Liverpool architects of their own downfall as much-vaunted spine cracks against Arsenal

Virgil van Dijk looks like a man transfixed by horror as he watches the replays
Virgil van Dijk looked like a man transfixed by horror as he watched the replays - PA/John Walton
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Virgil van Dijk was the last Liverpool player to leave the pitch on Sunday, his head shaking and his cheeks puffed out. His expression was one of disappointment, mainly, but there was also a shadow of bemusement on his face. You could almost see the questions forming in his mind. What on earth just happened? And how did it happen to us?

Van Dijk would have been asking himself those same questions around half an hour earlier, too. As the replays of Gabriel Martinelli’s goal were shown on the big screens at the Emirates Stadium, before play had restarted, Liverpool’s captain was staring up at them, a man transfixed by horror.

The crowd cheered each time those replays showed Martinelli’s shot rolling into the empty net, and one can only assume that a part of Van Dijk flinched with each roar. This was not the sort of goal he is used to conceding – especially not this season – and the afternoon was soon to get even worse for him and his defensive partners.

Van Dijk, Alisson Becker and Ibrahima Konate. Before this trip to north London, those three represented the most formidable defensive spine in the division. Liverpool arrived at the Emirates with the Premier League’s best defensive record. Alisson is widely regarded as the league’s best goalkeeper, and Van Dijk its best centre-back.

Jurgen Klopp’s side could probably handle one of those players having an off-night. They might even have been able to handle two of them struggling. But all three? Not even this seemingly irrepressible Liverpool team can deal with that sort of sudden unravelling. “They were like a pub team defending,” was Roy Keane’s typically acerbic assessment.

One might call it a collective meltdown. The worst of it was perhaps from Alisson, who charged from his line with the apparent intention of clattering all three of the ball, Van Dijk and Gabriel Martinelli. Somewhere between making that decision and swinging his leg, something went horribly wrong – so much so that he did not make contact with anyone at all. Not even Martinelli, who promptly scored the easiest goal of his professional life.

“We spoke in the dressing room, with all the people involved,” said Klopp of the goal. “It is just unlucky. It does not happen very often and it will not happen very often.”

Van Dijk nobly took the blame, despite the body of evidence against Alisson. “It is my responsibility,” he said. “I should try to clear it. Obviously these things don’t happen too often in my career, but I will recover from this.”

Van Dijk and Alisson went on to combine again, in similarly unhappy circumstances, for Arsenal’s third, when Leandro Trossard’s low strike flicked off Van Dijk’s toe and spun between Alisson’s legs. This one felt genuinely unlucky, rather than comically incompetent, and it was a goal that was only made possible by Konate’s late dismissal.

Konate had endured some difficult moments in the game, especially against Kai Havertz and Martinelli. His two yellow cards did no favours to a defence that had already crumbled, in the most uncharacteristic fashion, in the face of Arsenal’s eye-watering intensity. It should be said that Konate was also at fault for Arsenal’s opener, when he played Havertz onside.

Defensive errors are not entirely unexpected at Liverpool, of course. Such is the high-wire nature of Klopp’s system, there is always a chance that one mistake can have disastrous consequences. So far this season, only two teams – Brighton and Sheffield United – have made more errors leading to goals. And only three players have made more errors leading to goals than Alisson.

Of all the times to make those errors, though, this was especially gruelling. The gap to Arsenal is now just two points, and Liverpool knew that victory would have effectively removed Mikel Arteta’s side from the equation. More worrying than that, the gap to City is just five points – and Pep Guardiola’s team have two games in hand.

Liverpool have been here before, and they know that title races have twists and turns. Such results are to be expected, occasionally, although it will no doubt worry Klopp that this loss was so attributable to his own defence’s unexpected ineptitude.

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