Arsenal go into 2023 seven points clear at the top of the table after a 4-2 win over Brighton last night.
Ending the old year in style, we got off to a fast start as Bukayo Saka put us ahead with just over a minute gone. The touch and finish were as calm as you like, but lost in the analysis of the goal itself was the fact that had the ball not fallen to him, it would surely have been a penalty because of an obvious handball by the Brighton defender. I’d much prefer a goal to a spot kick anyway, but we would have had another bite at the cherry.
In those opening minutes we were well on top, Oleksandr Zinchenko almost made it 2-0 and there was a taste of things to come when Martin Odegaard produced a moment of magic in the box with a nutmeg pass to Martinelli in a space the size of a phone box, but the Brazilian’s cutback into the centre was cleared.
The game settled down and we allowed Brighton to come back into it in terms of possession at least. I thought we were just a bit too passive at times, but nor did the home side threaten us particularly. About five minutes before the break, Odegaard doubled the lead with a shot from a corner which wasn’t cleared very well. It looked like it wasn’t his cleanest strike, bouncing down and then up and over the desperate leap of the defender, but such is his quality you couldn’t rule it out being deliberate either. I think he meant it.
The second half began strongly. Gabriel Martinelli had found it difficult enough against Tariq Lamptey who defended well in the first half. When the ball came to him this time, he didn’t try and come back on his right foot like he did previously, instead taking a shot with his left foot that was too hot for the keeper to hold. And when you give a poacher like Eddie Nketiah a sniff, he’s usually around to make you pay. He did just that, poking the ball home for his second goal in two games. I don’t think we talk a lot about Martinelli’s left foot by the way. Three of his seven goals this season have come with his left, and now this ‘assist’ too. That extra threat he can pose by going the other way is an important aspect to his efficiency as an attacker.
Given the way we’ve controlled games this season, that should have been that, but Brighton are a good team and they kept going. There were some warning signs before their goal – and having brought off Ben White, there was a vulnerability that they took advantage of. All of a sudden, the ball over the top was on for them down their inside left channel, and Kaoru Mitoma – who had been pretty quiet all night – sprang into life to get one back.
Our response was outstanding. We survived another Brighton scare, before Martin Odegaard produced one of the finest passes you will see all season. The way he moved to take the ball from Granit Xhaka, while looking up a couple of times to see the space and Martinelli was excellent, but the execution of the pass itself was world class. The perfect angle, the perfect weight, and Martinelli blazed beyond Lamptey and toe-poked it home. I’ve seen people talking about how he should have squared it for Saka, but that feels like the most pointless argument of all time. He scored. What more do people want? Enjoy a goal of sublime quality in its creation. The ‘what if he missed?!’ is an irrelevance. I liked the finish.
That really should have closed the game out, but Brighton scored again. There’s no doubt William Saliba has returned from the World Cup a little rusty. This was the kind of situation he’d ordinarily deal with calmly and casually (in the the best sense of the word), but he misjudged it, allowing young striker Evan Ferguson to take a nice touch and then roll it between Ramsdale’s legs.
Mikel Arteta activated the Rob Holding plan, which looked like it was going to backfire when he stuck a toe out to deflect a Mitoma shot beyond his own goalkeeper. That would have been 3-4 with a few minutes to go, but VAR intervened. The Brighton man had come back from an offside position, but it was extremely tight. I don’t think I would have enjoyed those final few minutes had that goal stood. But it didn’t, and the game finished 4-2 to the Arsenal.
It clearly wasn’t a perfect performance, and it was notable that the manager spoke afterwards about how his players acknowledged that in the dressing room afterwards:
My excitement comes when I go in the dressing room and the players are talking about what they should’ve done better today. That means they know that we still can play better, be better and against Newcastle we will have to be better.
Still, he called it a ‘big win’, and I think that’s right. We went to a side who have caused us plenty of problems in recent seasons and scored four goals away from home. The fact that Man City had dropped points beforehand was a factor too. Saka and Odegaard went with the ‘We don’t care about other teams, we focus on ourselves’ mantra on Sky afterwards, but that’s what you say publicly. Arteta was a little more open, saying of course they knew the result and how that provides a bit of extra opportunity/pressure, but this isn’t the first time we’ve had to deal with that this season. City have dropped points and we’ve taken advantage; City have played before us and closed the gap, and we’ve responded. That tells you something about this team.
Obviously the Premier League table tells you plenty too. We are in pole position here. There’s a long way to go, but top on New Year’s Day with 43 points from 16 games and with a 7 point gap over a side as good as Man City is an incredible place to be at this point of the season. There are always going to be wobbles during games, we had that last night, but still did more than enough to win the game. We can work on the things that weren’t quite right, but we have to acknowledge the quality and the effort that has us where are in the table right now.
Chapeau, you might say.
Right, that’s it for this morning. We’ll have an Arsecast Extra for you tomorrow as usual, and there will be focus on Newcastle who come to town on Tuesday.
Happy New Year folks!