So, the title challenge is effectively over after yesterday’s 3-0 defeat to Brighton. I think we all understood it was a long shot anyway, but failing to take three points was basically the death knell for our very slim chances.
Our game plan seemed to be more tailored to the threat Brighton possess than imposing ourselves on the game. On the one hand, I understand it. Arteta said afterwards this was how they approached the away fixture earlier in the season but were much more efficient in the final third. Still, I think I would have liked, in these circumstances, for us to be a bit more front-footed, to give them something to worry about. This was at our home, after all, with plenty to play for.
Early on Gabriel Martinelli was very lucky to avoid a booking for a flying shoulder on Karou Mitoma, and the Japan international was equally lucky not to be badly hurt. Our man wasn’t so fortunate when Moises Caicedo stuck one on him in what had to be a bit of revenge. He too escaped a yellow card, the reality is both players should have been disciplined by the referee, and the consequences for Martinelli were quite serious. He was replaced by Leandro Trossard in the 19th minute, and was seen post-game in a protective boot.
I thought Brighton were the better side in the first half, certainly in terms of possession. With Oleksandr Zinchenko missing we struggled to keep the ball when we did get it. He is always floating around, always available for a pass, and he has the ability to find angles to keep us moving around the pitch. Kieran Tierney was not asked to play the same role, but by half-time he’d had just seven touches of the ball and completed 4 passes. Whatever you might think of Zinchenko’s recent defensive form, he was missed yesterday in a big way. That’s an incredible drop-off as you try and control a key area of the pitch.
Still, you would probably say Arsenal had more chances in the first half. Martin Odegaard shot wide, very similar to the one he scored against Newcastle last week; Gabriel Jesus forced the keeper into a save at his near post; and right before the break Bukayo Saka drilled a shot just wide, and I don’t think the keeper would have got there if it was a couple of inches the other way. Brighton did have an excellent chance when Mitoma fashioned an opportunity for Enciso, but he shot over.
The second half was a different story. Not only were Brighton better, a gulf opened up between the teams that we just couldn’t bridge. The opening goal felt soft, a tiny little man heading home from close range after we switched off. Was there a foul on Jakub Kiwior? Probably, but it’s a moot point now. We still had plenty of time to respond, and we just didn’t. Brighton had more possession, more shots, more territory.
Mikel Arteta made changes, taking off both his starring central midfielders – not something I think I’ve ever seen him do before, certainly not at that point of the game. Thomas Partey came on, but we lacked balance in central areas to try and really get hold of things. There were moments. Reiss Nelson shot just wide, while Trossard’s attempt from an excellent Odegaard pass was on target but lacked conviction. At the other end, we needed Saka to be at his best defensively on more than one occasion and that tells you a big part of the story.
More changes, Smith Rowe and Nketiah were last throws of the dice from the manager, but I’m not sure that taking off Jesus and Odegaard to play that particular hail mary was the way to go. They felt like changes to do something, anything, rather than the introduction of two players who could genuinely change the trajectory of the game. Jesus and Odegaard, to my mind at least, give you much more goal threat. Neither Eddie or Emile had much of an impact, similarly Partey just continued his run of indifferent form after his introduction. Beyond Nelson, who had some bright bits here and there, the subs didn’t help.
Brighton’s second was a gift. Trossard tried to flick the ball around the corner in central midfield, it rebounded for Undav who lobbed Ramsdale. That was that, but there was time for more pain when they scored a third. Ramsdale’s save from a speculative long shot was not his finest moment, and the rebound was tucked away for 3-0. Cue knee slides from the Brighton manager. I mean, I get it, but it was also a bit annoying.
That’s my issue to deal with though, not his, and there’s no doubt that on the day they were by far the better side and deserved the win. I’ve enjoyed watching Brighton this season, the way they play is a lot of fun – except when you’re on the receiving end of it. They have some games to go to secure Europe at the expense of our filthy neighbours, so good luck to them.
Afterwards, the Arsenal players looked a bit shell-shocked. Martin Odegaard said:
It is not a good feeling at the moment. The way we played, particularly in the second half, I don’t know what happened to be honest. It feels like there is no hope now.
While Mikel Arteta was extremely downbeat on Sky afterwards, saying:
A week ago I was standing here and feeling proud, and today we have to apologise because the performance we had in the second half is not acceptable.
Clearly he expected Brighton to be tough opposition, but I don’t think he expected that kind of performance from his team. He spoke about a lack of competitiveness in the duels as a key factor for how poor we were, and even when he tried to put this season into a wider context, there were comments which do not bode well for some members of this squad when it comes to our summer business:
You have to do a lot of good things, incredible things, to be second in this league, and we’ve done that. But if the team can show that face as well, there are things that have to be addressed.
We cannot make any excuses.
As ever, he’s pulling no punches and to be honest, I like hearing it. As painful as yesterday was, and as much as I would have liked to keep things going until the bitter end, I think I had already made my peace that the title was gone. City are in full machine mode now, win after win after win, and the points were dropped in the last few weeks were the ones that opened the door for them. Invite those footballing vampires in and you get bitten.
Yesterday simply reinforced some things we already knew. You can’t lose players like William Saliba and Oleksandr Zinchenko and hope to be the same. Our midfield needs more than we currently have. Up front, I think there’s a need for a different kind of player to deal with games like this. Pumping the ball to Gabriel Jesus to compete with big centre-halves isn’t great, regardless of how hard he tries. We are a bit 5’9 in the final third, and more presence there has got to be high on this summer’s agenda.
I don’t know if you can say we ran out of steam for the second season running. For me it’s more about not quite having enough depth. Maybe that’s a bit tomato/tomato (does that work in print?!), but last season we fell short, added well, and improved. This season we fell short again, but short of a much more tantalising finishing line, and the answer is obvious come the summer.
The final nail in the coffin stings, and it will take a bit of time to digest this one, but with two games left to play, we have to go again, take as many points as possible, and quickly learn the lessons this game and this season as a whole have taught us. Let’s not forget that some of those lessons have been very positive ones, but in the cold light of this particular day, there’s far more introspection than we would have wanted.
Right, let’s leave it there for now. James and I will have an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.
We should have the podcast for you around midday. Until then.