Mikel Arteta declared himself “in shock” following Saturday night’s spanking at the hands of Liverpool. He wasn’t the only one.
It’s fair to say that I had compartmentalised this game ahead of kick-off because I expected it to be a draining, turgid evening’s work following a lengthy (and incredibly unwelcome) international break. What I hadn’t accounted for, however, was a display as bad as the one we were made to endure.
I’m not sure there are enough adjectives to adequately describe how bad we were on the night. We’ve been bad at various points this season (Aston Villa and Burnley at home, Everton away) but I’m not sure we’ve yet been as bad as we were against Jurgen Klopp’s side. It’s rare indeed for a team to be so comprehensively outplayed.
Quite why we were so bad is a mystery, especially against a team as shorn of confidence and indifferent as this Liverpool side. Injuries and fatigue aside, this was as opportune a time to play Liverpool as there has been for years and yet, outside the first five minutes, we didn’t compete at all.
Whatever you may feel about Arteta’s abilities as a manager, his sides have been characterised by a desire to compete and to work hard, to pass and create, to press and harass. None of that was in evidence last night, not a shred of it. It was devoid of energy, desire and effort in every way and was riddled with individual and collective errors.
Arteta was quick to take the blame in the wake of defeat last night but, as admirable as that is, it doesn’t really account for what we saw on the pitch. For me, blame for this debacle lays squarely on the shoulders of the players. Even if they were set up in a way that played into Liverpool’s hands – and that in itself is open to debate – there can be no excuse for the paucity of effort or quality on show.
This squad is better than last night would suggest, I have no doubt about that. This is a side and a manager that has scored wins over three of the current top four this season and four of the current top six. That’s not an achievement to be overlooked but we’ve simply seen too many aberrations this season to render those better performances meaningful. Too many mistakes, too many brain-farts, too many missed opportunities and off-days. If we are to make serious and lasting progress under Arteta, that has to change.
As for what remains of this season, it all rides on the Europa League. On our day, there is no team left in the competition we can’t beat and that should give us all reason to be optimistic. Hopefully, the players can see that too and are setting aside their ‘A’ game for Thursday nights.
However, it is clear that, on our off days, there is no team we can’t let beat us either and defeat to Liverpool was an urgent and painful reminder of just that. If last night’s defeat was a price we had to pay to learn that lesson for good and all, it will be one worth paying. It’s not a price we can’t afford to pay again in this campaign, however.