Slowly, slowly, Manchester City is beginning to tighten its grip on the league title. Thanks to Sunday's impressive performance against Southampton, Pep Guardiola's side now has, for the first time this season, a clear lead at the top of the table after Liverpool drew 1-1 at Arsenal. It was a slightly strange game, one that Arsenal dominated for long periods and yet one which Liverpool had enough clear-cut chances to have won fairly comfortably.
In the final reckoning, though, the comparison is clear: City came to the Emirates on the opening weekend of the season and won 2-0, and in that sense, in the context of a league in which the leaders leak very little, this will feel like two points dropped. But perhaps that isn’t entirely fair for Liverpool; after all, this is an Arsenal side that has improved significantly since then, one riding a 14-game unbeaten streak.
Much of that improvement is thanks to Lucas Torreira, the muscular Uruguayan midfielder signed from Sampdoria in the summer. The 22-year-old has taken such command of the back end of midfield that he has somehow helped Granit Xhaka develop a sense of positional discipline. Liverpool tried a 4-3-3 in the first half and a 4-2-3-1 in the second, but in both it struggled to impose itself, hampered perhaps by the absence of either Jordan Henderson or Naby Keita (or both) in midfield. Fabinho has not yet begun to impose himself.
And yet Liverpool had its chances. This is an Arsenal team that still has more Achilles heels than is ideal, one of them in goal. When Sadio Mane crossed after 62 minutes, Bernd Leno was under no immediate pressure, but he seemed to be caught a little flat-footed and ended up stretching, flapping the ball into Rob Holding, from where it rebounded to James Milner. He drilled it home.
It wasn’t Leno’s first misjudgment. On the stroke of halftime, he had come for Milner’s free-kick and got nowhere near it. The ball had bounced via Virgil van Dijk and Holding, and then against the post. And that, really, was the story of Arsenal’s day. For as impressive as it was going forward, the Gunners always looked vulnerable and should have been behind at the half.
The modern offside law and interpretation of exactly when a player is interfering is something that seems perpetually shrouded in confusion, but it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Mane had been hard done when he tapped in after Roberto Firmino’s 18th-minute lob came back off the post. Mane was in an offside position when Trent Alexander-Arnold delivered the ball to the idle, but the fact that the flag didn’t go up then suggests he wasn't deemed to be interfering. Mane was then behind both ball and player when Firmino lifted it over Leno, rendering him onside for the second phase of play. Jurgen Klopp was adamant the goal should have stood.
But Milner’s goal stemmed from one of only a handful of chances Liverpool mustered in the second half. The one real hope for a title race worthy of the name this season is that Liverpool remains in touch with City despite being some way short of its best.
This, after all, is a side that specializes in transition and yet, for all that Arsenal pressed, it wasn’t able to exploit the space behind it—itself testament to how effective Torreira was.
Arsenal deserved a point from what, given the opposition, was arguably its most impressive performance of the season and it came thanks to one of Emery’s substitutions: Alex Iwobi, who drifted in from the left and played a terrific ball through to Lacazette. Alisson forced him wide, but Lacazette was able to turn and, having worked the ball onto his right foot, curled a shot into the far corner. “Formation-wise, I was not happy how compact we were,” said Jurgen Klopp. “One time we didn’t close the half space, and they scored.”
To blame Alisson for the goal would be harsh, but he too had a slightly shaky night, coming for a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cross after 16 minutes but arriving long after Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose header drifted just wide.
Realistically, a draw for Liverpool at Arsenal should be a good result. It shouldn’t be seen as points dropped. But such are the standards City has set that it feels every point not won could be vital.