Arsene Wenger admitted a top-four finish for Arsenal was now “nearly impossible” after the Gunners woes deepened following the 2-1 loss away to Brighton in the Premier League on Sunday.
Their fourth successive loss in all competitions fanned the flames of an already-intense debate surrounding the future of Arsenal manager Wenger, amid reports of players’ meetings and of a weakening in boardroom support for the Frenchman, who has reigned largely unchallenged since taking over at the north London club back in 1996.
Arsenal’s eighth loss since the turn of the year left them 13 points adrift of the fourth place that will secure automatic qualification for next season’s elite and lucrative Champions League.
– ‘Different worries’ –
“It is very difficult, nearly impossible now, we are too far behind,” Wenger told the BBC when asked about Arsenal’s top-four prospects.
“We need two teams to collapse, not one. But at the moment we have different worries in how to come back to winning a game,” he added following a match that saw Brighton move seven points clear of the bottom three.
Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech tried to ease the pressure on Wenger by saying he was responsible for both of Brighton’s goals scored by Lewis Dunk and Glenn Murray in a first half where Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pulled one back for Arsenal shortly before the break.
“If you want to win a game away from home in the best league in the world your GK (goalkeeper) can’t concede 2 goals like I did today,” former Chelsea favourite Cech tweeted. “It’s simply not possible … The team fought back but the damage was done.”
If ever Wenger needed his side to make a solid, composed start to the game, this was it.
Having been outplayed in back to back 3-0 defeats by Manchester City, first in the League Cup final and then, four days later, in the league fixture at the Emirates Stadium, the Gunners badly needed a lift ahead of Thursday’s Europa League meeting with AC Milan.
Instead Arsenal betrayed the defensive frailties that have been a feature of their campaign and allowed Brighton to take control.
It took Chris Hughton’s side just seven minutes to open up the Arsenal backline, with Ezequiel Schelotto’s powerful run down the left eventually leading to Pascal Gross’s cross forcing a corner.
Gross then delivered the set-piece toward the far post where Shane Duffy rose above Cech’s unconvincing attempt to punch and headed down for defensive partner Dunk to hook home.
The goal triggered the first chants of “you’re getting sacked in the morning” directed at Wenger from the home supporters but alarmingly for the manager, prompted little response from his side.
Instead, Arsenal were repeatedly pushed back with Cech forced to save well from Gross before Dunk wastefully headed over the bar.
Arsenal’s lacklustre display was summed up by the way Alex Iwobi was easily dispossessed inside his own half by Anthony Knockaert who was denied only by another good save from Cech.
Worse was to come for Arsenal in the 26th minute when Laurent Koscielny gave the ball away before Shkodran Mustafi could not reach Gross’s pinpoint cross, allowing Murray a free header that the striker directed past Cech for his 11th league goal of the season.
– Nervous Brighton –
Aubameyang’s reply, shortly before half-time, had the effect of quietening those fans who had taunted Wenger and injected a sense of nervousness into Brighton’s play.
The former Borussia Dortmund striker reacted well to turn home Granit Xhaka’s drilled pass in the 43rd minute and Arsenal might have been level had Laurent Koscielny not headed against the post in first-half added-time.
The interval came at the right time for Brighton and while the Seagulls didn’t develop the same momentum at the start of the second period, they again showed they could stretch the Arsenal defence.
The Gunners, though, stood firm and with Mesut Ozil becoming more prominent, stepped up their efforts to find an equaliser.
Ozil had been quiet in the first half but a powerful run and shot brought a fine save from Mat Ryan before the German’s threaded pass almost let in Aubameyang for his second goal. But that was close as Arsenal came to an equaliser.