CHAMPIONS LEAGUE contenders ARSENAL host relegation-threatened Brighton in the capital and Gab Sutton (@_FootbalLab) picks his best bet.
Arsenal v Brighton | Sunday 5th May 2019, 16:30 | Sky Sports
This match could have been billed as Aaron Ramsey’s last home game in an Arsenal shirt, but the injury he recently sustained means he will not feature in the 90 minutes – although a positive send-off is likely before the FA Cup Final-goalscoring Welshman departs for Juventus.
Sentiment aside, Arsenal are hoping to bolster their top-four aspirations while Brighton have work to do to secure their Premier League status.
Emery’s first term
Arsenal, in terms of the fanbase and history at least, see themselves as among the biggest clubs in England and feel they should be competing for the top honours.
In Unai Emery, they have a man who has laid the foundations for them to potentially get to that position, by executing a much-needed shake-up.
The Spaniard has been very animated on the touchline, he has not been afraid to haul off underperforming players early and change a system if it is not working – he analyses his players in meticulous detail, he employs a rigorous approach to training and all of this has re-energized and re-connected a previously divided club.
One could argue that such a strong cultural shift is almost worth accepting a below-par on-field season for in and of itself, because Emery has nipped in the bud problems that had festered for the last 13 years of Arsene Wenger’s reign.
However, for Arsenal to get to the next level in terms of seriously challenging for the title over the next two or three years, they need a much stronger squad.
The five players who unequivocally belong at the top of the game are Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Mesut Ozil, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi.
Considering the possibility that Emery is not particularly keen on Ozil’s mentality and might want to cash in on the German, we are looking at four players at that performance level next season from the current squad – not enough, fans might feel.
A stronger squad can be built with better players and better players will come if Champions League football can be offered – so it is important that Arsenal qualify.
Their best chance of achieving that goal is by winning the Europa League, after Thursday’s 3-1 Semi-Final First Leg over Valencia means they have a positive chance of reaching the final.
However, prior to Sunday’s fixtures, they are only two points behind Chelsea and despite a run of four defeats in five Premier League games, they still have an opportunity to secure a top four finish.
Brighton won 2-1 at Crystal Palace in slightly fortuitous circumstances in early March, when Anthony Knockaert’s winner game them three points in a derby in which they had been on the back foot for long spells.
Since then, the luck has somewhat run out with a seven-game winless run – the Seagulls also went six league matches without a goal prior to a 1-1 home draw with Newcastle.
The second half performance against the Magpies, in which they were frequently pumping balls into the box and applying pressure, offered some reassurance that they will stay up – even if the job was not done mathematically.
Brighton enter the weekend four points above the drop zone – due to goal difference a five or six-point swing would be required between Friday and the end of the season for them to go down.
Whether or not the coastal outfit stay up, it must be said this has been a regressive campaign.
The fact Huddersfield cannot seem to score, Fulham have not been able to defend for most of the season and Cardiff have very little money are the main factors that have determined how the relegation battle is going, rather than Brighton doing particularly well.
Over the whole season, Albion have averaged 0.98 Expected Goals For (xGF) per game and 1.66 Against (xGA), giving them a Ratio of 37.07% (xGR); the third-worst in the Premier League.
In pre-season, they added the likes of Florin Andone, Yves Bissouma, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Bernardo – all with the intention of improving their use of the ball, yet it has in fact got worse.
With on average 71 long balls being played per game, it has been difficult for some of these players to show what they can offer in possession.
When the team has picked up points, therefore, it has been the work of the usual suspects: Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy at centre-back, maybe the midfield graft of Dale Stephens sometimes too.
For example, nine of their 35 points have come from three 1-0 October wins when Dunk and Duffy made a lot of brave headers and last-ditch blocks.
Although it is great to have centre-backs who are as strong as that duo, the reliance on their work would suggest there is something not quite right about the team structurally.
For that reason, although there is gratitude for what Hughton has done for Brighton over the previous four seasons, questions could be asked of him once this campaign concludes.
There are a lot of coaches with innovative ideas out there and one wonders if there are many who might get more out of the current squad than Hughton is.
The Betting Angle
As we saw on Thursday night, Arsenal’s defending leaves much to be desired – they rank 12th in Expected Goals Against (xGA) in the Premier League this season with a tally of 1.47 per game.
However, Brighton average 6.44 shots per game away to Big Six opposition and one would have to question whether they have the tools to truly test Arsenal’s suspect defence.
Eight of their last 11 home games in all competitions have seen the Gunners accrue victory in a game that sees fewer than four goals scored, which is the basis of our best bet.
Arsenal v Brighton – Arsenal to win and Under 3.5 Goals (5/4 Coral)