After 20 minutes at Anfield yesterday, a few Arsenal fans starting making their way to the exit. They had lasted 19 minutes longer than some of the Arsenal players. "The whole team failed to turn up," a forlorn Arsene Wenger said later.
Arsenal began and ended the game on top of the league but only one team looked like title contenders. With Chelsea moving to the top of the table, Arsenal will have to respond with vigour if they are to remain in the title race. Brendan Rodgers' side have delivered some exceptional attacking performances this season but the ruthlessness with which they dismantled Arsenal should worry the teams above them in the Premier League.
With 70 minutes remaining, they led 4-0 and while they toyed with Arsenal after that, they continued to look for more, urged on by Rodgers on the sideline, who looked dismayed with every misplaced pass.
"I felt we could have scored more," Rodgers said afterwards. "The crowd are so excited here because of the goals we can get and they really want us to go for the throat, which we do, but our control of the game was pleasing too." Very little could displease a Liverpool fan after that performance. Martin Skrtel was authoritative at the back and scored twice. The midfield dominated and Liverpool's attacking players can go forward like very few in the league.
Again Liverpool played like title contenders. The last time they scored five against Arsenal was the afternoon Bill Shankly claimed his first league title as Liverpool manager in 1964.
This was a Liverpool performance that inspired a search for precedents. It was as ruthless as the night Real Madrid were demolished in 2009, as humiliating as the time Spurs were beaten 7-0 in 1978 and, at times, Liverpool's passing was as swift and precise as the evening they beat Nottingham Forest 5-0 in 1988. Those sides were all contending for trophies and Liverpool can begin to look up not down, even if the manager was wisely stressing that his team didn't want to look too far ahead.
Rodgers refused to get too excited about Liverpool's credentials, pointing to the strength of the squads above them in the table. "You only need to look at our squad. We've been outstanding for a big part of the season. The objective has always been to finish as high as we can but you also have to look at the teams that are around you. You only need to look at Arsenal's bench today."
Arsenal's bench didn't do them much good and they weren't mobilised until the 60th minute when Wenger took off three players, among them the deeply disappointing Mesut Özil. They had been in the game for 53 seconds before Skrtel put Liverpool ahead. He scored a second with a magnificent header nine minutes later and the hosts then hunted as a pack, closing Arsenal down, ensuring they could start play 40 yards from goal. With the attacking potential they possess, once Liverpool are 40 yards from goal they start creating clear-cut chances.
Wenger was predictably downcast afterwards. Nearly three years ago, he watched a patched-up side lose 8-2 at Old Trafford, but at Anfield he sent out a team that was close to his first-choice and was proud of its defensive record. In 20 minutes, Liverpool blew them away, exposing all known weaknesses in the league leaders and finding some they may not have been aware of but which will haunt them now.
"Overall, our performance was just not good enough," Wenger said later. "For me, it may be better I don't talk so much and go home and respond well on Monday night because I include myself in that performance. It raises questions that we have to answer on Wednesday night."
Arsenal had no answers yesterday. They looked like they might outnumber Liverpool in midfield but instead were worn down by a relentless energy they seemed unwilling to compete with. Philippe Coutinho was the game's outstanding performer and, after Raheem Sterling had scored Liverpool's third, the Brazilian intercepted Özil's pass and played a ball to Daniel Sturridge that had the crowd sighing with wonder. Sturridge finished and Liverpool had four.
Liverpool could have had more. Luis Suarez worked selflessly on the flank and hit an extraordinary shot which pounded the post. In the second half, Coutinho picked out Jordan Henderson and he chipped wide but by that stage Sterling – Rodgers' claim that there isn't a better winger in England was hard to dispute – had scored again. Arsenal, too, had the least consoling of consolations when Mikel Arteta scored from the penalty spot.
Rodgers saw the victory as another significant achievement in the race for fourth but Liverpool are capable of more than that and should feel that they can at least overtake Arsenal, who began a significant two months in the most underwhelming way. They face Manchester United on Wednesday before they meet Liverpool in the cup and then Bayern Munich the following week. "It is important that we respond to that result," Wenger said and he must be concerned that there was no response at Anfield.
Wenger insisted his side could still win the title but his words sounded hollow. "Of course, no matter what happens it will be mathematically possible. It's always what you make of a defeat that decides your future and we have a lot to answer for and a lot of answers to find."
Rodgers had different questions to answer. "I want to be in a position where we can challenge for the title here," he said. "We hope to continue with the development and see where it takes us." If they continue playing like this, Liverpool could reach the summit.