Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Brentford 0-3 Arsenal: Total control

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Arsenal went back on top of the Premier League yesterday, beating Brentford 3-0 in one of the most controlled performances you’re likely to see this season.

After what happened here last time out, not to mention the fact that they demolished Man Utd 4-0 just a few weeks ago, there was some pre-game anxiety, but from the very first whistle Mikel Arteta’s side took control and barely let go for the entire 90 minutes. Brentford had some moments, but that’s all they were. The long throws and the red and white kit made them look like a family friendly Stoke, but beyond that they offered little.

The manager handed a first start to Fabio Vieira, deputising for the injured Martin Odegaard, who joined Oleksandr Zinchenko, Emile Smith Rowe and Mohamed Elneny on the injury list. Thomas Partey returned to the base of the midfield, a little rusty with the ball at times, but providing calm presence in a key position.

We should have been ahead in the first minute, a slick one-touch move provided a chance for Gabriel Martinelli, but he slipped at the key moment to let Brentford off the hook. That set the tone for what was to come though. We played some really nice stuff, and deservedly went ahead in the 17th minute when, from a corner, William Saliba flicked a header from the near post to the far, the ball went in off the woodwork despite Raya’s desperate attempt to claw it away.

The second goal arrived about ten minutes later. We’d had a little stop when it looked like Big Gabi had a problem and might need to come off, but he continued and so did Arsenal’s dominance. Granit Xhaka’s form this season has been exceptional, but maybe Brentford weren’t expecting the quality of delivery he produced – hence the time he was given. Make no mistake, it was an excellent ball into the box, but Gabriel Jesus still had a bit of work to do – and how well he did it, thumping a header into the top corner to make it 2-0. I enjoyed the way two Brentford defenders just turned away in mournful resignation as much as the dancing celebration and the cleaning of Xhaka’s boot.

When you consider how noisy this stadium was last season, the silence as we played out the first half told its own story. They tried to rouse the crowd at half-time with a bit of ‘Hey Jude’, but they couldn’t come together. I’ve got a feeling they could have done that eight days a week and it wouldn’t have made any difference. David Raya was a nowhere man as Fabio Vieira made it 3-0 early in the second period with a goal of outstanding quality.

It began at the back when it looked like a slightly loose touch from the otherwise imperious Saliba might have turned into trouble, but he span away from the attacker, playing a one-two to get out of it and Arsenal continued the period of possession down the right hand side. Bukayo Saka brought it forward, the keeper thought Vieira was going to go for his right hand side and took a step that way as the Portuguese cracked a shot to his left, and in off the post. What a first goal for the 22 year old. His head got a good slapping from his teammates.

Brentford had a sight of goal via a free kick, but it flew over, and as I said, those moments were fleeting as Arsenal continued to play with confidence and panache. Fantastic build-up play produced chances for Jesus and Saka which drew good saves from Raya; there was a late chance for the Brazilian which the Brentford keeper was equal to again after Ramsdale was called into action once; but the home side made changes which did little to impact the control we had.

In the final 15 minutes, we made a number of changes, but obviously the most notable was in the introduction of Ethan Nwaneri, for many an unfamiliar name until this weekend (I’ve just added him to my browser’s spellcheck). Just 15 years old, he breaks Cesc Fabregas’ record as the youngest ever Arsenal player, and not only is he the youngest player to play in the Premier League, he’s the youngest to ever make his debut in any of the top five European leagues. Quite the occasion for him, and afterwards the manager explained his thinking:

“It was a pure gut feeling. I met him, he’s trained a couple of times with us, yesterday he had to come because we have all the injuries, especially the injury of Martin.

“Then I had a feeling from yesterday that if the opportunity could come, I was going to do it [give him his debut]. I’ve just done it.”

I don’t quite know what it does to the average age stats, but it’s another indication that if you’re a young player, Arsenal is the best place to be right now. A penny for the thoughts of Omari Hutchinson, someone who made the bench last season and might well have had this opportunity had he not made the switch to Chelsea’s U21s this summer. Still, congratulations to Ethan Nwaneri, whose name will go into the history books, but we hope there’s plenty more to be written in the coming years.

I guess what we need to acknowledge is that this opportunity for the young man came because of what we did in this game. At that point Brentford were thoroughly defeated, the scoreline could have been even more emphatic, and the way we played as a team yesterday enabled this chance for Nwaneri. In a tight game, it wouldn’t happen, so credit to the team for the way they played against a side we know well can be difficult – especially at home.

After defeat in our previous fixture, there was a little added pressure because of the habit we had last season of losing in twos and threes, so to address that issue this early in the season was very pleasing. And to do it without some very important players shows that there is some depth in the squad. Sure, you look at the bench, see some kids, and you worry; but the reality is that without Odegaard we had £35m Vieira to fill in (very well too), and without Zinchenko there’s Kieran Tierney. When you consider our left back issues in recent times, that’s very healthy – and the reality is that you can’t have an endless list of top class players. At some point you’ll look a bit thin on the bench when you’ve used what depth you have on the pitch as and when it’s needed.

All in all, a very pleasing performance, the three points were well and truly deserved, and as we go into an Interlull, the fact we’ll sit top until the North London derby is a nice place to be.

Right, that’s it for this morning. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra a little later this morning. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

We’ll have the pod for you around midday. For now, take it easy.

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