Not bad for a fourth-choice right-back. The omission of Trent Alexander-Arnold from England’s squad has never felt like the kind of hill Gareth Southgate ought to linger atop for too long and here was piquant, potent evidence. This performance was a precis of everything he does best: an advertisement for his effectiveness at the highest stage that gave Liverpool sight of the plane they consider to be their own, too.
The national team have nobody who can control the flanks like Alexander-Arnold, even if their opponents at Euro 2020 may not offer the same licence to roam afforded by a cripplingly timid Arsenal. Jürgen Klopp had expressed confusion about Southgate’s logic, and repeated the sentiment after this demolition, but might consider his colleague has done him a favour. Given the significance that had stalked this fixture for a fortnight, before heightening upon the afternoon’s news from Stamford Bridge, the availability of a fresh, rested, perhaps slightly angry Alexander-Arnold was among the factors required to make those crucial extra percentages of difference.
Liverpool had controlled this game for an hour without scoring and, to be clear, their dominance had not owed entirely to Alexander-Arnold by any stretch. They had been allowed a free run at building from the back by an Arsenal side that, shorn of intelligent pressers such as Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, did not trust itself to force the issue. In midfield Fabinho and Thiago Alcântara had been offered the run of possession; further forward Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah had flickered without quite clicking; going the other way, a disconsolate Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang was reduced to shuffling up and down the tramlines as a de facto left-back.
It was Aubameyang who could not get close enough to stop Alexander-Arnold from unloading the delivery that loosened the floodgates. England has not produced a crosser from open play of this quality since David Beckham: this one curled, soared, dipped and offered instructions that even a green, recently introduced substitute could not fail to decode. Diogo Jota buried the header, because that was exactly what the moment had demanded: Liverpool had their first goal of three, and one that may have the timely effect of a reset.
They had hardly strutted onto the Emirates turf given, in the buildup to kick-off, mathematical confirmation had been handed down that their title could no longer be retained. Hope of that had dissolved weeks ago, of course, and the mind drifted back to the last time these sides faced off here. In July, Liverpool arrived 43 points clear of Arsenal and promptly took their eyes off the ball. Klopp said afterwards that they “took a break”; they certainly did not expect to lose 2-1 to modest opposition after Alisson and Virgil van Dijk made the kinds of error that had previously been unthinkable.
Notwithstanding Van Dijk’s absence across much of the intervening period, was that the moment cracks began to show? Whether or not that interpretation is purely the invention of hindsight, the replastering needed to begin here. By the half-hour Liverpool had hogged 69% of the possession, just as they did in July; they had hardly been profligate but would miss their best chance of the opening period shortly afterwards, Alexander-Arnold galloping upfield and centring precisely to create an opening James Milner should have buried.
Liverpool’s control was total: the only suggestion last year’s pre-interval doziness might repeat itself occurred when Aubameyang, offering some forward thrust for the first time of precisely two, escaped Alexander-Arnold’s clutches and teed up Nicolas Pépé for a weak, drifting header towards Alisson. The pre-match billing had set this up as a defining night for Arsenal’s hopes of escaping mid-table insignificance and staking their own European claim; in the event, Mikel Arteta’s players resembled a group of perplexed strangers whose minds could have been anywhere else.
Alexander-Arnold was a little fortunate to be offered another bone when Kieran Tierney – one of the full-backs in this division capable of rampaging with similar intent – departed with an injury. When the Scot’s replacement on their flank, Cédric Soares, wafted a shot at Alisson the thought briefly occurred that Liverpool might again let their hosts off the hook. Then Alexander-Arnold received possession from Salah, glanced up, waved his wand and Jota did the rest.
He was behind the third goal too, stealing deep into the Arsenal half to intercept before Jota put things beyond doubt. Nobody in a home shirt came close to looking comparably tuned in.
Jota took the plaudits but this was a night to hail Alexander-Arnold, whose celebration after the opener carried visible emotion. Liverpool’s reboot might just have started here and Klopp may have cause to thank Southgate profusely for his foible.