Mikel Arteta blasted another “really poor” first half from his Arsenal team as a second defeat in a week further dented their top-four hopes.
The Arsenal boss had called for a reaction from his side after Monday’s 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace but a 2-1 loss at home to Brighton saw them miss the chance to move up to fourth again. Later on Saturday, rivals Tottenham moved three points clear in the final Champions League qualifying spot with a 4-0 win at Aston Villa.
The Gunners were once again below-par in the opening 45 minutes, trailing to Leandro Trossard’s strike, and fell further behind after the break to Enock Mwepu’s half-volley.
It wasn’t until Martin Odegaard’s long-range deflected strike pulled one back in the 89th minute that Arsenal really stepped up the intensity but, as Arteta conceded, by then it was too late.
Afterwards, he criticized his side’s lack of reaction to Monday night and their inability to impose themselves on the match, particularly in the first half.
“The first half was really poor again,” he said. “The reaction that we wanted to show and everything we talked about we didn’t make it happen on the pitch.
“We were sloppy with the ball, we were second best in a lot of situations, we didn’t show any purpose or build any momentum in the game, we didn’t play with the right speed and transform the game Brighton proposed today and the first chance – the only chance they had – they scored a goal.
“We created a cold atmosphere we were uncomfortable with. When we tried to change it, it was great not to give up but it was too late.
“The fans were here and again they were exceptional. You can see the moment we gave them something… but we played a game that you could not see the purpose, the intention of what the team was trying to do. We didn’t give them anything in the first half and that is down to us.
“It was not a problem of attitude, it was a problem of courage we showed to play and we didn’t have that purpose. We didn’t have that intention to attack and step in and provoke the situation we wanted to. We were looking at each other too many times instead of taking ownership and doing what we have to do. You can’t play like that.”
It was another ineffective performance from striker Alexandre Lacazette, who has failed to have a shot on target in any of the last four games, but Arteta insisted the Gunners’ attacking problems were a “collective issue”.
However, he accepted the tactical change he’d made for the match, with Emile Smith Rowe in a slightly deeper role and the decision to field Granit Xhaka at left-back and drop the out-of-form Nuno Tavares hadn’t worked as he’d hoped.
“The spaces we wanted to attack, it fitted Emile to play that position and because we thought the space would be there for Granit to use, which it was. But we didn’t use it.”
That was a big moment because that would have changed the game. The momentum and the energy. When you’re not playing so well you need something to go your way and we hit the bar twice and the keeper made some excellent saves. It didn’t happen but it’s down to us.
That change had been forced by an injury to Kieran Tierney, while Thomas Partey’s absence in midfield is adding to Arteta’s problems.
With Chelsea, Manchester United and West Ham to come in three of their next four games, Arsenal have a lot of work to do to make the Champions League spots, after looking favorites to finish in the top four a few weeks ago.
Discussing the task ahead, Arteta said: “With all the team available we knew how difficult the challenge was. Those two injuries make the situation more complicated. But we can’t look at that because we can’t be looking for excuses. What happened today is down to us, the players we have and the way we prepared the game.
“What happens next? We criticize ourselves a lot because we deserved to [lose] because we were really poor first half and lift ourselves up.
“We know this road is taking us nowhere, especially where we want to be. We have everything to play for in the last eight games. We have to have that level of energy and visualize the beautiful challenge we have ahead, don’t sit back and let’s see what happens.”
The week Arsenal’s top-four hopes ended?
Sky Sports’ Peter Smith:
Only a couple of weeks ago it felt as though Arsenal were favorites to land fourth place and a long-awaited return to the Champions League. But in the space of six days their hopes of returning to Europe’s top club competition have suffered a significant blow.
The defeat to Crystal Palace on Monday Night Football was a bad one. Arsenal, harassed and harried by their London rivals, never got going and made costly mistakes. It was the worst performance they’d served up since the early weeks of the season.
A young side is prone to inconsistency, though, and the real issue was not that loss but how they’d respond. The answer Arsenal fans saw on Saturday would have alarmed them.
While Brighton didn’t bring the same frantic pressing style to the Emirates that Palace showed at Selhurst Park, Arsenal were still slow out of the blocks again, sloppy in possession and disjointed in attack, with the forced reshuffle caused by Thomas Partey’s absence and Nuno Tavares’ form not working.
Gabriel Martinelli was denied an equalizer by a marginal offside call on the stroke of half time but that would have been harsh on Brighton. It wasn’t until Martin Odegaard made it 2-1 in the 89th minute that Arsenal showed the required intensity levels.
With injuries, fixtures and points totals now counting against them, Arsenal have it all to do if they are to overhaul neighbors Tottenham in the race for fourth. Come the summer, they may look back on this week as the moment their encouraging season unraveled.
April 16 – Southampton
April 20 – Chelsea (a), live on Sky Sports
April 23 – Man United (h)
May 1 – West Ham (a), live on Sky Sports
May 8 – Leeds (h), live on Sky Sports
May 12 – Tottenham (a), live on Sky Sports
May 16 – Newcastle (a)live on Sky Sports
May 22 – Everton (h)