We might officially be at the point where some re-branding is required. Not Arsenal Football Club, but this column. After all, can I really continue calling this the “Man of the Match” award, when in reality it has become more of a “Try Hard” award, given to the player that least deserves shaming for their role in a losing effort. Unfortunately, a 4 game losing streak has a way of making everything seem more bleak, and a loss to Brighton, that much more so. Confidence is in short supply throughout the Arsenal squad, and they missed a golden opportunity on Sunday to get back on track before they travel to Milan for the first leg their all-important Europa League clash. With top 4 now just about out of reach, the competition represents Arsenal’s last great hope for a Champions League berth next season.
Petr Cech has come out since the 2-1 loss at the Amex Stadium to take responsibility for both of Brighton’s first half goals, but it was the same bad habits rearing their ugly head that forced Arsenal to play from behind for nearly the entire match. The first goal came from a corner kick that probably could have been played by the Czech international, but he was out-muscled by Shane Duffy, who nodded the ball into the path of his defensive partner, Lewis Dunk for the opening goal. Cech almost certainly should have come up with the save on Glenn Murray’s second goal, however, it was sloppy play out from the back that lead to the opportunity for Murray, and once again Arsenal was left to try and pick up the pieces of a match turned disastrous.
It would be a lie to suggest that the players didn’t give their all for Wenger, especially in the second half. They dominated to ball for the second 45 minutes, beating Brighton to nearly every lose ball and missing out on the draw because of a combination of bad luck and frenetic defensive intervention by the hosts. The Arsenal players sent a clear message in the second half that they might be down, beaten and humiliated, but they would not stop trying to get back into the match, despite the rampant frustrations throughout the team. The Gunners tone-setting performance in the second half was a group effort from the beleaguered team, but one player in particular gave a performance that showed both how much he has heard the supporters’ criticisms, and how much he wants to win himself: Granit Xhaka.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang deserves credit for elevating his work rate from the Manchester City clash just 3 days prior, but Xhaka looked like a man on a mission to prove his worth. As he started to do in the rematch with Manchester City on Thursday, Xhaka ran tirelessly in the second half against Brighton, closing down space in the midfield and fighting for every 50/50 ball. His undeniable lack of pace is less noticeable when he plays as he did on Sunday, finishing his challenges with an extra oomph and making sure no Brighton player would get by him without a considerable effort. Playing further forward than he often does when paired with Aaron Ramsey, he was a factor in Arsenal’s combination play at the edge of the Brighton area, and whenever the hosts would knock the ball clear of danger, Xhaka was there to recycle the ball back into the attack. There was one stretch of the second half where he was responsible for holding the ball in the Brighton end on 3 consecutive occasions, as he and his teammates desperately hammered away at their defences, trying to draw level.
Like every other player in the disappointing loss, Xhaka was far from perfect. His set piece delivery is too inconsistent at times to rely on, and when he gets caught out up the pitch by a counter attack, his lack of pace means that he will struggle to get back to help defend, but his is the kind of attitude and work rate that Arsene Wenger needs more of from his players, not less. Fans have vilified the Swiss international for much of the campaign for his apparent costly mistakes, but the whole team has struggled with poor decision making and costly turnovers throughout the season. In some ways it hasn’t been fair to Xhaka, whose contribution has been undervalued by many supporters who are disappointed in the player that he turned out to be. For some, his biggest crime will always be not being N’Golo Kante, the rangy defensive midfielder that joined Chelsea in the same summer he came to Arsenal, but this does a tremendous disservice to the quality that he does possess. He may never be the midfield destroyer that the diminutive Frenchman has been for Leicester City and Chelsea, but Granit Xhaka is your Arsenal “Man of the Match”, or as I am considering titling this piece for the rest of the season, the “Player Who Least Deserved Booing Off The Pitch”.