Brighton push Arsene Wenger closer to Arsenal exit with 2-1 win
BRIGHTON, England -- Three thoughts on Brighton's 2-1 win over Arsenal in Sunday's early Premier League game.
1. Brighton push Wenger closer to the brink
Another Sunday afternoon brings another stage in the painful demise of Arsene Wenger's Arsenal tenure. His team might have salvaged a point here after a second half they dominated but instead, they lost for the fourth time in a row and deserved little more after an error-strewn first half in which they could have been far more than 2-0 down.
Lewis Dunk and Glenn Murray put a rampant Brighton two goals up before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang offered a glimmer of hope. There was to be no way back and once again, the travelling fans made no secret of their feelings towards a long-serving manager whose star has faded almost beyond recognition.
Arsenal got off to the nightmare start away from home. The irony was that Dunk, scorer of a record-equalling four own goals already this season, had almost claimed top billing moments before breaking the deadlock. He sliced a Henrikh Mkhitaryan cross just over his own bar moments before thudding a header into an unguarded net at the other end after Shane Duffy, beating Petr Cech to a left-wing corner, had nodded the ball across goal.
In the 15 minutes that followed, the hosts could have been out of sight. Cech partially redeemed himself by beating away a drive by Pascal Gross and, in the 18th minute, Dunk headed another set-piece over the top when he ought to have done better. Shortly after that Alex Iwobi was dispossessed and Anthony Knockaert, teed up by a Gross back-heel, side-footed a presentable opening right at Cech.
The second goal therefore came as no surprise. Laurent Koscielny's loose pass from the back was recycled to Gross and his inch-perfect delivery was thudded home by Murray, whose downward header skidded under Cech.
Brighton looked comfortable but Arsenal found a lifeline shortly before half-time, Aubameyang flicked Granit Xhaka's low cross in cleverly. Koscielny then came within inches of an equaliser, heading against the post. The second half saw more fight from the visitors: Mat Ryan turned a vicious Ozil shot wide 12 minutes after half-time, with another scare quickly following when Aubameyang rounded the Brighton keeper but couldn't find a teammate from a narrow angle. Then Gaetan Bong brilliantly denied the striker when a goal looked certain.
It was better from Arsenal, with Brighton's incursions now limited to counters led by the dangerous Jose Izquierdo. But they did not come as close again and Brighton, weathering seven minutes of added time, saw out a huge victory.
2. Cech errors show he is in decline
It is painful to admit this of someone who has been such a shining light in the Premier League but the time to say farewell appears close. For once, this does not refer to Wenger -- that would be a truism by now -- but rather to Cech, who was at fault for both of Brighton's goals and is costing Arsenal points on a regular basis. He is 35 and has been one of the modern era's best players in position. Yet he looks a spent force and during what looks an inevitable rebuild for whoever is in charge of Arsenal this summer, his future will surely be a priority for the club to address.
Cech is an outstanding professional -- something he showed in the second half here when, with other players seeking confrontation after an awful Sead Kolasinac challenge flattened Ezequiel Schelotto, he ran 40 yards to check on the injured Brighton player -- and an intelligent, respected voice in the dressing room but his on-pitch role is surely on borrowed time.
The Czech international's indecision at Bournemouth contributed to a comeback win from Eddie Howe's side in January; 12 days later he gifted Swansea's Jordan Ayew a crucial goal at the Liberty Stadium and this time, after Arsenal had begun with relative promise, his mistimed jump against Duffy handed Brighton the lead from their first attack. Although Murray's header for the second goal was firm, it should also have been stopped. Instead, it gave Arsenal a mountain to climb.
There were, of course, other culprits. Arsenal's entire defence looked shaky whenever pressed, Koscielny's contribution to the second goal proving a case in point. Calum Chambers, drafted in at right-back in place of the dropped Hector Bellerin, was given a torrid time by Izquierdo. Iwobi was repeatedly careless in possession and that contributed to the move that brought Dunk's opener.
Yet Arsenal gathered themselves to look like a more coherent side after the break and lived to regret their early mistakes. When Cech arrived at Arsenal in 2015, his former teammate John Terry suggested he could be worth "12 to 15 points a season." Maybe that was true at the peak of his career but the harsh truth is that he is now costing them just as many.
3. Brilliant Hughton leads Brighton closer to safety
Brighton are on the verge of securing their Premier League place for next year. If it were not for the relentless excellence of City and Pep Guardiola, Chris Hughton would surely be a compelling shout for manager of the season. While Wenger's plight will dominate the post-match analysis, Hughton continues to do a quietly magnificent job. On Sunday, his side continued to demonstrate that along with the discipline that is the hallmark of their manager, they have considerable flair, too.
They attacked Arsenal in waves whenever afforded space, with Knockaert and Ezquierdo causing havoc on the flanks while Gross schemed in the pockets between defence and midfield. For much of the season, scoring goals has been their biggest concern; they have now netted nine in their last three home league games and that spurt of incisiveness has turned relegation battlers into a team in the top half.
Six of Hughton's starting lineup were mainstays of their promotion from the Championship and part of their success this season has come from the painstaking manner in which he has evolved the side. It took Izquierdo and right-back Schelotto, two of their best performers on Sunday, time to become mainstays in the team after signing in August; Hughton did not rush them, allowing time to adapt while trusting those already in place. They now look hugely important and Brighton's blend seems secure.
The pair showed both sides to their game against Arsenal, picking their opponents apart given the chance while digging deep -- led by Duffy and Dunk at the back -- to hold onto their lead after the break.
It was a snapshot of the qualities that have brought them 34 points and almost certainly within a win of staying up. If there is any justice, an encapsulation of the traits that will see Hughton recognised as one of the best in the business.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.