Another game, another winless result for Arsenal.
The Gunners once again failed to pick up a crucial win as they came away with a 2-1 home defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion. The result extends the team’s winless streak in all competitions to nine, which is their worst run since 1977, according to Opta. They also have not won a Premier League fixture since October, when they beat Bournemouth by a 1-0 score.
There were a few minor positives to takeaway from this game but for the most part, it is clear interim manager Freddie Ljungberg has work to do when it comes to revamping the team’s tactical approach.
Arsenal found no rhythm against Brighton’s press
Throughout the game, it was clear Brighton wanted to play to their strengths of pressing and countering the opponent in open space. They are a team known for orchestrating aggressive high pressing setups with a knack on progressing upfield immediately after successfully winning back the ball. For Ljungberg, Brighton’s pressing plan should not have been a surprise.
Graham Potter’s side rank among the best in the Premier League when it comes to winning back possession via pressing. According to Understat, they came into this fixture with a 9.06 passes allowed per defensive action in the opposition half rate (PPDA), which ranked 5th in the league and two spots above Arsenal’s 9.54 mark. But against Arsenal, they finished with an impressive 8.39 mark.
Brighton have had success with their pressing approach, but there are drawbacks considering opponents can exploit open space through the center. Yet, it seemed as if Arsenal were not prepared to counter Brighton’s pressing setup. Time and time again, Arsenal found themselves looking lost and without a clear plan in mind on how to continually work their way into the final third. This not only made it extremely difficult to evidently create goal-scoring chances, but it also provided Brighton with opportunities to overload and push players towards the ball carrier when in Arsenal’s own half.
Overall, according to WhoScored, Arsenal lost possession 12 times in their own half. One of those 12 losses of possession came on this sequence, from the very first minute of the game. See here how Aubameyang provides Bellerin with a passing option out on the flanks. Due to Brighton’s high press, they are able to send a trio of players to challenge Aubameyang and are able to prevent him from accelerating to the middle third. Within seconds, Brighton retrieve possession after a poor pass from Aubameyang.
Brighton maintained and sustained their pressing setup even up to the 81st minute after they scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal. As show here, once again, they win back possession in the middle third thanks to their successful effort of covering up any available space around Nicolas Pepe in the final third. It was crystal clear Brighton were not going to allow open space down the flanks for wingers or fullbacks to freely navigate through.
Credit must go to Potter’s side for success in continually winning back possession in manageable areas on the pitch; they had a game plan and stuck with it throughout the game. On the other hand, Arsenal failed to formulate any sort of tactical approach to negate Brighton’s press.
Joe Willock struggles as the team’s main CAM
To say that Joe Willock underperformed as the team’s central attacking midfielder against Brighton is an understatement. In fact, it was arguably one of his worst performances of the season.
Willock was essentially non-existent when it came to assisting the team in their progression of play upfield. His poor positioning and ball control often held back the team. In short, he did not offer much when it came to maneuvering in between Brighton’s midfield lines and countering their compact pressing setup. Even in situations where Brighton were out of their pressing setup, Willock was not able to take advantage by successfully driving possession into the box on quick transitions.
One of Willock’s objectives in the first half was to drop deep out on the flanks and provide passing options for the ball carrier, such as when fullbacks Kolasinac and Bellerin controlled possession. Out of his 22 total touches, 12 of them came on or alongside the flanks. However, the 20-year-old did not alleviate the pressure off of the fullbacks or wingers when building up play against Brighton’s high pressing system.
For example, see here how Willock is able to drop deep from his space in the center to out wide on the flanks. He is able to get a touch on the ball but failed to corral it under the tight space around him. Thanks to the double-team marking from Brighton, they are able to once again patrol upfield after winning the ball in Arsenal’s own half.
Willock lost possession on 10 out of his 22 total touches (45%) according to SofaScore. This is not what you want at all from the main central attacking midfielder -- a role which calls for the player to be the go-to creative catalyst on the pitch.
To Ljungberg’s credit, he made the right substitution at halftime, bringing in Nicolas Pepe for Willock. The moved pitted Pepe out on the wing while Ozil slotted into the number 10 role.
Defensive woes continue
Opponents continue to have superb offensive performances against Arsenal’s vulnerable defensive setup, which has been the theme of the season.
Brighton came into this fixture averaging 12 shots per game according to WhoScored. But against Arsenal, they totaled for 20 shots with nine of them on target. It was not as if Brighton were looking to test goalkeeper Bernd Leno by launching low percentage shots from outside the box. As a matter of fact, 15 of Brighton’s 20 shots came from inside the box, which was six more than Arsenal’s total for the game.
As mentioned, Arsenal lost possession 12 times in their own half over the course of the game, which often put the defense in difficult situations against Brighton’s quick counters. Led by attackers Neal Maupay and Aaron Connolly, Brighton’s attackers sought to not only anticipate when the team was about to win back possession but also position themselves over an open area of space when in the final third. Whether it was via the flanks, half-space or center, Brighton were relentless in their pursuit to create goal-scoring chances on transitions or quick counter-attacks.
Through the two games, it is clear the issues that were paramount under Emery are still prevalent now in the Ljungberg era. While it has only been two games, Ljungberg must quickly figure out which tactical approach works best for his team, before they continue to freefall down the league table.