Arsenal should be one point behind Tottenham now with one game left, breathing heavily down the back of their necks, ready to exploit one final stumble and steal that final Champions League spot.
But they are not.
This 1-1 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion is a terrible result for Unai Emery’s team, failing to exploit Spurs’ disastrous defeat at Bournemouth yesterday, only making up one point rather than three. Now Arsenal need an extremely unlikely combination of results to come fourth: a big win away at Burnley, while hoping that Spurs lose badly at home to Everton. Neither of those are likely.
So Arsenal’s top four hopes are effectively over, and now Champions League football can only be won in Baku at the end of the month. Given Spurs’ relegation form – 10 points from their last 11 league games – that represents a failure from this team to make up the gap. And this game summed up why they are going to finish fifth at best. They do not create enough. They are too reliant on their strikers. They do not control games, and they make mistakes at the back.
When Arsenal took the lead it felt like they had the game exactly where they wanted it. They had started the game on the front foot, switching to an aggressive 4-4-2 and even then pushing the full-backs up. Against Brighton you do not need to leave too many men back.
So Aresnal attacked in numbers and it did not take long for those numbers to tell. Nacho Monreal – in for Sead Kolasinac – broke into the box and got the wrong side of Ali Jahanbakhsh. When the Iranian reached out to tackle, he got the ball and Monreal. In real time it looked like a penalty and so Anthony Taylor gave it, even though replays showed it might have been more complex than that.
But Aubameyang tucked away his penalty kick and Arsenal were away. That was his 20th Premier League goal of the season, the first Arsenal player to achieve that landmark since the heyday of Alexis Sanchez. Everything good about Arsenal this season, their staying power in this race for fourth, their long run in the Europa League, owes to Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. And no-one else.
This was a game for the rest of the Arsenal team to step up, to follow in Aubameyang’s good work, and take the pressure off the front two for a change. But it did not work out like that. Instead this felt more like a showcase of the other issues in this Arsenal team, the ones that even their two brilliant strikers cannot fix by themselves. Sokratis was implausibly booked for diving. Bernd Leno scuffed a simple kick out and nearly set up Glenn Murray. One Pascal Gross corner flew past everyone, and just beyond the far post.
Arsenal needed a second to put Brighton away but Mat Ryan got down well to Aubameyang’s effort from Mesut Ozil’s cross. Another Ryan save from Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s long range effort meant that the game remained teetering at 1-0 at the break, for all of Arsenal’s dominance.
And it cost them. Because Brighton were still alive and Arsenal were never clever enough or solid enough to hold them off. Solly March was causing problems with his forward running, playing a sharp one-two with Glenn Murray and forcing another Leno save.
And the next time to charged forward, breaking down the left, he bought the error that turned the game. Granit Xhaka thought about fouling him, decided against it, but could not change his mind quick enough to get his hands away.
Just one slight touch on the shoulder was enough for March to go down. Glenn Murray converted the penalty.
Now Arsenal were in a mess of their own making and they could not turn it around. Aubameyang volleyed wide from a Mkhitaryan cross.
Arsenal appealed desperately for two late penalties, but neither were given. Their afternoon ended in bitter frustration, seeing their top four hopes collapse.
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