Seagulls halt tepid Arsenal’s top four challenge
Saturday, 4th May 2019
FA Premier League
ARSENAL 1 (Aubameyang 9 pen)
BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION 1 (Murray 61 pen)
AARON Ramsey was in a drizzle of tears at the end, the final match of his eleven season stint as an Arsenal player had come to an end and it was time to say goodbye to the Emirates Stadium. Sad, it was a kind of break-up moment where partners look back on all the things they had planned to do but never did: never went olive picking in Italy, never bought that cottage in Whitstable… never won the Premier League.
We want you to stay came the forlorn cry from the half empty Clock End as presentation boxes were handed out and Ramsey had a hug from each of the team mates with whom he has been on a journey of adventure, hope but, perhaps if everybody is honest, played alongside during a period of frustration and air of unfulfilled promise.
Players and fans cried it out together, another favourite leaving with a sense that even a man who had scored two FA Cup final winning goals for the club could have been decorated even further. Petr Cech and Danny Welbeck were waved off too, but the emotion was for the sobbing Welshman.
This was meant to be a warm farewell to Ramsey, who clearly has a deep rooted affection for Arsenal, before his move to Juventus, where he will be paid wages at a scale that the Gunners could not – or will not – come close to paying. Because the Italian club will not be paying a transfer fee, they will credit Ramsey’s bank account instead.
But after the exasperating 90 minutes which the home fans had just watched, his departure, whatever the numbers involved, could only seem like another self-inflicted wound: lost to Palace, lost to Wolves, lost to Leicester, couldn’t beat Brighton and, oh yes, for good measure your longest-serving star is leaving too. Have a nice summer, folks, see you in August for more.
If he had been fit, of course, Ramsey was exactly the kind of player who might have saved Arsenal in the final 30 minutes when they needed a goal to defeat a team placed 17th in the league, in order to take what has been a comically inadequate race for the top four and Champions League qualification to the final day.
Instead, Alex Iwobi was summoned from the bench, overshoooting crosses and getting himself tangled up on the wing, never really there with the end product; the young man’s inconsistency could singularly represent Arsenal’s whole league programme if used as a case study.
One point from the last 12, it is a measure of how poorly Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester United have been that Unai Emery’s side were in with a reasonable sniff until this late on in the season. Goals from Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have kept the show just about on the road, but the strikers must look back down the field, see how often their good work is undone by needless errors, and wonder where the project at Ashburton Grove is really going.
This was the case today: Aubameyang converted a ninth minute penalty after Nacho Montreal was, disputedly, brought down by Alireza Jahanbakhsh. Arsenal tried to build on this early advantage but were repeatedly repelled by Mathew Ryan in the Brighton goal or squeezed out by the excellent Albion defensive pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy, the sort of die-for-the-ball defenders which Arsenal have missed in the heart of their own rearguard all season.
Then as has been typical, the lack of a second goal in what has to be said was a listless stadium, oddly quiet given what was at stake, led to a bit of disenchantment, then complacency and then a familiar lack of focus. Granit Xhaka was wildly chasing down a counter attack when he brought Solly March to the ground with both knee and arm.
March may have even overrun the ball, and getting up from this needless foul Xhaka looked sheepish, offering no arguments against the award of a penalty. Glenn Murray sent Bernd Leno the wrong way to level the score.
Leno made a fantastic save from March later on and Brighton’s Pascal Gross will wonder how he clattered the loose ball out for a throw-in when the goal was gaping.
But it was Arsenal pushing for the winner in the final minutes, knowing anything less would condemn them to an avoidable finish below both Chelsea and Spurs. Aubameyang thrashed a karate kick shot wide and Lacazette was again foiled by Ryan after juggling the ball over his shoulder and shooting from close range.
Rather than Mesut Ozil or Iwobi shoving the ball around, however, the home fans would surely have wanted Ramsey’s forward drives at this critical time. When the final whistle went, some Arsenal players fell to their knees as if it had finally dawned on them that they had now blown four chances to compete for a podium finish on the final day.
The only route back into Europe’s elite competition is to win the Europa League, but Valencia – who won 6-2 away from home in La Liga today – remain an obstacle later this week and a final, probably against Chelsea, would be treacherous London derby holding no guarantees.
The prospect of finishing behind Chelsea, who have been just as underwhelming this season, and losing a European final against them as well might just be too much to take for the Arsenal fans who booed the team from the field today; the ranks who did not even wait to say goodbye to Ramsey.
Such is the see-saw nature of football, a whole positive assessment of Arsenal’s first new manager in two decades sort of hangs on that not being the ultimate outcome. Emery was asked whether securing Champions League football was a financial factor on the club’s recruitment plans for the summer, but he said it was not the time to talk about such a suggestion. He might not want to, but many were on the way home.
ARSENAL: Leno, Lichtsteiner (Kolasinac 77), Monreal, Sokratis, Mustafi, Xhaka (Iwobi 77), Torreira, Mkhitarayan (Guendouzi 77), Ozil, Aubameyang, Lacazette
SUBS NOT USED: Cech, Elneny, Koscielny, Nketiah
BRIGHTON & HOVE ALBION: Ryan, Bruno Saltor, Bernardo, Dunk, Duffy, Stephens, Gross (Kayal 90+2), Bissouma, Jahanbakhsh (Knockaert HT), March, Murray (Andone 78)
SUBS NOT USED: Balogun, Bong, Button, Locadia