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Brighton 0-1 Arsenal: 2 in 2 as Saka shines again

Arsenal make is 2 in 2 as Saka shines once again from the right wing. It wasn’t beautiful but there are plenty of things to take away.

They have done it! If you asked me at the start of the season if I thought I would be celebrating Arsenal winning two matches in a row in the Premier League in December, I definitely would have said no. But here we are, and I have no shame about it.

Was it the prettiest win? Nope, but the notion that this Arsenal team was going to beat Chelsea and suddenly not be an inconsistent, streaky team, and challenge for top spots was never a reality.

That was proved today when Arsenal struggled to do much of anything in the first 45 minutes. At half time, the Gunners had 55% of the possession but only 1 shot and 0 on target. It was back to the Arsenal that lazily passes from side-to-side with little purpose or intent. Possession for the sake of possession. Every time Brighton’s midfield block shifted to apply any sort of pressure or trap, Arsenal retreated immediately and it was costing them.

The midfield was sloppy, slow, and gave Brighton plenty of opportunities to try and make something happen. Truly, Arsenal, and Elneny, are fortunate that Brighton struggle in the attack as much as they do. Additionally, Arsenal may consider themselves lucky that Brighton left Trossard, Maupay, Welbeck, and Connolly on the bench. With their 8 shots, they only managed 1 on target.

The objective for Arsenal in the second half was simple – play faster. After 45 minutes it seemed once more that Arsenal had no answer for when teams settle themselves in defense. ESR had been marked out of the match by the impressive play of Bissouma and Arsenal’s press was almost non-existent. There were glimpses of it, but Brighton were getting on the ball in areas that made it difficult to set up the full press structure and Aubameyang certainly wasn’t helping things. If Arsenal wanted to come up with a response they would need to unsettle Brighton’s structure by picking up their tempo and unlocking the wide runners.

Within the first 15 minutes, Emile Smith Rowe stepped up in a major way. He was finding ways to get himself on the ball and quickly distributing it to Saka and Martinelli. Suddenly, Arsenal were playing actual one, two football. Not only that, Arsenal were dedicating themselves to finding opportunities to get vertical and take chances.

The fear had been that Arsenal would forget they were rewarded versus Chelsea for picking their times to get direct and go fast. Often it feels like Arsenal slow themselves down against low block teams that give them a little more time. In the first 20 minutes of the second half Arsenal had 9 shots and were considerably more dangerous.

Aubameyang struggled immensely in the match and frankly didn’t put in the type of performance that you would ever hope from him, but he did have two really good chances including a sliding touch on the ball from inside the six yard box that cannoned off the planted foot of Brighton’s keeper. You really want your star-man doing better with a chance like that, but there certainly is an element of misfortune that his touch would be directed right to where the keepers leg was. To Brighton’s keeper’s credit, he did a wonderful job making himself large and standing his ground.

After that, Aubameyang would get another look on goal from a similar position we have seen him score against Liverpool, Manchester City, and Fulham in the season opener. It’s a spot he has been clinical from, but his shot would lack any sort of bend and whistle well wide. It was that shot more than anything that made me groan at the fact that Aubameyang is clearly going through a terrible run of form. To not even put it on frame is very poor. He was subsequently subbed off for Lacazette. Clearly he was struggling to perform, and it’s likely he isn’t quite 100% from his recent injury but that’s hardly an excuse.

Just when many Arsenal fans were fearing the worst, dreading that today was another day where Arsenal would fail to take advantage of the few chances they were creating, Bukayo Saka stepped up to be the hero and combine with Lacazette under a minute into Laca’s appearance.

Rob Holding played a ball into Saka’s feet who did remarkable to hold of the 6 foot 6 frame of Brighton’s Daniel Burn. Burn had overcommitted, Saka turned him and was away. From there, Brighton’s backline was a bit stretched and retreating which allowed Lacazette to get on the end of a cut back in the most amount of space any Arsenal attacker will have inside the box all year. There was still a little bit of work to do with a handful of Brighton players in the box, but Lacazette used his time, picked his spot and buried the ball into the back of the net. 1-0 Arsenal, a scoreline that would carry through to the end of the match.

In my prematch prediction blog I said that if you told me it was 50-50% possession stats and both teams had 13 shots, I would have no trouble believing you. That the match would come down to efficiency. Well, it was 51-49% possession in Brighton’s favor and 13-11 shots. While neither team can boast themselves as “efficient”, it was Arsenal’s 3 shots on goal from 11 shots that was better on the day and Arsenal that took 3 points.

The win puts Arsenal in 13th, comfortably away from the 11 point relegation line, and 6 points behind Chelsea in 6th place. As I said yesterday, it’s far too early for Arsenal fans to be considering their path to the top four. Arsenal need to string together another 3-5 consecutive wins before those conversations should be had, but 2 wins in 2 for the first time since the opening two matches? A good start.

Here are a few takeaways from the match!

No surprise, the engine room is make or break for Gunners
It has long been known that the aspect of Arsenal’s squad that needs to the most improvement is the midfield. To make matters worse, the one attempt Arsenal made at proving their midfield during the transfer window has been hurt for most of his time at the club. It’s left Arsenal with just about the same midfield options as last year, add in Elneny, which was far from successful.

In the last two matches, it’s been the moments the midfield pick up the pace that Arsenal show an inkling of danger. Against Chelsea we saw some great moments from Xhaka and Emile Smith Rowe to drive the tempo forward. In the 20 minutes that Arsenal created 9 shots, the midfield was exponentially better. In the first half, they were slow, poor, sloppy, and Arsenal were stagnant. It’s not rocket science.

If Arteta wants to get the best from his team, he needs to find ways for the midfield to recognize what makes them dangerous and drill them into maintaining that mindset for more than a 20 minute burst.

Elneny was poor today, possibly even poorer than he was against Chelsea, which potentially leaves an opening for West Brom. Partey is still being assessed and you can bet Arteta won’t make the same mistake twice by rushing him back. Will that offer Willock and Ceballos a chance, or will Arteta stick with what is working? Regardless, it is clear that that engine room is make or break for Arsenal at the moment, and I’m not so sure that’s always such a great thing.

Aubameyang might not be an “Arteta Striker
I might not be laying into the guy as hard as many others are, but it’s impossible not to comment on the limited press work, poor finishing, and limited range of skill set that Aubameyang displayed yesterday.

I will be the first person to put my hands up and admit that I had Auba in the side the moment it was suggested that he would be healthy. The idea of him with Martinelli and Saka on either side, and Emile Smith Rowe behind seemed tantalizing. Visions of Auba and Gabi fluidly swapping places with one another while all three flitted in and out of the midfield seemed incredible. We got the switching between Auba and Gabi, but the end product wasn’t nearly as lethal as I thought.

It makes life difficult on Mikel, but it’s fair to say that Aubameyang doesn’t offer enough of what Arteta wants from a striker. It’s a shame for all those that spent months lobbying for Aubameyang to be move central, but that role now has obligations beyond just staying high and shooting. As Lacazette demonstrated once again, the striker has to help lead the press, offer support in the midfield alongside Smith Rowe, and help link up the play, much more along the lines of what Aguero offers Manchester City. I had full faith in Aubameyang being able to do that to some degree, but I was wrong. While the second half started better with Aubameyang in, things looked quite a bit better with Lacazette playing the role.

It seems like Arteta now faces the tough decision of dropping Aubameyang or Martinelli to accommodate the other, and at the moment, it’s a no brainer in favor of Martinelli. Gabi has been really strong on and off the ball making him tough to drop. I don’t envy Mikel right now, because the lineup for West Brom could be a tough one to select when it comes to the left wing.

Arteta’s usage of substitutes
During Arteta’s tenure, he has been very streaky when it comes to his in-game management. He has been good at making some tactical shifts and galvanizing the team during half time and water breaks, but there has been some major question marks around his usage of subs and ability to make quick, little alterations that make all the difference.

Yesterday, I thought his subs were perfect. He got Lacazette on when it was clear that Aubameyang was struggling as the Striker and moved him to the left wing. While Gabi was better than Auba, it was probably the right decision to take off Martinelli considering he his still getting up to full fitness and health after his long stint off.

Mikel followed that with an 80th minute substitution to take off Saka and put on Ceballos. This move put Ceballos in the 10 role where ESR was and moved Smith Rowe to the wings. Both Saka and Smith Rowe were starting to look a little gassed at the time and allowed him to put a little more two-way play and fresh legs into the midfield while saving even a little bit of Saka for future matches.

Finally, he brought in Maitland-Niles for Smith Rowe in the 89th minute. The minute mark is too late, but in Arteta’s defense, he tried to get him on earlier, the ball just never went out of bounds. Smith Rowe was looking very leggy by that point and AMN injects legs and plenty of security.

Really great usage subs even beyond the fact that Lacazette scored the game winner in under a minute. Hopefully we are seeing signs of growth from Mikel in this regard.

The backline stands strong
It wouldn’t feel right to talk about Arsenal winning their second match without mentioning the fact that the defensive play was great. There were a few tough moments on the ball, and some questionable man-marking moments on set pieces, but Arsenal’s defense denied clear goal scoring opportunities.

For the second match in a row, Arsenal kept the opposition below 5 shots on goal, which is a nice feather in their cap. In fact, Chelsea and Brighton only managed 5 shots on goal combined! Not bad at all for Rob Holding who has been good this year and recent introduction, Pablo Mari. Gabriel is set to miss at least one more game because of Covid which gives Mari one more chance to impress. Regardless, that backline certainly has been acquitting itself well.

Those are a few thoughts on Arsenal’s 0-1 win to carry you through to West Brom. It wasn’t beautiful but it was well-earned and keeps this train rolling. With another very winnable match coming up against West Brom, Arsenal could be in a position to win three straight. I’m already dreading the idea of having to break down the king of low block, anti-football — Sam Allardyce — but I’ll enjoy this win while it’s here.

Hope you all are well and enjoying that winning feeling once more!

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