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Post Match Review

Arsenal falter on south coast, draw with determined Brighton


If there is one lesson that Unai Emery has learned time after time already in his first season as Arsenal Head Coach, it is that there are no easy matches in the Premier League. This was once again driven home for the Spaniard as Arsenal travelled to Brighton for a Boxing Day encounter with Chris Hughton’s stingy Seagulls. The Gunners went into the match as the clear favourites and with a talented starting XI, but they quickly found out that a positive result would be hard to come by, and ultimately left the south coast with a disappointing 1-1 draw. The result saw Arsenal relinquish their place in the top four following Chelsea’s own Boxing Day victory, and they will be looking to get back to winning ways against current table-toppers Liverpool on Saturday.

Brighton again prove tough customer

The Arsenal players and supporters were far from satisfied with Wednesday’s draw, but the result bested their previous effort at the Amex Stadium in March when Arsene Wenger’s men fell to a frustrating 2-1 defeat. Despite their apparent status as relegation candidates in both seasons since earning promotion to the Premier League, Chris Hughton has consistently extracted solid performances from his Brighton team, and they proved to be more than a match for the Gunners’ attack once again on Wednesday while doing just enough to earn a point for themselves.

Hughton has quietly been building an impressive CV against the big sides, including two consecutive victories against Manchester United, and his organisation and focus on effort are big reasons why. Like Unai Emery, Hughton is a detail-oriented manager who is extremely thorough in implementing his match plans, and it showed against Arsenal. The Brighton defence appeared largely unbothered by the pedigree of the Arsenal attack, and they played even better in the second half, limiting the Gunners to just one shot and none on target.

Typically, when a club of limited means is promoted to the Premier League, they are seldom anything but favourites to go back down again almost immediately. Like Bournemouth before them, however, Brighton have shown the value of a good manager with a consistent approach capable of motivating players. Much of the narrative following this match will be of Arsenal’s attacking ineptitude, but it should not be lost on anyone just how well Brighton played to earn a point from a very tough Boxing Day fixture.

You’ll miss me when I’m gone

Last season was hard on a lot of Arsenal players. As some fans grew increasingly weary of life under Arsene Wenger, the patience in the stands for mistakes on the pitch ran out. Players like Hector Bellerin and Shkodran Mustafi played much of the season on eggshells, with their fear of failure crippling their growth and confidence within the team.

This season has seen both players make tremendous strides in their consistency, and the fans have warmed considerably to Bellerin in particular for his much-improved play in the first half of this season. However, perhaps nothing has done more to demonstrate their value to the team than their recent absence through injury. In their stead have been two aging veterans increasingly showing signs of being well beyond their best; Stephan Lichtsteiner and Laurent Koscielny.

To make matters worse, their injuries could not have come at a worse time and in a worse area of the pitch, with fellow defenders Rob Holding, Sead Kolasinac, Nacho Monreal and even the recently returned Lauren Koscielny and emergency right back Ainsley Maitland-Niles all struggling with injuries at one point or another this season. Unai Emery has been repeatedly forced to patch together a defence, and this lack of continuity showed on the pitch on Boxing Day against lowly Brighton.

Mercifully, Bellerin and Mustafi are not dealing with long-term injuries, and both should be back starting in the next couple weeks. However, with Liverpool next on the horizon just three days following their draw in Brighton, Unai Emery will be desperate to have as many able-bodied defenders at his disposal as possible. The match could come just a bit too soon for reinforcements, and Emery once again could be digging deep into the squad to field a decent defence against the current best team in the Premier League.

Auba finds the net again but misses the winner

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has always been a streaky player, and lately, he has ridden another of his goalscoring surges to the top of the Premier League scoring charts. He even added to that tally on Wednesday with a lovely curling effort that was generated by an excellent high press from Lucas Torreira and tireless work to first win the ball and then move it along to Aubameyang by Alexandre Lacazette. The goal gave Aubameyang 12 in 18 matches thus far this season, and he sits just ahead of Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah.

However, despite netting the lone Arsenal goal of the match, Aubameyang showed why he is far from a perfect striker and has been followed by questions throughout his increasingly prolific career. He missed a sitting chance one-on-one with Brighton Goalkeeper Mat Ryan to increase the Gunners’ early advantage and set the controls for a cruise to a straightforward victory, but it was the second half that perhaps best showcased his shortcomings. With Mesut Ozil withdrawn at the half and Alexandre Lacazette pulled a few minutes later, service completely dried up for the Gabon international, and he was almost invisible for much of the final 45 minutes.

Unai Emery has clearly demonstrated his preference for Aubameyang as the first choice striker over Alexandre Lacazette, but doing so effectively limits what Arsenal can do in attack. His hold up play is not nearly as polished as the Frenchman’s, and despite being several inches taller than Lacazette, his contribution in the air is negligible. This season, Aubameyang is averaging just one successful aerial duel while losing twice as many per match. Added to a dribbling success rate of under 50% (0.7 successful, 0.9 unsuccessful per 90 mins in the Premier League) and a pedestrian 76% pass completion rate, it becomes apparent that Aubameyang’s impact is minimal outside of his goalscoring exploits. While it would be deeply unfair to blame the Gunners’ recent struggles on his lack of an all-around contribution, it is difficult to see Lacazette’s frustration at another premature exit from the match and the corresponding dip in attacking fluency and defensive urgency from the front and not think the wrong striker was left on to finish the match.

Emery’s decisions baffle again

During the Gunners’ impressive 22-match unbeaten run that stretched from August to December, it seemed that Unai Emery could do no wrong. Quickly garnering a reputation in England for his proactive approach to substitutions and willingness to change tactics at the drop of a hat to exploit the opponent, he rightly received a lot of credit for the team’s excellent second-half performances this season. Lately, however, after two consecutive losses and Wednesday’s disappointing draw over the last two weeks, Emery’s golden touch has lost a bit of lustre.

Of all his alterations this season, few perplexed fans as much as the substitutions he made against Brighton, and some have gone as far as to blame them for the Gunners’ ineptitude in the second half. With the score knotted at 1 going into the break, Emery decided to withdraw the only true creative presence on the pitch in Mesut Ozil, swapping the German out for Alex Iwobi to slot in on the left flank and shift the formation to more of a 4-3-3 from the first half’s 4-3-1-2. Then finding service to the front lacking even more than in the first half, Emery called on Aaron Ramsey to provide creative impetus but decided to withdraw Alexandre Lacazette to do so. This left Aubameyang as the only striker on the pitch as Arsenal chased a second goal, and the results were far from what Emery intended.

While some fans were quick to jump on Ozil for lacking an impact in the first half, his absence was acutely felt in the second half as there was no player left capable of linking the midfield to the attack. The midfield trio of Granit Xhaka, Matteo Guendouzi, and Lucas Torreira were far too static for much of the match, and they provided little help in the attacking third where the strikers cried out for more support.

To be fair, Emery has been forced into a difficult position with the recent injury crisis in defence. His quest to balance attacking firepower with defensive solidity has been a constant throughout the season, and his decision making betrays a lack of trust in the defenders at his disposal. At the moment, he appears hesitant to go all out for victory when searching for a winning goal late in proceedings, and the Gunners’ continuing defensive struggles clearly factor heavily into his decision making. He deserves every bit of credit he received earlier this season for his inspired substitutions, but it is fair to question whether or not he got it right this time. After watching the players struggle to create any scoring opportunities in the second half and Brighton largely untroubled by a far more talented Arsenal team, Emery himself might admit that he did not.

Gunners’ chance to play spoiler

If it had been written before the season started that a Premier League side would make it past Christmas atop the league and without a blemish on their record, the smart money would have been on last season’s champions Manchester City. And yet, with the congested holiday period nearly complete, Pep Guardiola’s men sit in third place behind a surging Tottenham and the league’s lone undefeated side in first: Liverpool.

Following recent slip-ups to Southampton and Tottenham, and with Wednesday’s disappointing draw fresh on fans’ minds, there is far less optimism surrounding the Gunners’ chance to win at Anfield on Saturday. However, such a massive encounter so soon after an underwhelming performance had the potential to cut both ways; the heightened importance of the fixture can either galvanise the team and allow them to quickly put their Boxing Day disappointment behind them, or it can result in a carryover of their dented confidence into the match.

Unfortunately, the scorching pace of the top three sides and Chelsea’s reinvigorated form under Maurizio Sarri means that Arsenal have no time to feel sorry for themselves. A solid performance yielding at least one point at Anfield is vital to them keeping pace in the race for a Champions League place. The task will be far from easy as Jurgen Klopp has Liverpool playing as well as they ever have during his tenure on Merseyside.

The Gunners will enter the match with a defence still ravaged by injuries, and Emery will likely have to compensate for this by fielding a slightly weaker group in attack in the name of defensive solidity. A loss would drop them further out of the top four and with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer having an immediate positive impact on Manchester United’s form following the sacking of Jose Mourinho, the Red Devils could find themselves within striking distance of fifth place. Unai Emery will be desperate to avoid this at all costs, and should the Gunners pull out an unexpected win on Merseyside this weekend, they could ensure that, for another year at least, the 2003/04 Invincibles’ achievement remains unequaled.

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