Freddie’s feckless Arsenal fail at the basics in Brighton beating

Ian Watson

New manager, same old Arsenal. Arguably, they were worse…

If Freddie Ljungberg’s honeymoon period wasn’t brought to an abrupt end at Carrow Road last weekend, it came to a screeching, shuddering halt at the Emirates on Thursday night. It was presumed that the mere twinkle in Ljungberg’s eyes would lift the doom and gloom that has hung above north London as a consequence of their worst start to a season since 1992, but a week into his caretaker reign, the dark clouds appear more set in than ever.

Getting shot of Unai Emery and his funny accent was seen by many as the first step towards raising spirits and standards at Arsenal, but two games into the new era, the Gunners are now the worst performing side since the late 1970s. As Ljungberg sat slumped in his seat in added time while the home supporters streamed through the exits, everyone aware the game was gone despite there being only a goal in it, the caretaker boss might have been forgiven for wondering what he has let himself in for.

Brighton turned up in north London on Thursday night never having won at Arsenal, but never will they have had it so simple. Graham Potter’s Seagulls showed why the manager has already earned a new contract, even if the results so far have not been as convincing, by controlling all but 15 minutes of a game the Arsenal players once more appeared to believe they could win simply by showing up.

Changing that mindset had to be towards the top of Ljungberg’s to-do list when he first sat behind Emery’s desk last Friday but, here again, we saw that Arsenal’s mentality is so fundamentally flawed that it is unlikely even the game’s greatest motivators could right that particular wrong in a week, much less so a rookie boss famed for his laidback outlook.

It would appear Ljungberg changed tack at half-time when his Arsenal players brought a 1-0 deficit back to the dressing room after an opening period during which Brighton doused what surprisingly little fire there was at kick-off among the home supporters, who went all of 45 minutes without booing their team. It took most of them perhaps half of that time to recognise that even though Emery had gone, their greatest problems remained. Those being the players on the pitch, and the board watching on from their plush seats in the directors box or in the United States.

Ljungberg, nor any other manager, can be expected to affect change above him but when it comes to the players he will look down upon this evening, that is exactly his remit. Six days in, it is already evident that he can’t change the players, so he or whoever follows him must change the players.

For this mob cannot seem to do the simplest things, those which are second nature to any top level side. Arsenal are capable of flashes of brilliance in attack, but as it was tonight, 15 minutes over 90 is not a platform for victory, nor is six or seven good games in a season sufficient to sustain the ambition Arsenal claim to have.

Ljungberg went back to basics with his team selection by trying to squeeze his best players into an XI. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil were trusted to hurt Brighton, but both were neutered on the flanks. Lucas Torreira was back in the holding midfield role at the expense of the all-action Matteo Guendouzi, left out of a Premier League XI for the first time this season, but the Uruguayan chased and harried the visitors as a lone wolf, with neither cover behind nor protection from up front. The defence Torreira was employed to screen was shorn of Shkodran Mustafi, but it looked no more secure for Sokratis’ presence.

It was between those lines where Brighton prospered. Potter’s men were able to play through the Gunners with ease while individuals pressed in isolation and units operated with scant regard for whatever else was going on around them. The result: Brighton had more possession, made more passes and attempted eight more more shots on goal than the hosts mustered from their disjointed approach play.

If the Emirates was once Jesse Lingard’s dancefloor, it is now Potter’s playground following the Brighton manager’s second win in two visits, first with Ostersunds and now with the Seagulls.

The Arsenal players will get pelters – and rightly so – for failing once more to protect their home patch, but the new management team must come under scrutiny too. Regardless of what platitudes Ljungberg offered in terms of getting back to the Arsenal way, the first thing any manager must do upon taking over a team on the slide like Arsenal is firm them up at the back. But there is no evidence Ljungberg or Per Mertesacker have worked on any element of Arsenal’s shape. David Luiz might think he knows it all, but the coaching staff have yet more conclusive evidence that he and his team-mates need to accept all the help they can get.

If Ljungberg is to take charge of Arsenal’s next seven matches, and all the signs suggest the Gunners have made few inroads in their search for a new manager, then he must guide the Gunners through meetings with three of their big six rivals as well as a couple of London derbies away from home and two more road trips. Any more performances as disjointed and disheartening as tonight will see a line drawn through his name on the ever-changing list of candidates, if it has not been already.

Ian Watson