It seemed fitting that an empty-feeling, but still impressively intense Community Shield should end with a penalty shootout. The game finished 1-1 after 90 minutes. Enter Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, king of the crowd-free Wembley Stadium.
Aubameyang had scored the game’s opening goal an hour and a half earlier on a grizzly grey afternoon. That made it five in his past three games at the locked-down national stadium, all of those goals coming against the combined might of Manchester City, Chelsea and now Liverpool.
There was a twitch of the hips as Aubameyang slotted the winning penalty, ensuring the first trophy of the new season went to Arsenal – who also won the last trophy of the old one, 28 days ago in the same stadium.
Rhian Brewster had been the only player to miss, spanking the ball a little wildly on to the bar having only just entered the game. In truth neither team had really looked ready to win, although there were intriguing subplots.
Arsenal’s impressive counterattacking reorganisation under Mikel Arteta continued. Eddie Nketiah, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka performed with craft and energy, young players who have clearly responded to the demands of their new manager. For Liverpool Takumi Minamino scored his first goal and found some inventive attacking spaces in the second half.
It made for an unexpectedly entertaining game. There had been an air of sadness around Wembley at kick-off, as there has been at many of the empty sporting occasions of the past six months. Albeit perhaps not quite like this. Has there been a more quietly melancholy flag-day in English football than a Community Shield with no community, the traditional curtain-raiser at a time when curtains are drawn; the season’s late-summer return with the dregs of the last one still swilling around the bottom of the glass?
Not that Liverpool seemed to have noticed in the opening minutes. Some things do carry on regardless, one of them being those simple, hard-running patterns of Jürgen Klopp’s champions. Here Liverpool played in their usual shape, with the promising Neco Williams at right-back.
Arsenal were a mix and match version of the wing-backs formation that has brought some success. Mohamed Elneny returned for his first Arsenal game in 15 months. But it was Aubameyang who illuminated this one with 12 minutes gone.
Williams had already made a chance for James Milner with a lovely cross from the right. Moments later Arsenal broke with thrilling precision. Saka spread a pass from right to left into Aubameyang’s path. He drifted inside, leaving Williams looking a little mesmerised by that familiar shark-like glide. Four quick touches with the right foot took Aubameyang to the edge of the penalty area. The shot was a thing of beauty, swerving in a lovely soft arc outside Alisson’s left hand and into the corner of the net.
Arsenal had played like this against Chelsea in the FA Cup final, sitting in a deep double bolt and breaking with precision. They almost scored again five minutes later as Nketiah robbed Joe Gomez outside the centre circle and took the ball back from Saka but he saw his low shot saved.
On the touchline Arteta was as ever a whirl of frantic energy, one hand stuffed into his pocket, the other endlessly pointing and flexing, like a man in a disco trying desperately not to dance. An empty game in an empty ground: but this was a wonderful start for Arsenal, as two well-drilled homegrown attackers with a combined age of 39 pulled the Liverpool defence into uncomfortable shapes.
Liverpool began to open the throttle, but struggled to find any clarity close to goal. Ten minutes before half-time a period of sustained pressure brought a wonderful whipped cross from the left by Andy Robertson that fizzed between goalkeeper and defence. There were lunging Arsenal blocks. At one point Liverpool won four corners in rapid succession.
But Granit Xhaka and Elneny held firm in the middle, and Nketiah was a waspish presence up front, constantly worrying away at Virgil van Dijk. Arsenal went to the break looking happier at 1-0, a team whose gameplan was working.
Liverpool found more space at the start of the second half. On 55 minutes Sadio Mané made a run behind Rob Holding on to Robertson’s pass, but saw Emiliano Martínez make a fine close-range save as he went to slip the ball into the net.
The significant change came with half an hour to play, as Minamino came on and immediately looked bright, playing as a kind of roving No 10 at times. Liverpool have perhaps lacked this kind of threat when teams defend deep. There was a spin and shot from deep. And finally Minamino scored the equaliser on 73 minutes.
Klopp had rejigged his attack into a three-man trident behind Firmino. Minamino got close to Mohamed Salah, exchanged passes, took a deflection back off the body of his teammate, then shifted his feet in the tiniest of spaces to roll the ball past Martínez. It was a smart finish and a fine piece of inventive interplay with Salah, who had weaved inside before swapping passes.
Klopp will take solace from this added dimension to his attack, and from his team’s familiar relentlessness in the second half. But Arsenal defended with skill and – whisper it – great concentration. They were, on balance, deserved winners.
• This article was corrected on 29 August 2020 to reflect the fact that Arsenal beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final, having beaten Manchester City in the semi-final