By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – It is pantomime season and Liverpool duly served up a trademark beauty and the beast performance as they left north London with a 3-3 draw against Arsenal that had their manager Juergen Klopp unsure whether to laugh or cry.
Had it not been for Roberto Firmino’s 71st-minute leveller, the German would definitely have needed a box of tissues, having watched his side concede three times in five second-half minutes to surrender a two-goal cushion.
“It is difficult to explain, we should be three, four even five-nil up before we don’t defend a cross. It feels really strange,” Klopp, whose side remained in fourth place in the Premier League, one point ahead of Arsenal, said.
“A point at Arsenal is a good result for most teams in the world but it feels not too good at the moment. We didn’t take all of our chances but three goals should be enough. Arsenal were not in the game apart from 10 minutes.
“The five minutes were very decisive and difficult to explain, but good to learn from because we need to react differently.”
Klopp’s free-flowing side were a delight in the first half and there was a yawning chasm between the sides even if they only had little wizard Philippe Coutinho’s headed goal — his first in the English top flight — to show for their dominance.
Mohamed Salah’s sensational second in the 52nd minute, his 15th of the season, had Liverpool’s fans salivating at the prospect of a pre-Christmas feast but then it all turned sour.
The defensive gremlins that have undermined Liverpool returned with a vengeance as Arsenal, from out of nowhere, scored three times in five freakish minutes.
First Alexis Sanchez headed in Mesut Ozil’s cross unopposed in the 53rd minute before Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet fluffed his lines to allow Granit Xhaka’s speculative long-range blast to seemingly pass straight through him into the net.
The plot thickened still further when Ozil played a one-two with Alexandre Lacazette to shoot Arsenal ahead in the 58th minute as Liverpool’s defence fell apart.
They have now conceded 20 goals on the road, compared to three at Anfield in the league, but they were at least spared a mystifying defeat as Firmino’s shot looped in off the gloves of Arsenal keeper Petr Cech with 20 minutes remaining.
“We opened the door for them and five minutes was all it took,” Klopp said. “Defending is a team thing. Today we make individual mistakes and that is not cool.”
Arsenal were booed off by their own fans at halftime and manager Arsene Wenger admitted his side had suffered a severe bout of stage fright as Liverpool ran rings around them.
“We played frozen with fear and not at our level in the first half. In the second half we played at our level,” he said.
“The good thing is that overall we did not give up. The spirit is fantastic. On that front I am proud of the players.”
While both sides offered plenty of evidence as to why they will not win the title, Wenger said it was the season to be cheerful and rejoice in attacking football.
“More for people who love football, let’s give credit to the creative force,” the Frenchman said.
“If you have no shots on goal the defences look good but that is not what people want to see.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)