Just as painting over a wall does nothing to address the damp, merely changing who is in charge of this Arsenal side will not fix the rot that has set into this once proud club.
In Freddie Ljungberg there is a man with plenty of aesthetics to distract. Beyond the obvious, a club legend with the potential to, one day, be a fine first-team coach. But he might well live a thousand lifetimes and still not develop the expertise to fix whatever is wrong at a place so dear to his heart.
Brighton were deserving of their 2-1 win – never behind and always capable on the attack. For the most part, they were rigid in defence, too.
This victory arrests a slump of three consecutive defeats which took them within the clutches of the bottom three. For Arsenal, here was a third defeat in nine matches, a sequence which features no wins and thus ranks as their worst run since a winless 10 brought up in March 1977. What an utter mess they have become.
“A few more than last time,” quipped one fan taking his seat next to the press box. There were still empty seats but nowhere near as many as this time last week when Eintracht Frankfurt sealed Emery’s fate. And sure, there was more optimism this time around. But how could there be less? Yet, at the same time, how could you blame them? Fans, players and staff – to a man and woman, they are at a loss to explain or fathom what has gone wrong.
A manager’s first programme notes are perhaps his most diligent and Ljungberg had three days to perfect his. And while much of it was as you’d expect, riffing on his long association with the club – nine years a player, 18 months a coach – the paragraph that straddled the first and second pages was perhaps the most instructive.
Ljungberg has been open about how his opinions of what needs to be done better are fully formed. And while he has his own independent thoughts about personnel and tactics, evident by his deployment of Mesut Ozil on the wing and Joe Willock as a midfielder encouraged to mimic a support striker, his biggest job will be changing the mood of the fans.
As a verified club legend, the task is easier for him than any outsider. And for those who read through his notes, the singling out of those who travelled to Carrow Road for Sunday’s 2-2 draw and how they grew louder in voice “even when we went 1-0 and 2-1 down” was as close to a rallying cry as can be delivered among the glossy pages of a programme to get behind a team who look fearful of repercussions. “That [vocal support] is so important for the players.”
But to be fair to the home fans, there was little to sink their teeth into. Brighton dominated first-half possession and became the third side this season to have five shots or more on target against the Gunners in the opening 45 minutes at the Emirates. Their passing was crisp and their positioning positive, especially without the ball.
What enthusiasm there might have been on the walk to the stadium and indeed the concourses in the lead-up to kick-off went within the opening 10 minutes prompting the away fans to pull the chord early on the “Is this a library?” chant.
In fact, it was only activity from Brighton – a flash across goal from Neil Maupay and later a smart save from Bernd Leno off the same player – that elicited a visceral response. But those, like most of what happened on the pitch, lacked any real heart. Even the applause for cross-field balls – the cheap pop, football’s equivalent of a band shouting the name of the city they’re gigging in – was consistently meek.
Every smidge of joy was tempered, the expectation being that something bad was due to happen. On 36 minutes, when the ball fell to Brighton defender Andy Webster in the box, there it was.
In a perverse way, that almost seemed to help. Arsenal’s shoulders were already slumped, their fans already wallowing gloom to stop going behind from darkening the mood any further. And thus, Ljungberg could only go one way with his half-time team talk. Hugs over hairdryer.
The response was encouraging: an equaliser after five minutes – Alexandre Lacazette flicking on a corner at the near post – with the possession stats recalibrating towards the hosts. There was more urgency and suddenly the fifty-fifties that were lost in the first-half were being won this time around. They still were not outclassing Brighton, but they were certainly out-scrapping them.
But then for the last 20 minutes, the tide turned back. Brighton rediscovered those spaces in front of Arsenal’s backline and slowly regained their composure on the ball. On 80 minutes, Maupay strained every last muscle in his neck to guide Aaron Mooy’s fizzed cross into the far corner to re-establish the lead.
Typically, an Arsenal second had already been ruled out when VAR correctly established David Luiz was offside to prevent them taking the lead on 64 minutes. But if anything sums up the folly they have had to suffer in these parts – and suffering, it should be noted, is relative in this context – it was a moment in the final five minutes as they pushed for an equaliser.
After Gabriel Martinelli’s header had drawn a fine save from Mat Ryan in the Brighton goal, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang – Arsenal’s biggest goal threat – ran off to use the bathroom. It took him three minutes to return by which time a corner had been snuffed out and a free-kick won. The home fans who spotted him running off and then on could not even bring themselves to lambast him. “You may as well have stayed in there,” shouted one lone voice.
Such gallows humour has been the only nourishment in these parts for a while now. On this form, they’ll only get better at it.