Arsenal’s legendary striker Ian Wright spotted the danger signals early on at Emirates Stadium when he used social media to post a picture of himself wearing a worried expression accompanied by the message: “We need a killer.”
It was a reaction to the Gunners missing chance after chance as the Achilles heel threatening to undermine so much of the fine work that goes before it was brutally exposed once more.
Arsenal created the opportunities to be out of sight by half-time in the FA Cup third-round tie with Liverpool only to once again demonstrate the lack of end product – the “killer” touch, as Wright calls it – to put the Premier League leaders away.
Such generosity is dangerous against any side but it is fatal against a Liverpool team that always possess an air of menace even when they are being backed into a corner, as they were for much of the first half at the Emirates.
And so it proved as Arsenal’s threat subsided, frustration grew inside the stadium, and Liverpool struck late on via Jakub Kiwior’s own goal and Luis Diaz’s flashing finish high past keeper Aaron Ramsdale in the closing seconds.
There was a sense of inevitability about the manner in which Arsenal lost this game and Liverpool won it, leaving manager Mikel Arteta and Arsenal facing a potentially defining three weeks in the difficult January market.
When Arsenal pulled out of Anfield on 23 December after a creditable 1-1 draw, all seemed right with the world. Their play had been measured, mature and they were on top of the Premier League.
Three defeats have followed against West Ham United, Fulham and now Liverpool, while it has become clear a serious flaw needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Four losses, two draws and only one win from the past seven games is a worrying statistic for Arsenal.
Arsenal’s ‘promise and optimism might be wasted’
It is not, admittedly, a piece of mind-blowing footballing analysis that is being delivered here, but Arsenal played like a team that needs a reliable, prolific striker. Immediately.
The big difficulty will be finding one.
Gabriel Jesus was missing with his latest injury setback while Kai Havertz never looked like filling the role of striker with success, missing some chances and dawdling over others. Eddie Nketiah has not suggested he is the answer, so Arteta must seek it elsewhere given it feels unlikely it will come from within.
If Arteta does not, then all the promise and optimism that has been building at Arsenal might be wasted.
There is plenty that is good about Arsenal. Their approach play is sharp and creative; they unlocked Liverpool on many occasions. There is no shortage of quality in that respect, or effort.
Sadly, it does them little good if they cannot turn it into goals. It leaves Arsenal wide open to exactly what happened to them here.
“We just have to win the game but we lost it and we are not capitalising. To win games we need to capitalise.
“When you are better than the best team in Europe and you generate the amount of chances that I have not seen against them, like we have done, then you have to win.
“Probably it has [become a psychological issue]. Especially after today, more than it was against Fulham or West Ham before that. That’s why I think we need to reset.”
Reiss Nelson could not take an opportunity in the opening seconds. Martin Odegaard hit the bar after a chaotic passage of play. Havertz shot weakly at Alisson and headed wide from a corner. Ben White saw a shot turned over by the Liverpool keeper.
Even when the game was more evenly balanced after half-time, a jaded-looking Bukayo Saka was also wasteful.
And then the sucker punches came, closing off another potential avenue of success for Arsenal.
Gunners lose a chance of silverware
So who, or what, is the answer to the problem Arsenal are struggling to solve?
Some might suggest it is a failing Arsenal and Arteta should have tackled last summer, that the £65m handed over to Chelsea for Havertz may have been better spent on someone who could be relied to put the ball in the net with regularity.
Arsenal have long been linked with Brentford’s Ivan Toney, who is about to return to football after an eight-month ban for breaching betting regulations.
But this would be a highly expensive deal to do, with talk of a £100m fee, and might be very difficult to pull off in January.
The Toney deal is something that might be ideally addressed in the summer but evidence suggests Arsenal and Arteta cannot afford to hang around, especially when their main striker Jesus seems increasingly susceptible to injury.
Saka is going through a dip in his usually outstanding form while £65m man Havertz does not appear to be the solution to Arsenal’s very specific problem.
It is little wonder Arteta was so visibly frustrated at this damaging outcome. The FA Cup may not be top of Arsenal’s priorities but it is still highly significant and this game was not only a chance to progress but also strike a psychological blow against a team likely to be a rival for the big domestic prizes this season.
Instead, Liverpool overcame Arsenal even without two of their superstars, with captain Virgil van Dijk out through illness and talismanic forward Mohamed Salah at the Africa Cup Of Nations.
As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp delivered his trademark fist pumps to 7,000 ecstatic fans at the final whistle, Arteta marched away grim-faced, knowing he must find an answer to that striker conundrum – and fast.