Arsenal – Brighton & Hove Albion: Gunners Are Finally Out Of Shots (0-3)
News of Manchester City’s win at Goodison Park had filtered its way to North London before kickoff, raising the stakes of the result of this contest. But this duel of two creative combatants only brought the playful instincts of one to the fore. Their class produced a crushing outcome at the business end of the season that has buried one dream and infused new life into another.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
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Arsenal have lost a grip on the top spot in the race for the Premier League title, but the thrill of their season is not over just yet. Defeat at the hands of Manchester City, marking a four match winless streak, has not produced an almighty collapse. A 3-1 triumph over Chelsea and a 2-0 victory over Newcastle United on the road have kept their aspirations of taking the crown for the first time in 19 years alive a little longer. Those dreams remain tied to the outcome of another demanding encounter.
Brighton are one of the few clubs that can rival the joys of their hosts in the last nine months. Records aplenty have tumbled. This outfit has scored 21 more goals and picked up three more points than the previous campaign. Roberto de Zerbi should surpass the top nine finish of Graham Potter, and more milestones are in sight. A 5-1 rout against Everton has spoiled any genuine prospects of Champions League qualification, but European away days are a real possibility for the first time in their history.
De Zerbi took off four men at half time in the loss to Everton and was eager to stir up a reaction in this fixture. Solly March was out of the fold with a hamstring injury, so he picked the eleven players that rounded off the action on Monday. Levi Colwill joined Lewis Dunk at the back. Billy Gilmour and Pascal Groß operated in the double pivot while Alexis MacAllister advanced into the number ten role. Julio Enciso stayed on the right flank, and Evan Ferguson was available to play as the striker.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was loyal to the pair of adjustments that have served him well in the last two games. Jakub Kiwior kept Rob Holding out of the back four, filling in on the right of Gabriel Magalhães, and Jorginho anchored the midfield in place of Thomas Partey. Kieran Tierney, another peripheral squad member, helped to manage the lead from the trip to St. James’ Park last week. He replaced Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left of the back four since his teammate sustained a calf injury.
Brighton’s man marking manages the midfield
The first half was a scrappy, interrupted encounter in which the foul count racked up to 17. One was a sliding tackle from Caicedo that raked down Martinelli’s left ankle, and the winger never retrieved his stride. In the end, he departed the pitch in the 20th minute, forcing Trossard, formerly a figure on the roster of the visitors, to enter the fray. Though the action in this fixture did not ebb and flow from the start, both outfits wished to compose themselves on the ball and construct attacks out from the back.
Martin Ødegaard had noted Brighton’s man to man pressing in defense as a strength of their game model. The bravery of the guests compelled them to stick to this approach. Aaron Ramsdale was a free man at the base of the offensive system, but transferring that freedom to his teammates was a challenge. Mac Allister and Ferguson blocked the center-backs, Gilmour stepped out to Jorginho, and Groß followed Granit Xhaka. If Ødegaard dropped deep in the right halfspace, Colwill was in pursuit.
Roberto De Zerbi: "The best example of courage was Colwill. We defended man to man and Colwill went 90 minutes to defend with Odegaard, 80 metres from Jason Steele. This is the courage." pic.twitter.com/vmnFndlPBN— Vince™ (@Blue_Footy) May 14, 2023
Brighton did not apply heavy pressure on the goalkeeper, but the proximity of markers complicated work in the buildup phase for the hosts. Arteta did not try to rely on a 3-2 structure to direct his men’s use of the ball. Instead, Ramsdale mainly looked for the forwards as a direct outlet. If Gabriel Jesus motioned deeper or to the sides, he pulled Lewis Dunk along with him, and the wingers were one on one with the fullbacks. The tandem of Bukayo Saka and Ødegaard carved out some problems from the right, but the deep threat lessened with the exit of Martinelli, and fluid automatisms were often absent.
Bait or be baited
Brighton’s craft under de Zerbi has built on the foundation of clean exits in the buildup phase. Their usual 4-2-4 structure materialized from the back. Arsenal reacted with a similar 4-1-4-1 pressing system to the one their manager deployed for the trip to the Etihad. Jesus split to the left, Xhaka oriented himself to Groß, and Ødegaard was in an encroaching role. He blocked off Gilmour, waited for the right time to commit to ball pressure, and jumped to attack Colwill. In these cases, Jorginho assessed the situation and pushed the screen forward from Mac Allister to Gilmour if necessary.
This strategy produced several regains and offensive transitions for the hosts to bag the first goal. Ødegaard slipped a reverse pass to Jesus in the right channel to fire an effort at Jason Steele, and Trossard hit the top of the bar from twelve yards out at the half hour mark. However, a lack of ruthlessness and late arrival at some off-ball assignments saw the success of this ploy not translate onto the scoreline. And when the visitors could break free, their risks generated great rewards.
12th minute: high press from Arsenal. Jesus sprints arcuately to close down Steele and Ødegaard’s careful encroachment triggers coverage on Gilmour. Xhaka is too late to shift laterally, so Groß is a free man to break the pressure. He then hits a deep pass for Enciso to chase and isolate Ben White.
The dropping of Mac Allister and Ferguson encouraged deep passes from Steele to access the wingers in the space to the outside of the fullbacks. Once Kaoru Mitoma and Enciso swapped flanks, this pattern was decisive. Mitoma was a nuisance for White from the left wing. He engineered the best chance before the break, shifting down the line and hitting a cutback to Enciso. His teammate missed the target, but the opponents did not heed the warning signal and paid the price in the 51st minute.
Colwill slung a long ball over the halfway line, searching for Mitoma. White was on his heels, falling back to track his opposite man. He slowed down the threat of a dribble, but Estupiñán marauded to his outside on the overlap into the final third. Tierney sent a looping header away from the six yard box to cut out the danger, but a second attempt at a delivery caught out the defense. Kiwior had gone down on his haunches, and Enciso struck, steering a headed effort beyond Ramsdale to open the scoring.
Julio and Pervis react to their goals, before La Joya has a special gift for his teammate. 🥰💙 pic.twitter.com/faRDBtMS1f— Brighton & Hove Albion (@OfficialBHAFC) May 14, 2023
Fighting a losing battle
Arteta put on Partey, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, and Emile Smith-Rowe to bring firepower and fresh legs to the field. Nelson was bright on the left flank, but the response paled in comparison to the work of the away team. The entry of Undav, Welbeck, and Facundo Buonanotte to the pitch did not affect Brighton’s rhythm. Expert use of third man combinations created openings time and again.
69th minute: classic third man combination from Brighton. Mitoma drops inside to offer a vertical option to Colwill, Mac Allister provides underneath support for a layoff and Estupiñán runs deep.
Arsenal’s efforts looked too laborious to level the scoreline— let alone snatch all three points at the death. Their guests duly put them out of their misery. Five allotted minutes were on the clock when Ramsdale fed a pass to Trossard in the buildup, triggering pressure from their opponents. A loosely flicked pass hit Groß, causing the ball to fly into the path of Undav. The striker ended up face to face with the goalkeeper, whom he lobbed with a coolly executed half volley to double the advantage.
Brighton compounded the agony in injury time. Undav rolled away from the double coverage of Kiwior and Saka, releasing Welbeck to carry the ball into enemy territory. The striker returned the favor, assisting a strike just outside the box. Ramsdale parried the shot to his right, where Estupiñán picked up the pieces to score his first goal for the club. The ever devoted Emirates faithful left in their droves. The belief had drained out of the stadium, and time had elapsed to rescue the title charge.
This defeat has now put to bed Arsenal’s aspirations of finishing at the top of the table. The reigning champions can wrap up a third league title in a row with a victory at home to Chelsea next weekend. It is a familiar sinking feeling: two wins and nine points from their last seven outings have mimicked the end of last campaign. Arteta, the players, and the board can boast of significant progress in their project but must be even more efficient and streetwise to move onto the next phase of this process.
De Zerbi promised the real Brighton would respond in the visit to the Emirates, and he was right. Only City have beaten Arsenal on their home turf since the 2-1 triumph of the club at the stadium in April last year. It is another scalp on the road of the Big Six for the outfit from the south coast and another display in which the technique and courage of the players dominated proceedings. A place in the Europa League appears to be the most likely outcome of this journey, and what a ride it has been.
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