After a routine win against a lowly Chelsea side, it was only natural that Brighton would provide the matchday dose of hardship that we as fans can’t seem to escape. As the first of five “winnable” (heavy, heavy emphasis on winnable) games on paper, it was absolutely essential to build on that performance in any way possible, such is the fragility of our momentum after such a torrid run of form. On this occasion, it wasn’t so much what Brighton did to make life difficult but rather what Arsenal weren’t able to do on the day.
It’s hard to say how much of our efforts against Chelsea were to blame for the lethargic snap-back in the first half, but given the immediate response after the interval, it would be fair to say it wasn’t much of an excuse. That response would also suggest that Arteta didn’t put a foot wrong with his team selection, the only question mark being whether Lacazette deserved to be dropped after serving as an effective piece of our front line puzzle, but Arteta revealed it was down to a “small issue” with him. It was also a convenient way to bring Aubameyang back into the fore in a kinder fixture than Chelsea, or indeed Sam Allardyce’s West Brom.
It’s been a recurring theme in the last 11 games that we start games slowly, with our only 2 wins in that period coming against United and Chelsea – two games where our front-foot approach was the right foundation to go on and win. In that time, we were also blown away by Aston Villa, and struggled in the first halves against Southampton, Everton and Spurs. In some Premier League fixtures, it can sometimes feel like slow starts are a circumstance of “dull” fixtures but what’s been made abundantly clear to our misfortune is there are no easy fixtures this season and we can’t afford any complacency. It also lends some credence to the idea that certain complacent characters that have been absent for the last two matches played their part in our recent misfortune.
Under Potter, Brighton are a side happy in possession but with no naturalised striker on the field, their intentions to frustrate were made clear and ultimately, their approach felt like the perfect counter-balance. With a day’s less rest, it was also perfectly understandable. The low block and our hesitancy turned out to be the perfect recipe for a complete non-entity of a first half, despite the efforts from some of the usual suspects to create something from nothing.
Whatever was said in the dressing room at half time clearly had an effect and one consolation to this recurring problem is, much like the water breaks, Arteta has proved his ability to exact real changes in the way we play during the 90 minutes. The ultimate question is “why can’t they start like that?” but I’m inclined to agree with Arteta’s evaluation of the first half, which was that it “took us a while to understand how we had to attack this block”. Every game is different and where Chelsea weren’t up to the task of our intensity, Brighton’s organisation asked different questions and sometimes that takes time to unlock.
The response was a change in intensity and a return to the kind of forward ambition we’d shown against Chelsea, with Smith Rowe brilliantly creating an opportunity for Martinelli and Aubameyang denied from close range. This effort seemed to divide opinion, with some saying he missed a sitter and others chalking it up like the stars aligning; the keeper just happened to be in the right place and Aubameyang just so happened to be coming into the box at pace and was limited for options. In reality, I think we should just be happy to be creating a good number of chances again because on another day, that flies into the net and I don’t think it’s overly representative of some of Aubameyang’s recent problems.
Despite the early signs of a blossoming left wing triangle between Tierney, Martinelli and Smith Rowe, it was Martinelli who made way to accommodate Lacazette and he rolled back the years within seconds (that’s not to say he’s in any way old, I’ve just missed his confidence and clinical finishing). As good as the finish was though, the goal was all about the architect, without whom we’d be in a considerably worse state. It always felt like a matter of time that one of the two Brighton fullbacks would be their undoing, with Tierney also breezing past his opposite number on several occasions, but when Saka received the ball on the half way line with his back to goal, his first thought – as it so often is – was to drive. When the space opened up, he carried on driving and still managed to get his head up with plenty of time to perfectly pick out Lacazette.
Since the start of last season, he’s has notched up 15 assists in all competitions and he’s only 19. That’s Fàbregas levels of creativity given his age, and it’s made all the more impressive by the variety of positions he’s been asked to play, all without a hint of fuss. The real irony is that what initially looked like his worst position on the right wing is looking increasingly comfortable and effective. That’s also two Man of The Match awards in a row.
Once we had the lead, it became a matter of closing the game out, which has so often been Arteta’s path to victory rather than pressing home the advantage. It also seems to be right up Holding’s street, playing with your backs against the wall, and his defensive partner in Mari had another tidy performance alongside.
Those next 4 fixtures have the chance to propel us back into some kind of relevance, and with the likes of Partey returning and the prospect of some new arrivals, there’s real motivation and potential to regain some ground (and dignity). I’ll believe that when I see it though.
- West Brom (A) – 2nd January
- Crystal Palace (H) – 14th January
- Newcastle United (H) 18th January
- Southampton (A) – 26th January