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Arsenal moved level on points with Chelsea in the Premier League table with a relatively comfortable 2-0 win over newly promoted Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday afternoon. The victory continued the Gunners’ recovery following a shocking loss to Liverpool earlier this season.
Arsene Wenger’s side lined up in their now customary 3-4-2-1 system, with Alexis Sánchez and Alexandre Lacazette playing together as part of a front three that also featured Alex Iwobi. All three played a crucial role in ensuring the home side picked up all three points.
The former set up the second goal with an imaginative back-heeled through pass for Iwobi, who rifled his finish into the roof of the net with aplomb. Meanwhile, the French striker rattled the woodwork within the opening two minutes.
A first-half strike from versatile defender Nacho Monreal was, on top of Iwobi’s effort, enough to guarantee the win for Arsenal, though the match was not as routine as the scoreline suggested. Brighton defended well and posed the occasional counter-attacking threat.
Here, Football Whispers analyses the five major tactical takeaways from today’s game.
BRIGHTON HARD TO BREAK DOWN
Just as they did against Manchester City in their opening game of the campaign, Brighton proved themselves to be a resolute defensive force against Arsenal. Without the ball, they lined up in a 4-5-1 shape in which every single player – apart from lone striker Izzy Brown, at times – dropped back into their own half.
Operating in a deep block, Chris Hughton instructed his side not to press with any real aggression. Instead, their coverage was mainly position-oriented, meaning they focused on keeping their shape and moving as a unit as opposed to going man-for-man or moving in accordance to the Gunners’ ball possession. An example of their shape is seen below.
Their positional focus, combined with the aforementioned deep block and sheer numbers, congested space between the lines, making it difficult for Arsenal to play penetrative balls into the final third. Brighton were compact and organised throughout, and showed that intense pressing is not a necessity in good defending, as many Premier League pundits seem to think.
There was a small element of man-oriented marking in their defending. This was seen mainly through the central midfield three forming cover shadows on any opposition players that managed to get behind them, as well as the defensive line following their men. But this rarely led to any disorganisation.
ARSENAL POSSESSION PROBLEMS
While Brighton defended admirably and showed they will be a tough nut for any Premier League outfit to crack this term, Arsenal helped them in many ways. Many years ago, Arséne Wenger’s side were renowned for their fast counters and fluid attacking. It was exhilarating, incisive and successful, but such play is rarely seen from them nowadays.
The Gunners’ possession was far too slow, with many of their passes going sideways or out to the wings. Then, once out on the flanks, the backward pass was almost always the next move.
To disorganise a defensive unit such as Brighton’s, sideways passing must be done at a high tempo, while passes must be played through the block, rather than around it. However, Wenger’s men rarely switched play quickly enough, passed without purpose and too often their possession resembled the infamous ‘u-shape’ that is so hated by the likes of Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola.
Arsenal’s passing allowed the visitors to simply move side to side collectively, over short distances and at a slow pace, rarely unsettled. It’s no coincidence that the goals only came thanks to a goalmouth scramble and a magnificent bit of ingenuity from Sánchez.
BRIGHTON OFFER THREAT ON COUNTER
Sitting deep and counter-attacking efficiently are not closely related. Many teams do the former well but are unable to perform the latter task – they are either unable to break the opposition counter-press or are simply too unorganised to form coherent moves. The end result is often an aimless punt up the pitch, a recovery of possession by the opposition, and the waste of an attacking transition.
Brighton don’t appear to have such issues, however. Hughton’s side made good use of their compact defensive shape, exploiting the fact that, when they won back possession, they often had plenty of options around the ball.
The close proximity of players allowed Brighton to combine with one- and two-touch play, combining well and working the ball out wide to their fast wingers, José Izquierdo and Solly March, to run in behind an open Arsenal.
SÁNCHEZ IS BACK TO HIS BEST
Brighton may have counter-attacked well, but their attacking structure made it difficult to build moves from scratch in their offensive phase.
Dale Stephens played on the same line as the full-backs, Bruno and Gaëtan Bong, while the two outer central midfielders – Pascal Groß and Davy Pröpper looked to push on behind Arsenal’s midfield line. The movements of the midfield meant connections were few and far between, while they were also left open to a dangerous front three that included an in-form Sánchez.
The Chilean’s pace, skill and ceaseless work ethic were all on show today, and he exploited the visitors’ own possession issues, making two tackles and one interception. On top of that, he completed four dribbles and created a remarkable six chances, the best of which was his innovative back-heeled assist for Iwobi.
DUNK IS MORE THAN A CLASSIC CENTRE-BACK
As a 6ft 4ins centre-back playing at the heart of a back four in a deep defensive side who have just been promoted from the Championship, it would be easy for Lewis Dunk to be stereotyped as a classic English clunker. But he proved again today that he is so much more than that.
The 25-year-old evidenced astute reading of the game to make some crucial interceptions and blocks as Arsenal looked to counter. His positioning, aggression and decision-making were outstanding in those situations, while he also showed quality on the ball.
As well as some searching long-distance balls that hinted at a sound passing range, Dunk completed one dribble as he looked to bring the ball out from the back.