LONDON -- Liverpool's 3-0 win at the Emirates Stadium did little to dispel the idea that their central defensive pairing is anything other than the relative weak point of their side, but Real Madrid would do well to learn from Arsenal's travails. It will take an impressive effort to get through to the Reds' underbelly when the two play on Tuesday (you can catch all the action live on Paramount+).
No matter their form, the simple truth is that Ozan Kabak and Nathaniel Phillips at the peak of their powers are not of the same standard as the world class players who surrounded them. Arsenal understood that and one of the few things they got right in a woeful display was their early commitment to harassing the Liverpool centre-backs, Martin Odegaard in particular ratcheting up the intensity of his press whenever the ball went to those two.
The issue Arsenal ran into and Real Madrid may yet is that when Kabak and Phillips are surrounded by a midfield finally deploying players in their best positions, a front three that playing with welcome zip and a revived full-back pairing, Liverpool can cope with the fact that they do not have Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez at the back. All the center backs have to do when they come under pressure is play the easy pass to the man outside them or Fabinho and Jurgen Klopp's side can build again from there.
It is hard to overstate the value of having Fabinho back in his best spot at the base of midfield. Having to play the Brazilian at center back on occasion was clearly an option Klopp knew he would have to sometimes consider when he let Dejan Lovren go to Zenit St Petersburg without replacing him. Once Van Dijk and Gomez went down with major injuries it even felt like the shrewd option was to push Fabinho back rather than lean too heavily on a youngster, particularly as he did perform very effectively there.
In retrospect Klopp's approach, natural and logical as it might have seemed, feels as though it heightened Liverpool's problems. Not only did he have to replace Van Dijk and Gomez but he had to fill the Fabinho-shaped hole in midfield. The German often did so with Thiago, meaning another sacrifice in terms of creativity while adding a player who was uncomfortable holding the fort ahead of a patchwork defense in a new league. The center back crisis was bringing the worst out of almost every player.
Equally bringing these midfielders back together has a cumulative effect. Thiago is a better player because he has Fabinho behind him, Phillips and Kabak look more at ease because they have Fabinho ahead of them. It all just seems to click.
Thiago was free to show his range of passing, to drift where he wanted to help build attacks and though he was rarely the one to play the killer final ball you did not have to look far back in Liverpool's move to see the Spaniard's involvement. It certainly helped the visitors' cause at the Emirates that he was consistently the one winning the ball back, only Thomas Partey (11) made more recoveries than his 10.
Behind him Fabinho was no less effective at keeping Liverpool ticking, a reminder that the best way to protect your weak points is to simply make sure that you have the football. Between he and Thiago, who it should be noted were ably aided by James Milner's drifts into wide spaces, 147 passes were completed at a success rate of 90.7 percent.
On those rare occasions when Arsenal did threaten to counter the ball simply seemed to gravitate towards Fabinho, who with a few strides of those long legs could eat up the ground and whip the ball off an opposing attacker. The performance of his unit as a whole was enough to have Klopp in fine spirits even if he knows he might be one injury away from his plans being thrown out of kilter again.
"It's all really good, it all helps, but we have a lot of games and we will see if they can play all the games," he said of Fabinho and his center backs. "If not, we will have to make changes.
"It is three clean sheets in a row, great. The whole team defended on a different level than before, I have to say -- it's not only the two in the center. It was a really good defensive performance and that was necessary -- that's what you need, that's what we did and let's hope they all stay fit for the best part of the season in the final part of the season."
That is not to say that Real Madrid are without hope of cracking the Liverpool nut. There was much they could learn from what Arsenal did not do, not least the puzzling decision to park Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left flank and play with the more leaden-footed Alexandre Lacazette through the middle.
At times Kabak and Phillips were so advanced into opposition territory that Aubameyang could have stood several feet behind them and still been onside. Timo Werner's recent success against this Liverpool side by virtue of his ability to run very fast ought to weigh in Zinedine Zidane's plans as it did not in Mikel Arteta's, who insisted blame for his side's woeful performance was his alone.
Arteta was as despondent as he has been in his tenure and made the point that "today was a big shock to the system. We have been really competitive against the big sides. We beat Chelsea here, we beat Spurs and we drew against Manchester United." His side did not set up in the right way to punish Liverpool and missed key players such as Granit Xhaka, Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and David Luiz, though the Arsenal boss would not accept the latter as a mitigating factor. "I don't care who is missing, that's excuses... I hate excuses."
Arteta would likely admit though that even if he had got his plan right it would only have counted for so much. The English champions were on a level that a team like Arsenal cannot reach in their current configuration. Real Madrid will have a better chance but the Spaniards will know they are not facing the bruised side of earlier this year. As the decisive stage of the season arrives Liverpool have a spring in their step.