Mikel Arteta has always favored a pursed lips and gritted teeth approach to his press conferences, biting down on his disappointment like a wedge of lemon, but after watching his side’s bleak defeat by Brighton, Arsenal’s manager made no attempt to swallow his frustration. He questioned his players’ courage and lack of purpose, bemoaned an absence of leadership and reserved criticism for his own tactical mishaps, too. On the one hand, that was merely a natural reaction to a result that could yet prove so pivotal – and costly – in the top-four race. But perhaps it also betrayed the swirl of pressure that loomed over, in Arteta’s words, a “cold atmosphere” at the Emirates on Saturday, as optimism faded into a sinking realization that the pieces the Spaniard has wrestled so vigorously into place over the course of this season are still all too easily broken apart.
They had returned from the international break as favorites to pip Tottenham to the fourth Champions League spot. But what a second defeat in five days proved is that Arsenal’s greatest enemy may in fact still be themselves. Their implosion against Crystal Palace was timid and inexcusable, evoking memories of the previous unravelings Arteta had sought to eradicate. There was more heart on display in the frantic final few minutes against Brighton, as Arsenal desperately scrapped for a last-ditch equaliser, but it would have been more than they served against a side who’d not only failed to win any of their last seven league games but had managed to score just once during that dire spell. “We know this road is taking ourselves nowhere,” Arteta said afterwards. “Especially with where we want to be.”
Some will point to the bitterly unfortunate timing of injuries to Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey. It left Arteta backed into a corner against Brighton, with a doomed choice between deploying the calamitous Nuno Tavares or shifting Granit Xhaka to full-back and further unbalancing the midfield. He opted for the latter and it’s not unfair to suggest that decision backfired rather spectacularly, with Enock Mwepu able to emerge into the space Xhaka had abandoned and set up Leandro Trossard for Brighton’s opener.
Arsenal may begrudge that bad luck, but it was also the consequence of their calculated gamble in January. The decision not to reinforce the squad and loan out Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who would have been capable of playing at both full-back or as a holding midfielder, feels more questionable than ever, especially when considering the impact Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevksi have made at Spurs. Arsenal’s failure to sign a striker is providing an even greater hindrance. Alexandre Lacazette may have long lost his touch in front of goal but he had at least previously guaranteed a useful sense of industry that occupied defenders and created chances. The strain of carrying the burden up front seemed to have left the 30-year-old weary on Saturday and he was marked out of the game and remained virtually anonymous until the final whistle.
It is no surprise in Arsenal’s slow and volatile reinvention under Arteta that problems have punctured the wheels just as they had seemingly turned another corner. It has been a permanent theme to their progress and only come the end of the season can we truly judge how far they have moved forwards. This run of eight games, then, including that seismic north London derby on the penultimate weekend, perhaps represents the biggest gut check of Arteta’s reign to date.
After all, Arsenal were in a similar position not too long ago under Unai Emery. The top four were seemingly theirs to lose, only for successive defeats against Crystal Palace, Wolves and Leicester to obliterate those hopes. A thrashing in the Europa League final soon followed and Emery was out the door before the end of the year. Arsenal’s current situation may hardly feel as deteriorating as that, but it illustrates quite how quickly things can fall apart.
And so while a Southampton side winless in five should represent an ideal soft touch, there will be a torturous sense of jeopardy that underlines every Arsenal game from hereon in. There is no margin for error, especially when fixes against Chelsea, Manchester United and West Ham follow in quick succession. A flight at the top four could quite conceivably crash beyond even the top six. It’s not so much a run-in as a gauntlet and it will go on to determine whether Arsenal are ready to push out of the past, or if recent history remains destined to repeat itself in spite of all Arteta’s pained efforts.