Arsenal stuttering and spluttering, but not stalling

Matt Stead

Perhaps Arsene Wenger was right. Perhaps no club felt “the weight of the transfer market” quite like Arsenal. Perhaps the removal of said weight has given the club a new lease of life, a fresh sense of direction and togetherness.

With victory over Brighton, earned through a combination of perseverance, hard work and one moment of ludicrous skill, the Gunners continue to quietly regroup after an abysmal August. Manchester City are the only club to pick up more Premier League points since the transfer window closed; they have not conceded a single goal in five domestic games as a chaotic summer has become a prosperous autumn.

Brighton are the 45th opponent Wenger has faced in the Premier League – a competition record – and they posed no few problems at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. Solly March crashed an effort against the post in the first half, and Glenn Murray had a gilt-edged opportunity in the second. Though Petr Cech had just one save to make in 90 minutes, moments of defensive indecision left the door slightly ajar. The visitors simply lacked the nous, skill and nerve to push it open.

In Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal are never short of such players. It is in these games, against opponents who camp ten outfielders behind the ball and seek to squeeze the life out of any and every attack, that said the best are expected to make the difference.

So it proved. Nacho Monreal opened the scoring for Arsenal, but it was Lacazette’s refusal to give up on a seemingly lost cause that created the chance. Granit Xhaka’s free-kick was floating out of play before the Frenchman headed it back into the area. Monreal eventually forced the ball home.

Brighton threatened thereafter and Arsenal were by no means convincing, but Sanchez ended the fight as a contest. The Chilean traded passes with teammates before bursting into the penalty area, dragging three defenders with him. They were all pawns in his own personal game; his backheel to an unmarked Alex Iwobi was almost disrespectful to the visitors, a pat on the head as they were told to look at the flowers before being put out of their misery.

The hosts, as a unit, performed as well as they had to, but it was on individual moments produced by their two best players that this victory was built. That is more praise than critique: a sign that players are willing and ready to step up when needed.

Arsenal will enjoy more comfortable Sunday afternoon strolls, but this was a job well done. As the Manchester clubs dominate the agenda at the top of the Premier League table, a quick glance after seven games shows the Gunners level on points with Chelsea, and one behind Tottenham. Youngsters are being blooded in the Europa League where progress is already almost certain. Yet another crisis has been averted.

That is not to say Arsenal have completely overcome their problems. A calmer side than Brighton might have taken one of their chances, and there remains question marks over the club’s performance against elite opposition. The 0-0 draw with Chelsea is only as representative as the 4-0 thrashing by the hands of Liverpool; we are yet to discover which display was the outlier.

Arsenal have stuttered and spluttered after that car crash at Anfield, but most importantly, they have not stalled; they are simply moving through the gears. An almost cataclysmic August was followed by an excellent and unbeaten September. That October has started in the same vein as the latter and not the former is cause for optimism.


Matt Stead