Ultimately, a point was no less than Brighton deserved, and no more than Arsenal deserved. A capacity Boxing Day crowd of over 30,000 was treated to a gripping and undulating encounter in which the home side threw everything at a feeble Arsenal in the second half, and after an opening quarter in which they arguably should have lost the game, arguably should have won it.
Unai Emery’s men, meanwhile, climbed momentarily into the top four, but it was hard not to see this as an opportunity missed for them. Tottenham, so convincingly beaten in the north London derby, are now seven points clear of them. Liverpool at the top, 13. And uncharacteristically for a team that has ended games so strongly this season, they seemed to disappear from this one the longer it went on, a side airbrushing itself from its own performance.
What was really happening, of course, was that Arsenal were lathering themselves into incoherence. Exhorting and urging his side on from the touchline, beginning in a 4-4-2 diamond and ending in a sort of 3-4-2-1, Emery’s tinkering has won them many games this season, but seemed merely to confuse them here. They are a team still yet to settle, still searching for a method, an ideology, still giving up far too chances: a team of exclamation marks in desperate need of some commas and full stops.
A simple long ball seems enough to unpick them at the moment, and driven by the superb Davy Propper, Brighton produced many of those: equalising from a defensive corner, an innocuous clearance made to look like a Patriot missile by the wretched Stephan Lichtsteiner. At the other end, the returning Shane Duffy was imperious in the absence of his defensive partner Lewis Dunk, holding the fort with impeccable positioning and in surprising comfort.
The first period was itself a half of two halves: Arsenal putting on a consummate show in the first 20 minutes before suddenly and inexplicably releasing their grip. There was a strange and comical listlessness to Brighton in that opening quarter, the splaying limbs and glazed expressions of a team who knew they were there for some reason, but couldn’t for the life of them pin down what it was. As Chris Hughton shouted himself hoarse on the touchline, Pascal Gross played a quick pass to Solly March, who wasn’t even looking, and glanced just in time to see the ball trickling out for a throw. It was grim.
Arsenal, meanwhile, were doing pretty much what they wanted. They led from the seventh minute, Aubameyang curling home a delicious first-time finish after a Brighton penalty-box omnishambles and some good work from Alex Lacazette. But in truth, they should have been further ahead: twice Aubameyang was denied by the flexed fingertips of Mat Ryan, keeping Brighton in the game until his team-mates arrived.
Finally, in twos and threes, they began to show. Gross had a go from distance. There was a disallowed goal for Glenn Murray after a lovely expansive move, sweeping from flank to flank like a paintbrush. Davy Propper played a sumptuous pass to March, who was beginning to enjoy himself. Somehow, even as Arsenal continued to dominate possession and enjoy the odd chance, Brighton were beginning to wipe them clean, stripping away the layers of shimmer and glitter and exposing the cracks and flaws beneath.
Ten minutes from half-time, a harmless long ball was sufficient to undo them. It came from Propper, looking for the hopeful run of Murray but swirling instead into the orbit of Lichtsteiner, faced with the choice of clearing the ball or guiding it back to Bernd Leno. He did both. He did neither. Lichtsteiner’s weak flick merely diverted the ball into the path of Jurgen Locadia, who dabbed the ball past the onrushing Leno and slotted it into a deserted net to level the match.
Emery responded with his now-customary half-time punishment beating, withdrawing Mesut Ozil for Alex Iwobi. But it was Brighton who began the second half the better side, causing Arsenal plenty of pain with long diagonal balls towards Lichtsteiner and Sead Kolasinac. March drew a bundling low save from Leno. Propper punted the ball just wide.
Seeing his side going nowhere, Emery switched horses yet again: Aaron Ramsey on for Lacazette, Ainsley Maitland-Niles on for Koscielny, from a back four to a back three. But it was Brighton who continued to make the running: March lifting the ball over the bar when put through one on one, Locadia dragging wide after another lightning counter-attack. Full-time came for Arsenal with a certain unwelcome relief: a point that might easily have been none, a performance that plenty of uncomfortable questions. Next up: Anfield on Saturday, and a trip to the unbeaten Premier League leaders. Arsenal need to find some answers quickly.
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