Gunner Thoughts

4 Gut Reactions from Brighton v. Arsenal

Insult meets injury in a big, big way. An unacceptable way to lose. Here are four gut reactions to it today’s loss.

Maupay is scum.

Extremely tempted to copy and paste that 4 times over and call this article good, but there are plenty of things to scrutinize, acknowledge, and criticize in a game that saw Arsenal lose 2-1 on another last-minute goal, to a Brighton side that had not won a game in 2020.

It was a poor performance that lacked conviction and Arsenal couldn’t take hold of the match when they had opportune moments do so. It’s a distinct mark that separates the good teams for those that are midtable or below. There were reasons for fans and players to point fingers and blame elsewhere – Leno’s injury, Bissouma racking up 6 fouls without seeing any punishment from Atkinson, etc. – but at some point, preferably soon, Arsenal needs to look inward at how they lack the ability to create their own fortune and results.

After the match, Arteta said,

“I think it’s all our fault. It’s about how you compete in a Premier League match. It’s for 100 minutes and for every ball and every action. It’s not the first time that it’s happened. It’s something that’s a must and it is non-negotiable…When I’m talking about competing, there are details when you go ahead and game management and that’s something we have to improve. I don’t want to use excuses. At this level you can’t do it”

For me, that translates to: The best teams are able to create the fortune by winning balls for 100 minutes, moving quickly, being creative, and seizing opportunities. It takes the officiating element out of it all, as much as possible, and closes the door on late misfortunes like today’s ending.

With all that said, here are a few points of consideration for immediately after the game:

Leno Injury

It would be impossible to write about this game and not cover the horrific-looking, and sounding, injury of Bernd Leno. Around the 37th minute, Leno came out to collect a loose ball toward the end of the box only to have Brighton’s Maupay leap to shoulder through him while in mid-air. There was absolutely no chance Maupay was getting to the ball and the preplanned reaction of pointing to Leno outside the box while Leno screams is all one needs to see to know he knew he was attempting to give Leno a good shove.

On the landing, after being forced into an awkward adjustment, Leno’s knee clearly hyperextends badly and he could immediately be heard screaming in agony — despite the manufactured crowd cheering, somehow making the whole situation worse.

After the game, an image was spread that showed Leno on crutches, but the angle suggested he may have been putting some weight on it. He is clearly in a full-leg brace, but if he somehow escapes this with a badly hyperextended knee, not a full-blown ACL, MCL obliteration, I will thank the lucky stars. One would assume he is done for the season, but if he is able to recover for next season it will help Arsenal immensely and mean they don’t need to purchase a keeper in the window.

As a result, Emi Martinez came into the game and did manage to make a couple nice saves and plays, however, there may be room for argument that he comes out too early and too far on Maupay’s game winner. He will likely be the keeper from here on out so hopefully he is ready for a lot of action.

4-3-3 and the missing midfield identity

This is the point that will, and should, occupy the most amount of thought revolving this game. I will try to keep it brief, may expand more in a later piece, but lots to think about.

Today, Arsenal started with a true 4-3-3 in the midfield. Most often Guendouzi anchored Saka on the left and Ceballos on the right, but there was some fluidity to it. It was an intriguing shift to a formation that many Arsenal fans have been calling for, and one that removed the strict, number 10 role often occupied by Ozil, for two more up and down, fluid, number 8’s.

Whether this was out of desperation due to injuries or because the 4-3-3 is a formation that Arteta has discussed moving toward in the past, I don’t know, but there were some okay aspects to it today and some aspects that directly point to the end result and additional missed opportunity from Arsenal.

On the bright side, Arsenal’s midfield had a high level of workrate from the trio that buzzed around and managed to earn Arsenal 59% of the ball. However, a major issue lies in what they did with that possession. In today’s game, it was very little.

It was clear that Arsenal lacked an idea of what to do with the ball at their feet in order to create dangerous opportunities. They lacked the structure or know how to build up play with ball and set themselves up to make something happen. Instead, they relied on moments of individual play to get things going, bar a few exchanges that were too infrequent or spoiled by a runner offside. Even Nicolas Pepe’s goal today came from pretty simple ball movement side to side and then a moment of brilliance from Pepe to take advantage of too much space and whip a beautiful curling shot past Brighton. It’s something Pepe has the ability to do. To take a game where he is quiet and has produced very little, and change the narrative in a flash, but at this point it’s largely unreliable.

Instead, on 59% possession, Arsenal only managed 13 shots with 6 on target. Whether it was the absence of Ozil, the missing overlaps from the left wing, or the unfamiliarity with how this formation comes together, Arsenal were docile for much of the time they were on the ball. Brighton were not even in a low block, defensive formation all that much to make life difficult. They certainly were defensively responsible and present, but it wasn’t the type of game that saw Arsenal probing for the opportunity to unlock the defense. They just simply didn’t know how to work together in the final third and it showed.

This lack of danger was a clear reason, if not the reason, that Arsenal missed their opportunity to climb the table. “It’s unacceptable to lose that way” is right, Arteta.  

Arteta management in games

It is certainly too early to suggest anything drastic about Arteta being capable or incapable of being the manager that returns Arsenal to glory… or even competitiveness with top clubs. You know, top clubs like Leicester and Sheffield… and Brighton who just took the league double over us. But there is room to question certain aspects of games that he is responsibility for influencing. A major one is substitutions and in-game alterations, something that is even more evident with the ability to use 5 players for subs now instead of three.

Often times it appears as though Arteta is too wrapped up in the game and what is happening on the field that the alterations he would make to personnel on the field come too late or not at all. Today, in the 78th minute, Lacazette went down with an injury and Arteta went to substitute Nketiah on for Lacazette, as well as, bring on Kieran Tierney. For an unknown reason, Martin Atkinson did not allow Tierney on, which left Areta needing to make 3 subs at once, for the second game in a row, if he intended to use all the changes at his disposal.

It’s a tough spot to be, but Arteta responded to this adversity by sitting on those final subs until the 87th minute of the game. I won’t say that isn’t enough time to influence a game, look at this result alone to know that it all can change up until the final whistle. However, we have to wonder what took Arteta so long. When he did make his change in the 87th minute, Kieran Tierney came on for Bukayo Saka, Reiss Nelson for Pepe, and Joe Willock for Ceballos shifting Arsenal into a 5-back system – another interesting change for a 1-1 game that was essential “must win” for the Gunners.

It’s a skill that comes with experience and a role he has never had to play before when under Pep Guardiola, but certainly, something to keep an eye on. We know Arteta is meticulous and smart about his pregame preparations and team setups, but it is just as important of a skill for top managers to be able to influence games during the game. The ability to do this and get results from it separates good managers from great ones.

Saka bright spot, Holding decent

When it comes to bright spots, there are only a few and they naturally come in the form of individual aspects, rather than good team movements. The first and one of the most evident came in the form of Bukayo Saka.

There was plenty of reason to be concerned before the restart at what Kieran Tierney’s health could mean for Bukayo Saka. Saka certainly earned the ability to played in the midfield through his clever and obvious attacking abilities, but where? Down the left is a spot that Arteta refuses to move Aubameyang from and also would leave Saka competing with Martinelli. Not exactly ideal for someone you want to play regularly for a large chunk of matches.

Today, we saw Arteta put him in the midfield and his individual ability was on full display. 2 created chances, 2 shots including an absolute smash of a curler that rattled the bar for the next few minutes, a registered assist on Pepe’s goal, a key pass, 6 duels won, the most completed dribbles (3), 3 fouls drawn, and had an excellent workrate on and off the ball.

While it was not consistent enough, his exchange with Aubameyang into the left channel caused problems early on in the game with the left side of Brighton’s defense wondering who they should deal with – Aubameyang or Saka on the exchange. If Arteta persists with a midfield that relies on two box-to-box midfielders, Saka is in a strong position to occupy one of those roles after this performance and should even be considered if Arteta shifts back to his 4-2-3-1.

Another player that everyone had eyes on was Rob Holding. While he didn’t have nearly as impressive of a day as Bukayo Saka, he was relatively solid in his return. He was mostly competent on the ball, made his tackles and cleared lines when he had to. He ushered attackers away from dangerous areas and acquitted himself quite well completing the most passes in the game, including 6/7 long balls – which is a prized trait for Luiz who he replaced and Arteta’s plan.

There was, without doubt, room for improvement including the need for him to be stronger in the air—0/2 in aerial duels— and a few mental lapses, but the 6 clearances, 4 recoveries, interception, and high pass percentage help. However, in the end, the backline has given up two goals and that is what will be remembered.

There were plenty of other little aspects that could be talked about and may be covered in future articles, but I will leave it at these 4 initial reactions for now. Unacceptable way to lose and much of it falls heavy on the shoulders of Arsenal. Point fingers all they want; they are leaving The Amex with zero points and the knowledge that their desires for the top 4 are all but over. Tough loss to swallow.

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