Arsenal’s slow descent continues. Back-to-back losses against as dominant a side as Manchester City shouldn’t be quite as catastrophic as is being presented, but years of disappointment have finally come to a head. At first Arsene Wenger’s trophy-less streak was put down to a lack of funds and, while support for him had been gradually waning for years, it wasn’t until Leicester City won the league in 2016 on a much smaller budget that things really slipped into freefall.
He at least still had a consistent record of Champions League football to fall back on – until he didn’t, finishing fifth last year. He at least was winning trophies again though, with several FA Cup wins in recent years – but now he doesn’t, losing to Nottingham Forest in the third round and losing the League Cup final last weekend to City (although admittedly there is still a chance of Europa League victory).
Now, while their rivals around them push on under a newer breed of coaches, Arsenal are stagnating. The word crisis is thrown around a lot, but, with City thrashing them at home in a half-empty stadium playing the kind of football they used to be renowned for, it fits for Arsenal.
Wenger made just three changes to the team that played the whole 90 minutes against City on Thursday – Calum Chambers, Jack Wilshere and Alex Iwobi replacing Hector Bellerin, Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck respectively in their 4-2-3-1. Chris Hughton picked the same formation for his Brighton side, making no changes from the team that beat Swansea.
The game was set out in a familiar pattern: Brighton sat back in two lines of four and Arsenal had to break them down, although the home side would press on certain triggers. With Wilshere pushing high into the midfield, Granit Xhaka was easily shadowed by Glenn Murray and Pascal Gross, forcing Arsenal to play it wide to their full-backs.
If the ball was then played back from the full-back to the centre-back, Gross or Murray would press them and, with the Arsenal full-back shadowed by Brighton’s winger, the centre-back would only have the option to pass it across to his partner. The other one of Gross and Murray would then press that centre-back while the opposite winger would push out toward that side’s full-back and the central midfielder would push up onto the Arsenal midfielder.
Closed down by one of the Brighton forwards, the return ball to the other centre-back closed off by the other forward and the easy balls into midfield and to their side’s full-back cut out by the Brighton winger and midfielder, the centre-back had few options to pass out from the back – Laurent Koscielny in particular was struggling, giving the ball away several times on the edge of his area, with one instance leading to the second goal.
They could always pass the ball back to the goalkeeper, but Petr Cech isn’t all that great with his feet and his long balls forward were easy for Brighton to win in the air – Lewis Dunk dominating.
That said, Brighton didn’t keep that narrow when they weren’t pressing, with the gap between Dale Stephens and Anthony Knockaert often growing quite wide. Brighton are well-drilled and get bodies behind the ball quickly, but it wouldn’t have been impossible for Arsenal to break them down – the North London side were so slow on the ball and lacking in confidence though that they never really threatened. Wilshere could have done with dropping deeper to help the defence in the build-up – a task that Mesut Ozil ended up doing as the first half wore on, coming all the way back into his own half to get on the ball – however the attacking midfielders staying so narrow meant that it was easy for Brighton to deny them space.
Iwobi was particularly poor, with his first touch always taking him back towards play and a few more to get it out of his feet, while Ozil popped up in some good areas, especially supporting Sead Kolasinac if the Bosnian attacked down the outside, but just didn’t see enough of the ball. The narrow band of three does at least lend itself well to counter-pressing, the attacking midfielders able to jump on loose balls around the opposition defence when their attack breaks down (they also did this quite well against City in mid-week).
With Arsenal’s full-backs often high up the pitch, Brighton found it easy to attack themselves. Murray was an excellent target man, able to hold the ball up or quickly lay it off, while the wingers would immediately sprint down the outside in support of him, and Gross would search for pockets of space to pick up the ball to provide the final pass. With Koscielny’s pace waning, he really doesn’t look comfortable anymore in Arsenal’s high line.
Most of Brighton’s attacks came from the wings, with Ezequiel Schelotto constantly overlapping Knockaert on the right and Gaetan Bong joining Jose Izquierdo to overload the other wing. While the crosses generally weren’t so dangerous themselves, Brighton were able to pin back Arsenal because the North London club were so bad at defending set-pieces that the resulting corners would always threaten them. Cech accepted blame for the goals post-match, however, while he doesn’t cover himself in glory, he shouldn’t be having to claim that corner – one of his defenders should at least attempt to attack the ball.
It’s spoke about a lot in relation to Arsenal, but it’s instances like this which really display the lack of leaders in the team. Too often leadership is used simply as a synonym for old, mostly English cloggers who shout at their teammates about anything, often as a way to venerate their era (see: Ince, Paul; Adams, Tony; Fashanu, John) which lead some to dismiss it as another nonsense cliché, however it’s better seen as players taking responsibility for their team rather than just their own actions. Here, for example, Cech is trying to claim the cross while none of his teammates are even attempting to defend it – it’s a mistake but at least he has attempted to do something to support the team, while someone like Iwobi, defending the back post, doesn’t even try. The goal isn’t any one man’s problem, but Cech makes it his problem whereas everyone else defers to their teammates.
Arsenal managed to pull one back before half-time, with four men following Iwobi, gifting Xhaka space around the edge of the box (the exact kind of area where Ozil would also pop up to support Kolasinac) to set up up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. While an extreme example, it was part of a larger trend in Brighton players, especially Stephens, to get caught up following one particular man and leaving space elsewhere, which shows that while they performed excellently, they were clearly beatable if Arsenal had done more.
Happy to defend their lead, Brighton fell back much deeper in the second half, rarely pressing as they had done in the first. This made Arsenal’s build-up much easier, but they still did little with being gifted control. With Chambers offering little on the right, Arsenal’s attacks always went through Kolasinac, and, while Ozil attempted to offer him a way of changing the angle of attack hovering around that corner of the box, more often than not he simply swung in a cross. The attacking midfielders had been pretty anonymous and this only left them more so, therefore introducing Danny Welbeck and Eddie Nketiah in place of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Iwobi made sense strategically: the ball went wide to Kolasinac and he sent in a cross for Aubameyang, Welbeck and Nketiah rather than just the Gabonese.
Ultimately, it wasn’t a successful strategy though. Arsenal didn’t recover any points and never really looked like doing so. Losing four matches in a row for the first time since 2002, Arsenal are drifting further and further away from their rivals and the question of whether or not Wenger is allowed to see out his contract looms large.