Arsenal could be fighting relegation the entire season after losing 2-1 to Brighton on Thursday. They haven’t won in the Premier League since Oct. 6. In their last 7 league games, they have racked up a ridiculous total of 4 points. Even teams in the relegation zone like Everton, Norwich and Watford have done better than that. The Gunners now sit in the middle of the table because of their decent start to the season, but they are only 5 points above the relegation zone.
Photo credit: Premier League
The chemistry in the dressing room can’t be good when you see players like Aubameyang, Ozil and Luiz shouting at their teammates. What happened in the closing minutes of Thursday’s game could be the metaphor for this dreadful season. As the Gunners were desperately chasing an equalizer, Aubameyang sprinted off the pitch for an urgent bathroom break. The Arsenal captain came back on the pitch before the final whistle, but that made no difference to the result.
The Gunners have made struggling teams look good this season. Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Norwich was bad publicity for the Arsenal defense because opponents now realize that the Gunners are scared of players running at them. The Seagulls had lost their 3 previous league games. Yet, they were the more threatening side on Thursday, enjoying 50.8% of ball possession and having 20 shots to only 12 for the Gunners.
The Emirates stadium used to be a fortress, but now the visiting teams are no longer intimidated. Last season, Arsenal had 14 wins, 3 draws and 2 losses in 19 league games at home. This season, the Gunners have already dropped points in 5 home games before even reaching the halfway stage.
Weak in the air
Ljungberg made 3 changes to the side that drew at Norwich with Torreira, Sokratis and Bellerin replacing Guendouzi, Mustafi and Chambers in the starting lineup. Nothing really clicked. Offensively, Arsenal’s passing game was too slow to crack the Brighton defense. The Seagulls had plenty of time to get back into position. In fact, the Gunners were so predictable that they were caught offside 7 times. Defensively, Brighton exposed the Gunners’ weakness in the air. The Seagulls won 66% of the aerial duels, according to whoscored.com.
Brighton opened the scoring from a corner in the 36th minute. Burn outjumped Lacazette to head the corner across goal. Connolly chested the ball down only to have his fluffed shot blocked by Luiz. Webster got ahead of Willock to pounce on the rebound and fire past Leno. The Gunners have conceded quite a few goals this season by losing the second ball.
Arsenal also equalized from a corner. Lacazette made a run to the near post in the 50th to meet Ozil’s corner and send a looping header into the far corner. Brighton capitalized on some poor defending from the Gunners to score the winning goal in the 80th. Burn redirected a long ball toward Trossard on our right flank. Trossard held off Sokratis before slipping the ball to Mooy, who cut inside Bellerin to make a cross for Maupay. The diminutive French striker took a step back to head the ball into the far corner.
A chain reaction of mistakes
Sokratis made the first mistake on that play. Trossard pulled the Greek defender out of position. There was no danger yet in the Arsenal area as Torreira compensated for the team by covering Sokratis at centerback.
Trossard pulls Sokratis out of position. (Photo credit: Sky)
Xhaka made the second mistake by standing in no man’s land. The Switzerland international didn’t smell the danger and hesitated between keeping an eye on the ball and marking Stephens. With better decision-making, Xhaka would have anticipated Mooy’s run and got in his way.
Xhaka fails to block Mooy’s run. (Photo credit: Sky)
The Gunners were in deep trouble from the moment Mooy checked back on his right foot to make a cross. As you can see on the screen capture below, the Seagulls had a favorable 4v3 situation in the final third. Both Sokratis and Xhaka became useless on that play. Sokratis was too far away from the area while Xhaka was not marking anybody. Surprisingly, Bellerin didn’t get the memo that Mooy was right-footed because he left him too much space inside.
The Seagulls have a favorable 4v3 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)
Torreira made the last mistake on that play by anticipating a pass to Propper, leaving Luiz in a 1v2 situation. Of course, it’s a chain reaction. Torreira wouldn’t have made that gamble if Sokratis was not out of position and if Xhaka had challenged Mooy.
Torreira leaves Luiz in a 1v2 situation. (Photo credit: Sky)
Ljungberg played the same front three that started against Norwich with Lacazette leading the line while Ozil and Aubameyang had the freedom to drift from the wings. Again, the Gunners lacked penetration in the final third whether through dribbling or passing. Lacazette, Aubameyang and Ozil combined to have 0 successful dribble. And they were each caught offside twice.
The Ozil issue
Ozil finished the game with 2 key passes but none came from open play. Some fans didn’t like Ljungberg’s decision to play Ozil in a wide position, even though Wenger also used Ozil on the right wing when he switched to a 3-4-3 formation. At halftime, Ljungberg moved Ozil into the No. 10 position. Despite the tactical change, the German playmaker was still inefficient in the final third. Ozil was dispossessed by Mooy in the Brighton area in the 49th, made a poor pass that led to a counterattack by the Seagulls in the 52nd, and missed the target from 15 yards in the 69th.
At 31, Ozil is aging badly. He’s nowhere near the level of a Zidane at the same age. Some fans thought that Emery was responsible for Ozil’s poor performances, even claiming that Emery killed Ozil’s creativity and forced him to play cross-field passes to Kolasinac. The reality is that Ozil and Kolasinac are good buddies in real life. On the pitch, Kolasinac will always be an obvious option for Ozil when he checks back on his left foot. Gazidis and Wenger clearly made a mistake by extending Ozil’s contract. Ozil will be a massive headache for any Arsenal manager until his contract ends in 2021.
Lacazette scored 1 goal and made 2 key passes but really struggled in the centerforward position, leading all players with 5 turnovers according to whoscored.com. On the stroke of halftime, Torreira teed up Lacazette. Instead of attempting a first-time shot, Lacazette made a poor first touch and lost possession. Somehow, Lacazette was saved by his all-around game, setting up Aubameyang for a shot that sailed wide in the 28th and making a cross for Ozil in the 69th. In the physical Premier League, I still believe that Lacazette would feel more comfortable in the role of a second striker or even on a wing.
What about a 4-4-2?
Aubameyang is the best scorer in the squad. Yet, Wenger, Emery and Ljungberg have all felt the need to play him in a wide position. It’s like Pochettino or Mourinho telling Kane to play on the right wing, that doesn’t really make any sense. Aubameyang sacrificed himself for the team by trying to create chances. His cross for Lacazette in the 39th was cleared by the Brighton defense. The Gabon striker then rounded Burn in the 41st to make a cross for Willock, who headed the ball straight at Ryan. Aubameyang’s only scoring chance of the game came in the 67th. Pepe slipped a through ball to Aubameyang, whose shot was blocked for a corner. If Ljungberg absolutely wants to play both Lacazette and Aubameyang, then a 4-4-2 formation should be his first choice.
Lacazette, Aubameyang and Ozil started in the front three at kickoff. Ljungberg finished the game with Aubameyang, Martinelli and Pepe in the front three, replacing Willock with Pepe at halftime and Lacazette with Martinelli in the 77th. Pepe had an impact in the final third, feeding Aubameyang in the 67th and testing Ryan in the 83rd. Hopes were high when Pepe took a free kick in the 90th but his effort was deflected wide by the wall. Pepe added more penetration with his pace and dribbling kills. But he’s still too predictable as defenders know that Pepe prefers to check back on his left foot. Pepe had only 2 successful dribbles out of 6, according to whoscored.com.
Martinelli didn’t get much playing time but he made a significant contribution in the 87th, connecting with a cross from Tierney for a bouncing header that Ryan saved. You have to feel sorry for Martinelli. That mustn’t be easy for a teenager to hone his skills in a new country and a new club in crisis.
Willock learning the hard way
In midfield, Ljungberg made choices that Emery could have made. Torreira and Xhaka protected the back four while Willock played in a more advanced position. I guess the idea was to use Willock’s mobility and stamina to press Brighton high up the pitch. Of course, the problem was how Willock would then use the ball. The game seemed to go a bit too fast for Willock, whose passing accuracy of 46.2% was the lowest among Arsenal starters. Willock made 0 key pass and had 3 turnovers in 45 minutes. The academy graduate nearly proved Ljungberg right with Arsenal’s best chance from open play in the 41st. Unfortunately, Willock couldn’t guide his header toward the corners of the goal.
Willock learned the hard way by losing Webster for a split second on the opening goal in the 36th. He also got an idea of Aubameyang’s high expectations in the 45th when he made the wrong pass for the Gabon striker. Out of frustration, Aubameyang yelled at Willock. I think Willock needs to play in a deeper position at this stage of his career. Actually, there’s an audition for the position of ballwinner at Arsenal.
Surprisingly, Xhaka played as the holding midfielder while Torreira had more freedom to roam forward. That is similar to what Emery did last season. Again, Xhaka is not a defensive midfielder. Brighton’s second goal showed that Xhaka’s defensive instinct is poor. Xhaka was dribbled past twice, the most for any Gunner, while no Seagull skipped past Torreira.
The Switzerland international tried his best, intercepting Connolly’s pass for Maupay in the 43rd and blocking Maupay’s shot in the 79th. But there were a couple of times when Xhaka put his team in danger by dallying on the ball. Xhaka tried to win a foul in the 38th and grabbed the ball after falling on the ground. The referee penalized Xhaka for handling the ball. In stoppage time, Trossard dispossessed Xhaka and toyed with Sokratis and Luiz before firing over the bar.
Torreira was seen a lot in the final third. From a recycled corner in the 10th, Torreira picked out Luiz, whose diagonal shot was stopped by Ryan. On the stroke of halftime, Torreira teed up Lacazette, who wasted an opportunity by not taking a first-time shot. Torreira also had a scoring chance in the 48th but lost possession with a heavy touch.
You can understand why Emery was reluctant to play Torreira as a holding midfielder. The Uruguay international missed his headed clearance in the 26th. The ball fell to Maupay, whose angled strike flirted with the far post. Liverpool and Manchester City have holding midfielders (Fabinho, Fernandinho) who could play as centerbacks. Likewise, former Arsenal midfielders Petit, Gilberto and Song could also play as centerbacks. By contrast, Xhaka, Guendouzi and Torreira would be unable to play as decent centerbacks.
Kolasinac and Bellerin were both disappointing on the flanks. They combined to make 0 key pass. Bellerin probably needs a couple of games to get back to his best. He only won 21.4% of his duels against Brighton. The Spaniard nearly conceded a penalty by holding back Connolly in the 20th. Mooy even managed to dispossess Bellerin in the 30th and the 40th. Bellerin’s only moment of brilliance came in the 55th when he knocked the ball past 2 Seagulls and won the ball back with a sliding tackle in the Brighton area before making an inaccurate cross for Aubameyang.
Bellerin still worked hard with 10 defensive actions in 96 minutes while Kolasinac’s work-rate was poor with only 4 defensive actions in 70 minutes, according to the club’s website. Kolasinac also had 4 turnovers. Following a high press from the Gunners in the 56th, Kolasinac made a teasing cross for Aubameyang, who couldn’t make contact with the ball. Ljungberg replaced Kolasinac with Tierney in the 72nd. The Scottish fullback created the scoring chance for Martinelli.
In the heart of the defense, Luiz and Sokratis both had a poor game. Luiz lost key duels on both Brighton goals and his passing accuracy of 81.4% was poor compared to Sokratis’ passing accuracy of 94.7%. The Brazilian centerback especially struggled in the air, winning only 25% of his aerial duels compared to 67% for Sokratis, 60% for Webster and 67% for Dunk, according to whoscored.com.
Things didn’t start well for Luiz, who nearly cost his team a goal in the opening minute because of a misunderstanding with Leno. Luiz received a yellow card in the 68th for a cynical foul on Connolly, who was leading a counterattack. Sokratis was also booked for a silly challenge on Connolly near the corner flag on the stroke of halftime. The Greek defender was late for a block in the 33rd and was caught ball-watching in the 61st. Only saves from Leno prevented Sokratis from looking as bad as Luiz.
If a new manager were to rebuild the Arsenal squad, Leno would probably be the first name on his teamsheet. Leno saved Arsenal from a more humiliating defeat by making 7 saves. The German goalkeeper especially stopped Maupay’s low drive in the 33rd and denied the Brighton striker in the 61st. In the last few months, Leno was arguably the only Gunner who didn’t perform poorly, didn’t behave badly and didn’t spread transfer rumors.
The season could quickly turn ugly for Arsenal. The club lost leaders during the summer: Cech, Koscielny, Ramsey and Monreal. You need leaders to ride any storm. Unfortunately, the so-called leaders now are Aubameyang, Xhaka, Ozil and Bellerin. Not really the best Sherpas to survive in the Everest region. The Gunners next visit West Ham in the Premier League on Monday before playing Standard de Liège in the Europa League on Thursday. Then it’s a tough schedule with games against the two Manchesters, Everton, Bournemouth and Chelsea. On current form, Arsenal may not even get 3 points from those 6 league games.