Premier League football peaked a few years ago. Or so we thought.
Clashes between Liverpool and Manchester City took our viewing experience to heights we never thought imaginable. These were two near-perfect teams so comfortable in their own skin they had no fear about going toe-to-toe with their greatest rival. We had never seen football at this level before, and we may never see it matched again.
Arsenal’s performance at Anfield, however, is certainly as close as we have seen to football at its zenith. There were blemishes and reminders that Mikel Arteta still has some work to do, but a showing like that, on a ground famous for putting Arsenal teams to the sword, proves the title challengers are very much part of this new elite, and here to stay.
“It was one of the most intense and hectic games that I have witnessed in this league in 20 years,” Arteta said. “The quality and the intention of both teams.
“It was superb to watch it and witness a team with our boys to play at that level, to have the courage and belief to play at that level like we have done here, I think my players deserve big, big credit.”
And so does the manager. Last season, Arsenal stunned Anfield into silence by racing into a 2-0 lead, one that appeared unassailable as they dominated proceedings with unerring poise.
A second half capitulation was the start of a greater fall, allowing City to stroll to another title at a canter, with Arsenal still suffering from that seemingly uncurable bout of stage fright that has plagued the post-Arsene Wenger era.
After taking an early lead at Anfield for the second season in a row through Gabriel’s header, Arsenal this time, did not relent. An astonishing 43 per cent of Arsenal’s passes went forward in the first half on Saturday, their highest percentage in the first half of any Premier League game this season.
They ran out of steam somewhat in the second half, but whereas last term they disintegrated like an errant tissue in the Anfield washing machine, as Arteta calls it, their best players stepped up to see out a what could be a crucial point in the title race, one that keeps them top at Christmas for the second season in a row.
Premier League table
In Gabriel, William Saliba and Declan Rice, the Gunners have the foundations for something truly amazing to be built. As Liverpool continued to launch into breathless counter after counter, Saliba especially calmly stood firm to frustrate the hosts.
Around them there were plenty of flaws. Oleksandr Zinchenko gave the ball away in some crucial areas all too readily, while a real out-and-out No 9 could have got on the end of some promising crosses as Arsenal countered.
But, as Arteta pointed out, it was that ambition as a unit, that fearlessness and overall quality not seen since the Wenger days, that should give Gunners supporters the most heart.
Their team are a different proposition now. Yes, Liverpool have dropped off since the halcyon days of those high-octane City clashes, but they are very much on their way back to that level and would ordinarily have used a mentally fragile Gunners as a stepping stone in their rebirth.
Not this time. Get those imperfections ironed out and Arteta really is on to something. You don’t show ambition on those City-Liverpool levels at Anfield if the players aren’t completely convinced themselves that they can compete, on a yearly basis, with the very best the Premier League has to offer.
It has been a long and arduous journey, but Arsenal, however, really are there. With the quality they have in all areas, and City showing at least some signs they are actually human after all, the Gunners won’t get a better chance of a first title in 19 years this time around.