With a seven-point gap on Manchester City, 2023 promises so much to Arsenal. If the World Cup loomed over their early season and brought with it considerable collateral damage, Mikel Arteta’s team have not yet lost their step.
They have vulnerability, and Brighton scored two second-half goals to stop this resembling a new year’s parade. But in Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Eddie Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli, all four of them goalscorers, lies the reason for Arsenal’s current primacy.
Until something or someone else beyond Gabriel Jesus breaks, Arteta will be sticking to the same formula that brought pre-World Cup success. The sole change from beating West Ham 3-1 on Boxing Day was replacing Kieran Tierney at left-back with Oleksandr Zinchenko, the Ukraine international no downgrade and with title-chasing experience.
For Brighton, no sign of Alexis Mac Allister, still missing though presumed sobered up from Argentina’s celebrations. He received warm applause in the match’s preamble only for the stadium announcer to ask – presumably in jest – if anyone had the midfielder’s number.
Mac Allister could have replaced Moisés Caicedo, suspended after being booked in the 3-1 victory against Southampton. Billy Gilmour, a classic Scottish ballplayer yet to live up to his undoubted talent, was partnering Pascal Gross. With both Mac Allister and Caicedo topping wanted lists for the Premier League elite, Roberto De Zerbi, and the club’s CEO, Paul Barber, freshly decorated in the new year honours, may soon require more permanent midfield solutions.
Brighton have been no pushover for Arsenal, losing only three of 10 previous Premier League encounters, but it took only 70 seconds for them to concede. Gabriel Martinelli picked up the ball after Ødegaard’s surging run through that improvised Brighton midfield, and the ball eventually deflected for Saka to finish.
It might soon have been two shortly after, Robert Sánchez smothering when Zinchenko had escaped down the left, where Tariq Lamptey was struggling with Martinelli’s effervescence. The Ghanaian’s strengths lie in attacking and from his overlap Leandro Trossard, Brighton’s false No 9, had a shot deflected.
His brogues and trouser legs muddying as he paced, Arteta cut an anguished figure as Brighton slowly took a foothold, cursing when Trossard forced Aaron Ramsdale into a high save. His team still looked far likelier to score, Nketiah’s linkage with Saka and Martinelli supplied a passable impression of the lamented Jesus. Brighton’s perennial problem of a lack of cutting edge meant they produced little danger with that increasing share of possession.
Ødegaard, a captain who leads by the example of excellence rather than chest-beating, soon put a smile back on his manager’s face. First to a second ball after a Saka corner, the Norwegian’s goal much owed more to fortune than impeccable technique, the ball squirting off the ground and beyond a helpless Sánchez.
In scoring within the opening minutes of the second half, almost as quickly as their first goal, Arsenal had the game and that aching advantage over City all but wrapped up. This time, Saka started it and Nketiah swept in after Sánchez could only parry Martinelli’s shot. Nketiah had not started a Premier League game until Jesus’s World Cup injury but has scored two goals in two starts since. While Arteta may demand January transfer business, an understudy fitting in so well suggests his team’s coherence and potency did not fully rest with Jesus leading the line.
Arteta chose to take off Zinchenko and Ben White, Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu coming on, protecting key players ahead of challenges to come. When Kaoru Mitoma cut in from the space Tomiyasu left vacant to score a goal ruled just onside by VAR, it was a reminder of how reliant Arteta has been on his first XI, his squad thinner than Arsenal’s chasers.
Within those bare bones lies the quality of Ødegaard, whose outrageous pass set up Martinelli. Though teenager Evan Ferguson’s first ever Premier League goal set up a closing period in which Brighton rippled with danger. When Mitoma had the ball in the net a second time, a miraculous comeback looked on, only for technology to intervene. Arteta called for a calm his frenzied expression did not match but he was eventually able to breathe and look down on City from a greater height.