Arsenal’s wretched week leaves Champions League return a fading hope

Mikel Arteta must be wishing the Premier League’s return had been put off by another week as this has been about as bad a restart as he could have feared to endure.

Two games, two defeats, five goals conceded and three more injuries, two of them serious, to add to a growing treatment list. It has all made for a miserable few days.

Hector Bellerin confronts Martin Atkinson

The Gunners are six points behind fifth-placed Manchester United and will be 11 adrift of the top four if Chelsea win at Aston Villa on Sunday. Victories for Burnley and Crystal Palace will see them drop to 11th in the Premier League table.

As a Champions League return slips further from their grasp, Arteta can be under no illusions: his team are a long way short of the quality required to compete at Europe’s highest level.

The injuries to Granit Xhaka and Pablo Mari against Manchester City, and David Luiz’s red card, were misfortunes Arteta could not have seen coming but the performance at the Etihad Stadium was still alarmingly meek for a team with aspirations of competing with the champions sooner rather than later.

Similarly, no amount of preparation from the Gunners head coach could have softened the blow of seeing Bernd Leno carried off on a stretcher in the first half against Brighton and Hove Albion, the goalkeeper having apparently done some serious knee damage after colliding with Neal Maupay.

The trouble is Arsenal’s inability to respond to setbacks. They were accused of having a soft underbelly long before Arteta replaced Unai Emery in December, but the former Man City assistant has not yet managed to address the problem.

Brighton started the day as the only team without a Premier League win in 2020 and with just two in all competitions since early November, one of which came at Emirates Stadium, but they were a match for Arsenal throughout.

The visitors threatened fleetingly through Nicolas Pepe, Bukayo Saka, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but Mat Ryan kept at bay anything they threw his way.

Aubameyang’s one and only clear chance was finished with aplomb but chalked off for offside, his resigned expression as he jogged back into position a fitting one for a top-class forward who is wondering whether his remaining peak years would be better spent elsewhere.

Arsenal finally produced a moment of genuine quality when Saka found Pepe, who cut onto his left foot and curled a sublime shot over Ryan’s head. It was his seventh Gunners goal – his first outside London – and brought Saka to 11 assists for the season. These two, at least, appear to be getting better as the 2019-20 campaign stretches onwards.

But few consider a win to be safely in Arsenal’s hands when the scoreline reads 1-0, and so it proved again. They fell asleep at a corner and Lewis Dunk squirmed the ball over the line for the 13th goal Arteta’s men have conceded from set-pieces in the league this season.

As a draw seemed safe, Maupay completed his villainous turn, dummying a pass to Aaron Connolly, collecting the return and finishing past Emiliano Martinez as the clock reached 94 minutes and 26 seconds.

Arsenal were furious when the final whistle went just after they had won a corner, probably showing more determination in those fruitless appeals to referee Martin Atkinson than at any stage of the match. Their season is fizzling out fast and it is hard to see any quick fix that will let them close the gap to the best in England and Europe.

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