It is time to believe the hype. Arsenal needed to take the scalp of an age‑old nemesis to fully assert their credentials and they answered every question posed by a Liverpool side that, according to a growing body of evidence, face a lengthy period of transition.
This was a see-sawing, utterly engaging match but Mikel Arteta’s players were ultimately better in every department, performing with clarity and a rattling intensity while their opponents relied on flashes and moments. Arsenal were pegged back by two such occurrences but never wavered or deviated: these days belief radiates from the Emirates Stadium pitch and pulsates around the stands, proving fully justified when Bukayo Saka converted a penalty for which there was finally no answer.
Arsenal remain first and that is, in no small measure, because they are packed with players who perform as if every match is their last. Foremost among them is Gabriel Martinelli, who was unplayable here and has become one of the best forwards in the league.
Jürgen Klopp, of all people, has long predicted that of the Brazilian and found it borne out by perhaps the standout performance of his senior career. Martinelli scored within a minute, produced a heady cocktail of pace and composure to tee up Saka’s first goal, won countless balls when there appeared no right to do so and terrorised whoever stood in his path on the left flank.
In the first half that was usually Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had been in significant trouble even before Martinelli inadvertently caught his ankle when following through after a cross. The right-back was twisted inside out in first-half stoppage time before Saka scored and, while at the time it was hard to tell whether his withdrawal at the interval owed to injury or the roasting being inflicted, Klopp explained afterwards that his condition “doesn’t look good”. He said the same applied to Luis Díaz, who was replaced by Roberto Firmino in the 42nd minute before leaving the stadium in a knee brace and on crutches.
Klopp had selected the same front four that were road-tested against Rangers in midweek but Liverpool failed to make their first attack stick and were ruthlessly punished. Arsenal have a habit of pounding opponents from the opening whistle; it is one thing knowing that and quite another attempting to stop it. The ball was spirited to the right where Saka, in exactly the situation that suits him best, ate up the ground in front. A sideways pass to Martin Ødegaard and then, from the captain, a cutely slipped ball between Joël Matip and Alexander-Arnold. It was a classic Arteta-era combination but still needed finishing, which Martinelli did with aplomb on the run.
Liverpool could not get going. Early balls to the front went unrewarded and Mohamed Salah was expertly marshalled by Takehiro Tomiyasu, a right-back deployed on the opposite side to do just such a job. But they found a foothold and worked Aaron Ramsdale through Darwin Núñez and, inadvertently, William Saliba before scoring an equaliser that had been coming. Gabriel Magalhães misjudged a high ball from Alexander-Arnold and found Díaz had scurried inside in anticipation, darting away and centring left for Núñez to finish impressively on the stretch.
Díaz had come to life but his match was soon curtailed, seemingly as a result of a Thomas Partey challenge. Nonetheless Klopp would have been content at half-time if, in the last of five added minutes, Martinelli had not exploded again.
It was an exhilarating sequence that began with Martinelli taking possession on halfway and continued with a change of direction that completely lost Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson, who had backed off.
His subsequent low, careful ball towards the far post caught out everyone except Saka, who converted from a yard.
Joe Gomez, introduced for Alexander-Arnold, found himself on the rack after the restart and Martinelli quickly teed up a chance for Ødegaard. But Liverpool, who were being smothered, struck again via a smart move that ended with Diogo Jota sliding a pass beyond a dozing Saliba. In stole Firmino to finish clinically across Ramsdale and the contest had caught fire again.
But it was Arsenal who carried the flame. These days they just keep going and, forcing Liverpool back through superior sharpness and structure, applied sufficient pressure for a wary Klopp to bring Fabinho on for the anonymous Salah. It made scant difference: no sooner had the visitors survived a tornado of pressure than Thiago Alcântara, challenging the irrepressible Gabriel Jesus for Granit Xhaka’s waist-high cross, was a shade too late. Michael Oliver awarded the spot-kick, to Klopp’s distaste; Saka did the rest, burying his most important penalty since Euro 2020. This time Liverpool could not respond.
Ramsdale was barely troubled in the closing moments. At full-time Arteta leapt for joy: much as he sought to cool expectations afterwards it was something of a giveaway. He believes, and Arsenal have every right to now.