The Gunners showed mental weakness in the clutch. Their Top 4 hopes came to an end after they drew 1-1 with Brighton on Sunday. Theoretically, Arsenal could still finish level on points with Spurs in the Premier League, but there’s no way that the Gunners could overturn a goal difference of eight. Now the only question left is: Who will finish sixth between Arsenal and Manchester United?
Photo credit: Premier League
A month ago, the Gunners still had the Top 4 race in their hands after they defeated Newcastle to move into third place. But they have blown their best chance of qualifying for the Champions League by having a poor run of form at the worst moment of the season, earning only a point from their last 4 league games.
It is quite ironic that Arsenal paid tribute to the departing Ramsey with a guard of honor at the Emirates stadium. Ramsey is the longest-serving Gunner in the current squad. He will join Juventus this summer after 11 years at Arsenal. It requires a lot of mental toughness to return from a double leg fracture and score the winning goal in two FA Cup finals despite several hamstring injuries. Ramsey is exactly the kind of player that the Gunners need: mentally tough and performing in the clutch. At 28, Ramsey still has at least 4 years left at the top. Yet, the Arsenal board decided to withdraw his contract offer.
Calling for Emery’s sacking would be a knee-jerk reaction to this disappointing run of form. I don’t think it would help the club. First, because the Gunners have done slightly better than last season. Emery kept Arsenal in the chase for Champions League spots until May while the Gunners dropped out of the Top 4 race by March under Wenger. And the Gunners can still reach the Europa League final whereas they got knocked out in the semifinals a year ago. We are very far from Moyes’ poor tenure at Old Trafford where the defending champions finished seventh in 2014.
Second, what kind of signal would Arsenal send to future candidates by firing Emery after a decent season? Arsenal would be seen as an unstable club where managers must succeed in their very first season. Even Guardiola won nothing in his first season at Manchester City.
And third, the main culprit for the slow transition and lack of competitiveness is the Arsenal board. Financially, Emery had limited ressources to rebuild the squad last summer. Liverpool and Manchester City spent more than £50 million to sign top centerbacks like Van Dijk and Laporte and more than £40 million to sign top midfielders like Fabinho and Bernardo Silva. Quality has a price but the club wasn’t willing to match the investments made by City, Liverpool or even Chelsea. So the Gunners spent £17 million for Sokratis and £26 million for Torreira. What’s the point of changing of manager after a year if the transfer kitty will limit the scope of the rebuilding effort?
Emery made 5 changes to the side that defeated Valencia last Thursday with Leno, Monreal, Lichtsteiner, Torreira and Mkhitaryan replacing Cech, Koscielny, Kolasinac, Guendouzi and Maitland-Niles in the starting lineup. On paper, it looked like a 4-2-2-2 formation, but it often morphed into a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield because Torreira played in a more advanced position than Xhaka while Mkhitaryan filled the hole on the left.
Arsenal’s diamond midfield. (Photo credit: Sky)
The Seagulls preferred to sit deep instead of pressing high up the pitch. The advantage of that plan is that you have a solid defensive shape. The drawback is that you invite pressure. Brighton winger Jahanbakhsh gave away a penalty with an awkward challenge on Monreal in the eighth minute. There was minimal contact and even the referee had a doubt for a split second. Aubameyang converted the penalty by firing into the bottom corner to give Arsenal the lead.
Xhaka’s silly challenge
I mentioned the issue of mental weakness because the Gunners were too passive after the opener. They created no scoring chance between the 9th and the 36th and allowed the Seagulls to get back into the game. Arsenal had a couple of chances before halftime but Ryan pulled some fine saves. At the restart, the Gunners were again very quiet in the final third with no scoring chance between the 46th and the 68th.
Some teams are ruthless and just pile on the pressure. But this Arsenal team lost its intensity and got punished in the 60th. Brighton capitalized on a poor pass from Mkhitaryan to launch a counterattack. Bernardo’s clearance fell to March, who sprinted down our right flank before rounding Xhaka. The Switzerland midfielder panicked and pulled March back. March lost his balance and fell to the ground. The referee awarded a penalty to the Seagulls and gave a yellow card to Xhaka for that cynical foul. Murray equalized by sending Leno the wrong way.
It was a silly challenge from Xhaka because March could only cut the ball back and Mustafi was in a very good position to block the pass. Looking at the big picture, Brighton’s chances of scoring on that play were low because Sokratis was marking Murray, who was the only Seagull inside the Arsenal area, while Monreal had an eye on Knockaert on the edge of the box. Again, some Gunners simply lack mental toughness and keep making blunders under pressure. The Gunners won’t have a solid spine as long as they rely on error-prone players like Xhaka and Mustafi.
I thought Emery’s substitutions came really late. And they looked pretty much like a punishment for the three players involved in the Brighton equalizer. Kolasinac, Iwobi and Guendouzi came off the bench to replace Lichtsteiner, Mkhitaryan and Xhaka in the 77th.
Mkhitaryan got some stick from the fans for missing a short pass to Lichtsteiner on the play that led to the equalizer. But I thought Mkhitaryan had more impact in the final third than Ozil. The Armenia international nearly opened the scoring in the second minute with a 19-yard strike that hit the base of the post. Then he tested Ryan with a long-range effort on the stroke of halftime. Just before his replacement, Mkhitaryan set up Aubameyang for a big chance in the 74th and fed Lacazette, whose shot was blocked by Ryan in the 75th. As usual, Mkhitaryan’s work-rate was better than Ozil’s with 1 interception and 5 recoveries compared to 1 interception and 3 recoveries for the German playmaker, according to the club’s website.
Although Arsenal enjoyed 71% of ball possession, Ozil didn’t have the influence that fans can expect from him. He led all players with 3 key passes, but one was from a corner and another was a short pass for a long-range strike. Ozil’s best contribution of the game was a cross for Aubameyang, whose 10-yard shot was turned around the post by Ryan in the 39th. Mkhitaryan, Ozil and Iwobi have lacked consistency this season, but Mkhitaryan has one advantage over the other two attacking midfielders: his work-rate. Mkhitaryan can press high up the pitch like Ramsey but you wouldn’t trust Ozil and Iwobi to do that job.
Aubameyang raised his tally to 20 goals in the Premier League this season, trailing only Salah who has 22 goals. He had opportunities to score the winner, first volleying Xhaka’s corner over the bar in the 68th, and then meeting a cross from Mkhitaryan in the 74th only to miss the target from 8 yards. In the closing minutes, Kolasinac also made a pinpoint cross but Aubameyang failed to make any contact for a close-range header.
Emery making the same mistake as Wenger
Arsenal’s offense struggled in the air again. Aubameyang and Lacazette combined to win only 2 of 7 aerial duels, according to whoscored.com. It was so bad that Lacazette even managed to head Aubameyang’s cross into touch in the 87th. Lacazette’s best chance came on the stroke of halftime when he pounced on a rebound and had his 18-yard effort headed out by Dunk. He also forced a comfortable save from Ryan with a strike on the turn in the 90th. Although Lacazette didn’t find the net, he showed outstanding work-rate with 2 tackles and 6 recoveries.
In midfield, Xhaka cost his team the win with his blunder in the 60th. He also gave the ball away twice in the opening minutes. It’s quite puzzling that both Wenger and Emery have relied on Xhaka to be Arsenal’s holding midfielder. His passing range and his delivery can sometimes make the difference. Xhaka finished the game with 3 key passes, including 2 from corners. Mustafi met a corner from Xhaka in the 36th for a diving header that Ryan saved at the near post. But in the end, Xhaka’s lack of mobility and poor decision-making far outweigh his positive contributions.
Playing on the right side of a diamond midfield, Torreira had a decent game but his performance didn’t match the high standards he set in the first half of the season. Torreira won 2 of 2 tackles and made 2 interceptions and 7 recoveries. He was also dribbled past 3 times, tied with Brighton midfielder Stephens for the most by any player. Torreira may have not any proper rest this summer if the Uruguay team goes deep in the Copa America.
Sokratis’ 12 yellow cards
The main problem with a diamond midfield is that it can make the attack too narrow unless the fullbacks roam forward to provide the width. Lichtsteiner and Monreal were no threat on the flanks as they combined to have 0 key pass and 0 accurate cross. Brighton midfielder March exposed Lichtsteiner’s lack of pace a couple of times. In the 26th, Lichtsteiner failed to close down March, who created a scoring chance with a cross for Murray. Then March rounded Lichtsteiner in the 30th only to shoot into the side-netting. At least, Lichtsteiner didn’t make a silly foul on that play like Xhaka. Lichtesteiner also received a yellow card for dissent in the 64th.
In the heart of the defense, Mustafi refrained from making any high-profile blunder while Sokratis lost a couple of key duels. Murray beat Sokratis to the ball in the 26th for a downward header that Leno saved. Then March rounded Sokratis to fire an angled strike in the 51st. Sokratis broke a record in the 14th by diving and earning his 12th yellow card in the Premier League, the most for an Arsenal player in a single season.
Leno salvaged a point for the Gunners by saving March’s header in the 85th. Iwobi left March unmarked at the far post on that play. Leno’s distribution is usually reliable but on Sunday the German goalkeeper had two poor moments, having a pass intercepted by Jahanbakhsh in the 26th and kicking the ball straight to Bissouma in the 33rd.
The Gunners next visit Valencia on Thursday before facing Burnley on Sunday for their last Premier League game of the season. There’s no doubt that Emery will field his best team against the Spanish side because the Europa League has become the only way for Arsenal to qualify for the Champions League. If Emery is bold enough, he will play a few youngsters against Burnley because players like Nketiah, Willock and Saka will certainly show more desire than the regular starters.