How better to summarise the relentless drama of Arsenal Football Club than in the story of Thomas Partey’s last few days? On Tuesday night, the Arsenal midfielder played for Ghana as they were knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations. On Thursday he flew back to London, landing at midday and going straight into Mikel Arteta’s team for this League Cup semi-final.
Evidently not fit, and evidently not fresh, Partey was promptly shown two yellow cards in the second half. He was so late for the second of those tackles, on Liverpool midfielder Fabinho, that he might as well have been stuck on Cameroon time. Now he is suspended for Sunday’s league match against Burnley, and Arsenal’s midfield crisis has deepened further.
To be clear, it really is a crisis. Granit Xhaka is also suspended, leaving young Sambi Lokonga as their only recognised senior option in central midfield. This lack of depth is a significant weakness of the current Arsenal team, and their deficiencies were ruthlessly exposed in a demoralising and deserved loss to a Liverpool side that won the battle in the heart of the pitch before claiming the tie overall.
Arsenal were lightweight without their two main central midfielders, while Liverpool boasted a balance which Arteta could only look at with envy. Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Curtis Jones laid the foundations for Jurgen Klopp’s team, allowing Diogo Jota to create havoc further up the pitch.
Within a few minutes of the first half it had become painfully obvious that the midfield was the main area of concern for Arsenal. In truth this has been a problem position for some time, especially when at least one of Partey and Xhaka are missing, and it is no surprise that they are desperately trying to strengthen this part of the squad. Arthur Melo, the Juventus midfielder, is high on the list.
Not for the first time this season, Arteta tried to crowbar both Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe into deeper-lying positions on the sides of a midfield three. Not for the first time this season, it did not work. Smith Rowe and Odegaard are advanced playmakers by trade, not central midfielders, and Liverpool were soon able to take control. Lokonga, manfully trying to hold it all together on his own, was in desperate need of support.
It was into the space behind this under-strength Arsenal midfield that Jota surged before half-time, cutting in from the left and trickling his shot beyond Aaron Ramsdale in the home side’s goal. In contrast to Arsenal’s uncertainty there was a discernible swagger in Liverpool’s central trio after the opener, with the menacing Fabinho prowling around the turf and Henderson dominating the right channel.
For Arsenal there was also the creativity and energy of Jones to worry about, alongside Henderson and Fabinho’s usual physicality. It was down Jones’ left side where the visitors had much of their joy, with the midfielder pulling Takehiro Tomiyasu into places he did not want to go and Jota then scarpering into the space behind.