The halfway stage of a delicately poised Carabao Cup semi-final found Arsenal players with shirts off and thumping bare chests in front of a jubilant away support. What could be perceived as premature celebrations on the final whistle were instead justifiable outpourings of relief and pride having thrived in adversity at Anfield. Of all the places.
Mikel Arteta required a show of character from his team following their FA Cup third-round exit at Nottingham Forest. Bare minimum. He also needed a display of resilience, and absolute concentration, when Granit Xhaka received the fifth red card of his Arsenal career with merely 24 minutes gone. Those attributes, along with fight and organisation, have not exactly been synonymous with Arsenal performances at this stadium in recent years but all were to the fore as the depleted visitors contained Liverpool with surprising comfort.
They had a slice of luck too when Takumi Minamino sliced over an open goal in the 90th minute. It was thoroughly deserved. Liverpool’s first shot on target did not materialise until stoppage time. The fault lines in their performance had produced audible howls of frustration around Anfield long before then. Jürgen Klopp’s team had 66 minutes plus five minutes of stoppage time to capitalise on Xhaka’s dismissal and seize control of the tie. A lack of creativity from an overly cautious midfield selection and sharpness from an attack that sorely missed Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané ensured they never seriously threatened to do so.
Arsenal, already low on numbers, lost Cédric Soares to an early hip injury but made a vibrant start and were committed to attacking in numbers when opportunity arose. That policy had to be abandoned, however, when Xhaka was shown a straight red card for denying Diogo Jota a clear goalscoring opportunity, while volleying him in the ribs for good measure.
The pattern of the tie turned in an instant. One moment Arsenal were on the front foot with Bukayo Saka breaking down the right and crossing low towards Eddie Nketiah, who failed to connect at full stretch, plus Alexandre Lacazette, who was also unable to apply a finishing touch. The next, they were carved open at the back by Andy Robertson’s long diagonal ball towards Jota. The Portugal international was ghosting in on Xhaka’s blindside and set to go clean through when the Arsenal midfielder made an honest, if desperate, attempt to hook clear. He connected with the Liverpool forward’s chest and Michael Oliver immediately brandished red.
As the Switzerland international sloped off, after arguing his lost cause with Oliver for a lengthy period, Arteta consulted with his backroom staff over their emergency measures. The result was Rob Holding for the unfortunate Nketiah and a switch to a five-man defence. That understandable move left the visitors with a fragile-looking midfield three of Saka, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Gabriel Martinelli but the trio responded with tireless, disciplined contributions.
Klopp’s team dominated possession from the start but their clearer openings came against the 11 men of Arsenal. Aaron Ramsdale was fortunate when Jordan Henderson charged down his attempted clearance and the rebound spun wide of an open goal. The goalkeeper smothered the Liverpool captain’s second bite on the by-line. Ben White almost put through his own goal when steering a dangerous Minamino cross away from the lurking Roberto Firmino and just wide of the far post. Robertson’s right-footed shot was deflected wide by Lokonga.
Against 10 men, however, the hosts toiled. To Arsenal’s credit they did not simply retreat into preservation mode ahead of next week’s second leg at the Emirates. Saka looked to attack Liverpool’s left flank whenever he received possession while Kieran Tierney pressed forward as a wing back on the opposite flank. But their duties were mostly confined, unsurprisingly, to shutting down Liverpool’s attacking options.
Minamino went close early in the second half with a miscued cross that sailed over Ramsdale and wide of the far post, though chances remained at a premium. It was another 20 minutes before Liverpool, and Minamino, troubled Ramsdale again, the Japan international shooting wide from a tight angle after being released by Robertson’s slick pass. By the 70th minute, neither team had produced a shot on target.
The team with a valid excuse erased their blank two minutes later. Tierney found space on the left to pick out Saka’s run into the Liverpool area with an inviting cross. The Arsenal winger, who would add to Arteta’s injury worries with an apparent hamstring problem, took an awkward first touch before attempting to lift his second over the advancing Alisson. The Liverpool goalkeeper produced an important block at close range, to the obvious despair of Saka and the Arsenal bench.
But frustration was the preserve of Liverpool. Klopp made a triple substitution to freshen his side and introduced both Curtis Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to inject a much-needed spark into midfield. The effect was minimal. Two substitutes combined to create Liverpool’s best opening when Neco Williams found Oxlade-Chamberlain. His cross was taken out of Ramsdale’s hands by Lokonga. The miscued clearance dropped perfectly to Minamino in front of an open goal. He had to score. He sliced high into the Kop instead and Arsenal, with every justification, rejoiced in the reprieve.