Relentless Liverpool cloud Emery's claims of 'progress'
Unai Emery was convinced. "We are closer than last time," the Arsenal manager insisted after his side's 3-1 defeat at Anfield. And he was right: compared to the 5-1 shellacking in December, they are closer in the sense that now they need to employ binoculars rather than a telescope to watch the European champions disappear away at the top of the league.
Not being thrashed as badly this time must represent progress of sorts. However, a more accurate examination would suggest that, on the first encounter with either of last season's runaway outliers, Liverpool and Manchester City, the distance Arsenal need to catch up remains a gulf. Less mind the gap, more beware the canyon.
The fact is that while Arsenal may have marginally improved, there is no hint that Liverpool have diminished from last season's 27-point margin over the Gunners.
There was not the slightest intimation of their players suffering any hangover from playing on into June. The home side applied an insistent heat that is way beyond even this revamped Arsenal's capabilities to withstand.
"We are well prepared," said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, suggesting momentum alone is not sufficient to maintain his team's relentless press. "We use every second of pre-season to be ready."
And it is mental agility as much as physical that keeps Liverpool ahead. Klopp admitted he was surprised by the diamond midfield his opposite number employed. "I had no clue about their tactics," he said.
"The first I saw of a line-up was from the team sheet, and I thought it could be a diamond, but then I thought, with [Nicolas] Pepe's first game he would play a different position from where he usually plays. But then we had to adapt to the game, and the boys did."
The speed with which they not only detect weakness but exploit it marks out the distance between Liverpool, City and the rest.
The gaps opened up by Emery's approach were seized upon without any obvious instruction from the manager. With the visiting midfield concentrated into the middle, the full-backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, were afforded so much space it is a surprise neither contracted agoraphobia.
But the problem with facing Liverpool is that there is a lot more to them than just crosses. They can assault the jugular with equal facility from anywhere on the pitch, not least down the middle.
It is here that Emery has bought David Luiz precisely in order to prevent such incursions. The Brazilian's leadership qualities were meant to instil an organisational improvement to the Arsenal defence, to shore up the leakage of goals. But Mo Salah's pace left him floundering as if the luminous yellow boots he wore were lined with lead.
First, with Arsenal already a goal behind to Joel Matip's header, he attempted a blatant shirt-pull on the Egyptian which led to a penalty. Then, constrained by the booking for that offence, he allowed Liverpool's quicksilver forward to wriggle past him and smack home a third goal.
Emery reckoned the penalty to be a critical turning point. But the thing about this Liverpool is, had Luiz even kept his hands to himself, it seems certain they would have found another way through.
As Luiz admitted. "We are playing against a fantastic team where they have rhythm, they play with intensity, they never stop. We have to look forward. We have played three games, we have six points, it is just the beginning of the league so we have to fight until the end."
Fight to the end they did, at least, do. For a brief period around the substitute Lucas Torreira conjuring up a late consolation, they were on top. Though by then Liverpool were already resting up for challenges ahead. Which will take further shape with Thursday's Champions League draw. For Arsenal, the marker points remain imminent. Next weekend they face their local rivals.
"Against Tottenham it is not just three points," said Emery. "We want to show where we are against them, where we are against a team that reached the Champions League final - and also it is the derby. We will find out a lot about our situation."
Though after Saturday the reality is already clear: with Liverpool and City showing no sign of diminishing, for the rest, the chase is still for third. (© Daily Telegraph, London)