Thursday, February 29, 2024

Brentford 0-1 Arsenal: Havertz nicks it at the death

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After the 1-1 draw between Man City and Liverpool earlier in the day, Arsenal had a chance to go top of the Premier League by taking three points against Brentford. That’s where we sit this morning, but boy did we leave it late. More on that anon.

As I watched the game yesterday, I found myself quite surprised by the way Brentford approached this one. It’s not that I expected them to be completely gung-ho, but they’re a good side with dangerous players, and I thought we’d see a bit more attacking intent from them. Instead, the game settled down very quickly into an obvious pattern. We had the ball, they played with an extremely low block, which made it very difficult for us.

In hindsight, perhaps Mikel Arteta’s team selection told us that was exactly what he was expecting. Martin Odegaard returned, Gabriel Jesus started despite playing 90 minutes for Brazil in midweek after an injury lay-off, and Leandro Trossard was in the left 8 position. With Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli on the flanks, it meant we had a front five full of craft, movement, and goalscoring ability, which suggests the manager knew we were going to face a side that would pack their final third. It was going to be a game of very tight spaces, particularly as we got close to their box.

That said, the home side should have gone ahead in the 14th minute when Aaron Ramsdale faltered, caught in two minds and caught on the ball, and but for a sensational clearance off the line by Declan Rice we would have been 1-0 down. His iffy throw a little while later was more evidence that what has happened since David Raya arrived at the club has sapped Ramsdale of the confidence you need to play the way Arteta wants his keepers to play, and in truth it’s sad to see it. Football is ruthless etc etc, but you’d need a heart of stone not to feel for him a bit.

The fact that Brentford’s only real chance of the half came from that aberration told you plenty though. Arsenal had control. That word that now seems to define the way we play, and I think there are similarities between this game the one against Newcastle. This time, thankfully, we were on the right side of the fine margin, but the control versus cutting edge discussion is one that will continue after this game.

Arteta was asked afterwards if he’s still looking for more from the attack, and explained:

I hope I am, I hope we can be better and better, and adapt, because as well the reality is that we have lost a lot of players, a lot of attacking players in this first period of the league and the team continues to win, and find ways to win, and today I put on another attacking player as I suspected what they were going to do, and it’s what we needed.

I’d prefer to score three in the first half, we had some big chances and we got a goal disallowed, but if you don’t, the team needs that resilience, to find a way to win.

Which is fair enough, and I do think missing players have been a part of why we haven’t been as fluent. If your glass is half full – and why shouldn’t it be when we’re top of the table? – the ability to win games when not quite clicking up front is hugely important. There are games you have to grind out if you want to win a title. Then again, concerns that when margins are so tight, there’s a risk that you can’t find a way through are valid, but I’m sure that’s not something that has escaped his notice.

There were chances. Maybe Gabriel Jesus should score the header which led to the disallowed Trossard goal. The offside lines were drawn, and remember, it was whether or not the Belgian was ahead of the ball, not his teammate. Tight, but just off. It would have been such an interesting time to get a goal too, as it would have changed Brentford’s approach. As it was, it was more of the game in the second half. They sat deep. In total their trio of centre-halves made 24 clearances as we slung in corners and set-pieces.

Jesus tired and was replaced by Eddie Nketiah who had one good opportunity but his finish was tame. He needed to be much more ‘third goal against Sheffield United’, as it was it was a simple pass for their keeper to take. At the other end, Zinchenko gave the ball away which led to a chance for Neal Maupay, but the Ukrainian got back to make a brilliant block on the line before Maupay stabbed the rebound wide. This is what I mean by margins – we could be sitting here this morning festering over a defeat inflicted by that pesky irritant who has hurt us in the past.

Given the way we were playing, the introduction of Kai Havertz made sense. He’s 6’4, we found it very tough to break down a very well organised and committed Brentford defence, and if crosses and set-pieces were going to be part of our armoury, adding more height made sense. He got involved well from the time he came on, but with the clock ticking and two points looking like they were going to be lost, we found the moment.

Bukayo Saka, with 5 key passes on the night by the way (in a performance you’d probably categorise as tidy but relatively quiet by his highest standards), took a pass from Odegaard, whipped a cross to the back post, and Havertz was there to head down and between the keeper’s legs to make it 1-0. What a time for him to make a significant contribution, and once again Saka has a goal contribution to his name. It’s the kind of goal you would have envisaged the German scoring before now, and Arteta even said afterwards that back post threat is part of why he was brought in. We haven’t seen enough of it, but this was timely, to say the least, and hopefully this open play goal will do him the world of good. You could see he knew it meant so much more than the penalty against Bournemouth, as nice as that moment was.

The scenes when the final whistle went were interesting. Ramsdale claimed the ball and breathed a massive sigh of relief. I think his second half was fine, he kept it simple and showed good hands when needed, but he knew he’d blotted his copybook in the first. I think it’s fair to say that Raya has had some moments like that too during his time here, but there’s a context that we all understand makes things different. It was lovely to see him surrounded by teammates, but his face told the real story.

At the other end Arteta dragged Havertz over to take the applause from the away fans, who were singing his song. Perhaps a little bit of ‘See, I was right about signing him!’, but you can understand why he wanted the player to feel the love after a difficult few months since his arrival from Chelsea. You might wonder if that desire to foster togetherness and team spirit could have also translated to his post-game comments about Ramsdale, but it feels like something has broken down there and I don’t know if or how it can be fixed at this point. Which, as I said above, is sad really.

Still, the main takeaway is that we found a way to win against a good team who made life really tough for us. I also think the reality of being able to win games in this way is going to inform the way lots of teams play against us this season. Bar the big boys, few are going to open up and just play. It’s not quite a vicious circle, but the more you show you can scrap out wins, the more I think other sides are going to say ‘Well, see if you can break us down’.

So plenty for Arteta to ponder, but he can do it with the luxury of another good win, and from exactly the place in the table he’d want to be.

Have a great Sunday folks, back tomorrow with more here and an Arsecast Extra. Until then.

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