Arsenal 1-2 Brighton: Arteta’s selection creates damaging imbalance

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Defeat to Brighton capped a terrible week for Arsenal and put a massive dent in our top four ambitions. All week the build-up had been about what we would do to cope with the absences of Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney, and amid all the discussion, the general consensus was that even if there were doubts about Nuno Tavares, without the Ghanaian we absolutely needed Granit Xhaka in central midfield.

That was true before the game, and it was even more so when the game began with Xhaka at left back. I can’t read minds, but I think you can draw the conclusion that Mikel Arteta has very serious misgivings about Tavares, and simply didn’t trust him enough to pick him in his favoured position, so went with a player he does.

The problem with that, of course, is that it didn’t at all offset the loss of two key players this week, it made their absences worse. The team was more disjointed, midfield didn’t function at all well, and when Xhaka moved back in there during the second half, we were better, if still not particularly good.

On one level, you have to accept that a manager and his coaching staff know more about the players than we do, and base their decisions not just on what they see during games, but day after day in training too. You can’t help but wonder if his willingness to sacrifice Nuno as quickly as he did in his last two starts is significantly informed by what he does day in, day out at London Colney. I don’t mean to say he’s not trying but maybe they feel the level isn’t right.

Nevertheless, we have enough evidence from last season that Xhaka at left back is far from ideal. It’s not that he’s particularly poor in that role himself, it’s the knock-on effect it has on the team. In this instance, it feels like the decision was made to strengthen the weakest position rather than keeping the strongest areas strong and looking to support where we’re weak.

Albert Sambi Lokonga had a difficult first half, and think his life would have been easier with Xhaka closer to him in midfield. It didn’t help that Emile Smith Rowe looked like a player carrying a knock, and Martin Odegaard in that deeper midfield role found the going difficult too. Brighton were organised and solid, and we just couldn’t get the ball up the pitch. Passing it at snail pace without sufficient movement ahead of the obviously frustrated centre-halves, Ben White and Gabriel, was the theme of the first 45 minutes. Saka and Martinelli had some moments, but once again we went through a game without any kind of presence up front.

I’m not blaming Alexandre Lacazette for the defeat because there were defensive issues on both goals that had nothing to do with him, but something’s gotta give now. He made attempted just 8 passes in the game, and for a player whose supposed strength is linking the play, that’s not good enough. He took no shots, and when we were chasing the game in the second half and we needed someone to give us anything in the opposition half, he was doing his favourite thing of dropping in to support the left-back when he wasn’t needed. It looks like hard work, but it’s no good for the team.

If this performance doesn’t elicit some kind of change up front, regardless of how few options we have, we are basically telling teams we’re not that interested in scoring goals or causing them problems. It’s at the point where I’d start Eddie Nketiah ahead of Lacazette, just for the sake of something different.

The goals we let in were frustrating. Trossard had all the time in the world and nobody near him when Mwepu cut the ball back into our box, and it was a similar scenario for the second midway through the second half. A lot of what we’ve done this season has been built on defensive solidity which has been sadly missing in the last two games, and when you’re struggling for goals, that’s only going to end one way.

Of course we did have the ball in the back of the net late in the first half. VAR ruled out Gabriel Martinelli’s header for an offside that nobody could definitively state was offside. It took the officials over four minutes to make a decision on a ‘clear and obvious’ error, but unlike most decisions you see in situations like this, we were never presented with conclusive evidence. If a toenail is offside, it might be ridiculous but by the letter of the law you can accept it. In this case, I think they guessed and gave the benefit of the doubt to the defending side. Or, to put it another way, not Arsenal. If it takes that long, surely you have to go with the on-field decision?

Obviously a goal would have been very welcome, and it would have impacted the scoreline, but not our woeful first half performance. It didn’t get much better in the second until late on when we added a bit of energy to the performance. Sambi shot not far wide; Odegaard hit the bar with the free kick and Eddie hit it again with the rebound; the deflection off Welbeck from Odegaard’s shot saw the ball fly into the top corner to make it 1-2, and Sanchez pulled off a fantastic save from an excellent Nketiah header, but it was too little, too late.

On top of that, there were moments of outright stupidity. Letting Cedric take a free kick in the first half when others are much better than he is; trying some kind of training ground routine from the same position that Odegaard hit the bar with later on; and in the dying moments, with Aaron Ramsdale in the box, we took a short corner and got caught offside. The kind of thing that makes you want to Will Smith everyone involved.

In truth, those moments were reflective of an overall performance which simply wasn’t good enough. Regardless of the selection decisions and the imbalanced nature of the team, the response to Monday’s defeat wasn’t there. I don’t know how to explain it, or why the team has fallen off a cliff in the last two fixtures. Partey and Tierney are important, of course, but it doesn’t sufficiently explain what we’ve seen when it comes to the lack of cohesion and collective endeavour which has been so important this season.

Afterwards, Arteta said:

The reaction that we wanted to show and everything that we talked about, we didn’t make it happen on the pitch. We were sloppy with the ball, we were second best again in a lot of situations, we didn’t show any purpose or build any momentum in the game, play with the right speed and transform the game that Brighton proposed today and with the first chance that they had, the only chance I think they had, they scored a goal and, again, we created a cold atmosphere, an atmosphere we weren’t comfortable with and when we tried to change it, it was too late.

This week has been extremely damaging to our chances of top four. A bad result can happen, but it’s how you react that tells you a lot about a team. We lost to Palace on Monday, Chelsea got spanked at home by Brentford last week. Their response was to pulverise Southampton, our was to go down meekly at home to Brighton. Frustrating, to say the least.

Defeats and poor results this season have tended to come in pairs. Coincidentally, there were disappointing consecutive draws with Palace and Brighton earlier in the season (what we’d give for even two points from these last two games); defeats to Man Utd and Everton; now Palace and Brighton again. Arteta has to ensure that pattern continues, because anything other than three points against Southampton and it’s not just top four we have to worry about, but any European football at all next season – something which would be genuinely disastrous as we look to continue the development of this team.

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