LONDON — The double whammy of losing Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey was always going to pose tough questions for Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta, but he has to come up with a better answer than this.
Brighton – a smart but out-of-form side with one goal from seven games, six of them lost – deserved their 2-1 victory here at Emirates Stadium on Saturday as goals from Leandro Trossard and Enock Mwepu dealt a heavy blow. to the Gunners’ hopes of finishing in the Premier League’s top four.
Arsenal gave up the initiative in the race for Champions League qualification with two defeats in six days – and Arteta compounded the absence of two key players with a squad selection on Saturday that only helped a disjointed display.
Deploying midfielder Granit Xhaka at left-back to replace Tierney was a mistake. Xhaka has held the position before, but with Partey already out, the loss of the Swiss international’s passing range in midfield has only deepened the disconnect within the squad.
Albert Sambi Lokonga, on his first start since January 23, was asked to anchor a three-man midfield, providing defensive cover while allowing Arsenal to play from behind. The difficulty of this task was exacerbated by Xhaka’s absence from the same area of the pitch, which Arteta sought to rectify in the second half by encouraging Xhaka to drift into midfield when the home side were in possession of the ball.
Although there was a late rally from Arsenal, sparked by Martin Odegaard’s deflected long-range strike halving the deficit with 89 minutes played, this performance was a bit of a mess, far from structure and pace with whom they played at their best under Arteta.
They had their moments. Gabriel hit the side netting with a header from close range ahead of Trossard’s opener and Gabriel Martinelli was denied an equalizer on the stroke of half-time for offside. After Mwebu doubled the visitors’ lead with a superb goal with fine link-up play between Trossard and Moises Caicedo, Odegaard hit the crossbar with a free kick and substitute Eddie Nketiah did the same with the rebound.
But there has been a lack of cohesion and balance at Arsenal, which only underlines the difficulty they now face with such a small squad to make up for the absences of Tierney, who had knee surgery on Thursday, and Partey. due to a thigh problem.
“With the whole team available, we know how difficult the challenge ahead of us is,” Arteta said. “With these two big injuries it complicates the situation. We can’t look at this because we’re going to be looking for excuses, and what happened today is up to us with the players we have and how we we are prepared for the game.”
By eliminating Nuno Tavares at half-time against Crystal Palace, Arteta will have put more doubts in the mind of Tierney’s most logical understudy. Tavares was an unused substitute here but he will surely be called up at some point as his inclusion would allow Xhaka to return to his natural midfield role.
Cedric Soares could also be deployed at left-back once Takehiro Tomiyasu is fit again, but the Japan international will only return to full training following a calf problem after next weekend’s match at Southampton. Finding a way to bring Xhaka back to the heart of the team seems imperative after Saturday’s display. The cushion Arsenal had in the first four races is gone and Arteta has made no secret of the difficult moment they find themselves in now.
“What happens [now] criticize each other a lot,” he said. “Get a slap because we deserve it, because we were still really poor in the first half, and get back up because we know this road is going nowhere. share – especially where we want to be.
“We have everything to play in the last eight games. We have to have that level of energy and visualize the challenge – the beautiful challenge that we have in front of us and not sit back and see what happens.”
Alexandre Lacazette was once again a peripheral figure, now without a goal in open play since December 11. He touched the ball just 21 times – the fewest of any starter – and attempted just eight passes. His individual xG was 0.00. The only other Arsenal outfielder with the same white was Ben White, who was the subject of much derision from away fans after leaving Brighton in a £50m move l ‘last summer.
Nketiah and Nicolas Pepe have tried to make an impact off the bench as they have before but the lack of options Arteta has after the squad was streamlined in January focuses more on days like this .
Arsenal have shown they can overcome adversity this season. But the double loss of Tierney and Partey is one of their biggest obstacles to date.