The only positive from Sunday’s 2-1 loss at Brighton is that the Gunners have 45 points in the Premier League and are therefore safe from relegation. I mean, if they keep playing like a mid-table team, then it’s the kind of goal they should have for next season. There’s no doubt that confidence is low at the club with a fourth straight defeat in all competitions. The only way to climb out of this hole is to get the basics right.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
The Arsenal defense has become a laughing stock this season. The Gunners have already conceded 41 goals from 29 Premier League games, twice as many as Manchester City or United (20). Optimists might say that the Citizens are having an exceptional season or that Mourinho’s teams are always defense-oriented. But a quick look at the bottom half of the table tells the whole story: the Gunners have conceded 3 more goals than Brighton and just 2 fewer than bottomside West Brom.
Wenger made 3 changes to the side that lost 3-0 to Manchester City on Thursday with Iwobi, Wilshere and Chambers replacing Welbeck, Ramsey and Bellerin in the starting lineup. The Europa League has clearly become the priority as Ramsey was not in the squad while Welbeck and Bellerin came off the bench in the second half.
Same old 3 foes: counterattacks, crosses, set pieces
The Brighton game summed up all the defensive frailties that Wenger or the next manager will have to fix: counterattacks, crosses and set pieces. The Seagulls capitalized on a poor pass from Mkhitaryan to hit Arsenal on the fast break in the 10th minute. Izquierdo set up Gross for a low strike that Cech turned around the post. Then Iwobi was foolish enough to dribble on the edge of the Arsenal box in the 20th and was dispossessed by Knockaert, who combined with Gross to bear down on goal only to be denied by Cech. A Xhaka turnover led to another counterattack in the 83rd but Murray’s goal was disallowed for an offside position from Izquierdo.
A sloppy pass from Koscielny led to Brighton’s second goal in the 26th. Swapping positions with Kolasinac, the France defender was unable to stop Gross’s cross for Murray, who outjumped Mustafi to head home. Three minutes later, Murray beat Xhaka to the ball while meeting Izquierdo’s cross, but his header down the middle didn’t trouble Cech.
Working on set pieces is probably the most boring part of training. It’s all about positioning. But those details definitely make a difference on match day. A few seconds before Gross took a corner in the seventh minute, Duffy stood unmarked near the penalty spot. The Brighton defender then slipped to the far post, still unmarked, to beat Cech to the ball and head it toward Dunk, who volleyed home from 6 yards. That was obviously poor goalkeeping from Cech, but the freedom that Duffy enjoyed on that set piece was scandalous. Duffy also got the better of the Arsenal defense on corners in the 18th and 23rd but headed over the bar.
The Gunners then lacked focus on a free kick in the 40th. Izquierdo was initially in the middle of the Arsenal wall before Gross took a free kick. But the Brighton winger sprinted to round the wall and take Gross’s pass only to be flagged offside. TV replays showed Izquierdo was played onside by the several Gunners. Ozil failed to track Izquierdo on that play, which was similar to the trick used by Higuain to open the scoring against Tottenham in the Champions League.
Leaders who can’t turn the tide
Despite a poor defensive performance, Arsenal nearly salvaged a draw from that game. Koscielny headed a cross from Mkhitaryan against the post on the stroke of halftime. And Aubameyang fired a half-volley straight at Ryan in stoppage time. Earning a point doesn’t mean anything in the standings now, but it would have helped rebuild confidence.
In times of crisis, you usually rely on the leaders in the dressing room to turn the tide. Unfortunately, our most senior players couldn’t lead by example. Cech failed to command the 6-yard box on the opening goal and should have done better on the second. The Czech goalkeeper has not kept any clean sheet since December and has the most errors (6) leading to a goal in the Premier League this season. To put things in context, Cech only made 1 error leading to a goal last season. Koscielny was also guilty on the second goal and gave the ball away again in the 37th. It took a foul from Ozil on Knockaert to end the threat. It’s really sad to see Koscielny lose a step. He used to be the cornerstone of the Arsenal defense for years. But age and injuries are catching up with him. Goalkeeper and centerback are definitely two positions that urgently require some attention from the recruitment staff.
Mustafi didn’t cover himself in glory against Manchester City, but he did a decent job against the Seagulls, making 4 interceptions, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. On the other hand, Chambers confirmed his limitations in the fullback position. Compared to a roasted chicken after Sema and Silva easily turned him to score, Chambers was embarrassing to watch against Izquierdo, who kept making runs in behind the English defender. Mustafi covered Chambers to block shots from Izquierdo in the 18th and 41st. Izquierdo outpaced Chambers again in the 71st and cut inside Mustafi only to fire wide. Chambers was replaced by Bellerin in the 83rd as the Gunners were chasing a late equalizer.
The most important game of the season
As usual, the Arsenal defense didn’t get much protection from the midfielders. Xhaka seemed to have tired legs after starting both games against City while Wilshere’s defensive output was too weak. Wilshere won 0 of 2 tackles and made 1 interception and 0 block, according to Squawka. Both central midfielders were booked for late challenges.
On the left wing, Iwobi was too casual and showed some poor tactical awareness. He made the work of the Brighton defense easier by drifting inside too often to play as a second striker. The Nigeria international also led all players with 6 turnovers, according to whoscored.com. Of those turnovers, 3 led to dangerous counterattacks. The corner for the opening goal resulted from an Iwobi turnover. His end product was also poor with 0 key pass and a tame effort straight at Ryan in the 57th. Wenger yanked Iwobi off to send on Welbeck in the 74th.
Iwobi’s ineffectiveness meant that the burden for creating chances rested on the shoulders of Ozil and Mkhitaryan. Although Arsenal enjoyed 68% of ball possession, Ozil had very little impact on the game. The Germany playmaker tested Ryan with a long-range strike in the 58th but made just 1 key pass, a low cross for Aubameyang whose shot was blocked in the 63rd. Mkhitaryan initially impressed in his first start for Arsenal, a 5-1 win over Everton. Since then, his performances have fluctuated between average and mediocre. Mkhitaryan had an average game on Sunday, leading Arsenal players with 3 key passes and testing Ryan with an angled strike in the 38th and a low drive in the 49th.
Up front, Aubameyang scored his second goal in the Premier League besides making 2 key passes. He converted a cross from Xhaka to pull one back in the 43rd. Aubameyang will need a bit more time to adjust to compact defenses in England. His teammates will also need to make more crosses instead of playing difficult balls down the middle. The Gabon striker won’t be eligible on Thursday for the most important game of the season against AC Milan. The Gunners will have to produce a decent performance to keep the Europa League tie alive.