Arsenal players were afraid to take chances and express themselves during Thursday night's 2-1 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion, according to interim manager Freddie Ljungberg.
The Gunners slipped to 10th in the Premier League after losing at the Emirates Stadium. In the process, a squad short on confidence continued on a winless run now stretching to nine games across all competitions.
Ljungberg identified fear as a root cause for Arsenal's latest setback:
An Arsenal team bereft of ideas and swagger went behind after 36 minutes when Adam Webster drilled Brighton into the lead. It stayed 1-0 until the break before Alexandre Lacazette equalised five minutes after the restart.
Neal Maupay headed in the Seagulls' winner 10 minutes from full-time. Yet Ljungberg was left to rue his team's sluggish display early on:
A slow start and a tepid finish proved enough to condemn Arsenal to a dire run unmatched in the club annals for over four decades. It's a shocking sequence pushing the Gunners dangerously close to the wrong end of the table:
Establishing some consistency and a definite identity to Arsenal's pattern of play is the daunting challenge facing Ljungberg. He is attempting to return the team back to the stylish, possession-based game that became a club staple when Arsene Wenger was in charge from 1996 to 2018.
Unai Emery replaced Wenger, but the Spaniard was recently dismissed after 18 months in charge. While his tenure was brief, Emery's spell can be seen to have done lasting damage to the way Arsenal play.
He attempted to move the Gunners toward a style based more on industry and pressing than artful creativity. Elegant playmakers Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan all moved on during Emery's watch.
It's left Mesut Ozil as the sole technically gifted schemer for Ljungberg to work with. He's played Ozil wide and central, struggling to find the right formula to help unleash the classy No. 10's brand of magic.
Ljungberg has also been reticent to start winger Nicolas Pepe during his two matches in charge. Arsenal's record signing came off the bench for the second half against Brighton, but his pace and trickery failed to enliven a forward line already hamstrung by the suddenly stunted partnership between strikers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, with the latter miscast out wide.
Ljungberg is trying to play the Wenger way with a squad constructed and schooled to play more in Emery's image. It's a dichotomy the Swede needs to resolve fast because Arsenal must click in attacking areas to help compensate for a leaky defence.
A team no longer adept at keeping the ball is exposing an already vulnerable unit to greater pressure and even more chances this season:
Arsenal invested heavily in defensive reinforcements during the summer, but left-back Kieran Tierney has dealt with injuries since arriving from Celtic for £25 million. Meanwhile, William Saliba has remained on loan with Saint-Etienne, a condition of the £27 million deal to bring the central defender over from Ligue 1 next season.
David Luiz cost £8 million, but the 32-year-old former Chelsea man has not solidified things at the back.
The bottom line is Arsenal spent a small fortune on players who have yet to improve the biggest weakness in the squad. It's left holdovers such as right-back Hector Bellerin lacking belief:
Arsenal have undergone a major overhaul since Wenger stepped down. Many of the positive qualities the club was known for during the Frenchman's reign, such as the attractive style and the type of players who produced it, have been swept away.
It's left a messy transition perhaps too big for 42-year-old first-time senior boss Ljungberg to successfully navigate. He must work harder to bring confidence back to a fractious group of players ahead of Monday's trip to take on West Ham United.