error here wasn’t so much leaving him out for Welbeck and Giroud, more, say, Alex Iwobi). And third, this is a very, very good Liverpool team when it remembers who they are.

Their first half performance took you back to the heady heights of August to November, so much so that the more direct tactics which Wenger was looking to employ became redundant because his team couldn’t get the ball. When they needed to fight to get into the game, the meekness of a squad low on character was exposed.

So Liverpool have done it, then. They’ve beaten a team who turned up at Anfield trying to play direct, spoiling football. It just so happened to be that that team was Arsenal.

For this strange, strange Reds side, it now makes perfect sense for Burnley at home on Sunday to be a tougher test than the 13-time champions of England and perennial top four dwellers were.

Win that, and Liverpool go six points ahead of Manchester United, and five above Wenger’s Arsenal, the Frenchman having at least had the ingenuity to try something different on what could be his final visit to Anfield as an opposition manager.

Jurgen Klopp could still learn from that and from him, even in victory.