The gap through which Thiago Alcântara threaded his pass to Diogo Jota: a yard, at a generous estimate. The space that Jota found at Aaron Ramsdale’s near post to jam the ball in: maybe a couple of feet. The space in which Roberto Firmino had somehow to divert Andy Robertson’s cross past a goalkeeper literally standing next to him: a matter of inches. These are the margins that are taking Liverpool towards the top of the Premier League, and right now they are managing to find them better than anyone else.
The match in summary: Arsenal were the better side for 50 minutes and did nothing with it. Liverpool were the better side for the next 15 minutes and killed the game comprehensively. As for the rest, who cares? Arsenal ran and rampaged and fumed and fought, just as they had done all night. But there is something heroically dispiriting about giving your best even when you know it is not remotely good enough.
Arsenal are a team in chrysalis, still learning and developing. They were quick and hungry and inventive, passing the ball beautifully through midfield, showing desire and intent, getting themselves into good positions. But they couldn’t find the gaps. When a clinical finish or a pinpoint cross or a perfect through ball was required, they couldn’t locate it. Mikel Arteta has built an excellent playing machine. Jürgen Klopp, by contrast, has built a winning machine, and here the difference between the two was stark.
Thomas Partey was scintillating in the first half but dropped his level in the second. Bukayo Saka was tireless on the right flank but made a crucial error that let Robertson in for Liverpool’s second goal. Martin Ødegaard played some brilliant passes but missed a golden opportunity to put Arsenal in the lead. Meanwhile, Jordan Henderson was excellent for 90 minutes. So was Alisson. So was Virgil van Dijk. That was the difference.
It was a difference in demeanour, too. On the touchline Arteta was a picture of perpetual motion, pointing and waving, squeezing an imaginary accordion between his hands, urging more conviction, more running, more of everything. And for much of the game Arsenal were certainly the more kinetic team, all coiled energy and righteous fury. But somehow Liverpool were always the happier one, confident in their extra gears, their superior big-game nous, the Golden Boot winner sitting on their bench.
There were signs early in the second half that Liverpool were on the move. There was a conscious effort to be tidier in possession, to get the ball down and play it through Arsenal rather than punting it over the top. It was from just such a pass that Thiago found Jota for the opening goal: a goal that sprang not just from immense technical quality but pure faith, faith in the method, belief in the plan.
Jota scored and was hauled straight off for Firmino. The coldness! This is the other thing about Liverpool these days: in times past you might have sensed them getting a little jittery as the game reached the hour mark, nervously glancing over at the bench and wondering whether Xherdan Shaqiri would really be an upgrade on anything. Now they have a bench as good as any in Europe. Beat them once, and you then have to do it all over again.
Firmino deftly flicked in the second goal and Liverpool saw out the game with few alarms. You could hardly blame them for pedalling down a little. This was Henderson’s 40th game of the season in all competitions, Jota’s 38th, Van Dijk’s 37th. These guys have played essentially an entire Premier League season by March. There is still a cup run and a European campaign to be pursued.
And so what they have learned over the years is the ability to pace themselves, to harness their physical and emotional resources, to pare and slice away anything extraneous until only what is most essential remains. They hardly ever waste energy on a ruck. They press not with mindless abandon but with surgical precision, picking their moments and targets. This is a Liverpool side without an ounce of fat on it: no frills, no flourishes, no passengers.
Will this hold true for the season as a whole? Certainly Liverpool look a more complete and consistent team than Manchester City right now: not quite as good at controlling games or creating chances, but certainly more efficient. Long before their plane touches down in the north-west, Arsenal will be forgotten. On to the next, and the next, and the next. In a title race that will be defined by the very finest of margins, it may just be enough.