After a six-week break for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Arsenal returned to the Premier League in stunning fashion. A 3-1 home win over a fledgling West Ham was the perfect way for Arsenal to jump right back into the thick of Premier League action.
Now was time for a different test. In recent seasons, Brighton, along with Southampton and Crystal Palace, have long been regarded as Arsenal’s perennial “bogey team”. This was laid bare in stunning fashion at the end of last season, when The Seagulls shocked the Gunners with a 1-2 defeat at the Emirates Stadium, effectively denying them qualification for the UEFA Champions League. And that alone was not the first time they’d done it.
Heading into the game, Arsenal were handed another boost. Draws for both Newcastle United and Manchester City meant that a win at the AMEX Stadium would give Mikel Arteta’s men a seven point lead at the top of the Premier League to see in the new year.
In a game like this, a fast start is always needed and Arsenal obliged in a matter of 60 seconds. A brilliant bit of tackling in midfield from Thomas Partey allowed Arsenal to recycle posession through Oleksandr Zinchenko; Gabriel Martinelli received the ball and tried to float a ball to the back post. Deflections and blocks soon pushed it into the path of Bukayo Saka, who made no mistake from 6 yards out, giving the visitors the lead.
Brighton continued to fight back, but they failed to create many meaningful opportunities, save for one Leandro Trossard attempt which floated over the crossbar.
As half-time approached, Arsenal doubled their lead.
A Bukayo Saka corner was headed away, but only as far as the in-form Martin Ødegaard, who hit his effort on the half-volley into the turf and bounce into the net.
The Norwegian has been in scintillating form of late for Arsenal and it shows no sign of letting up. Still, as the half-time whistle blew, there was a definite feeling that Arsenal needed to add another if they were to be home free.
If the start to the first half had been quick, then the start to the second was mesmeric.
A Brighton attack was soon turned over for an Arsenal counter. Thomas Partey spread the ball out wide to Gabriel Martinelli, who’s shot was poorly dealt with by Robert Sánchez and Eddie Nketiah was there to nudge home the rebound to make it 0-3.
Brighton soon found themselves handed a lifeline however. Poor defending from William Saliba and Takehiro Tomiyasu allowed Pascal Groß to play an inch-perfect ball into the path of Karou Mitoma, who slotted a cool finish into the bottom corner to get one back for the hosts.
However, Arsenal were not done yet.
Another Brighton counter-attack was once again, dutifully, dealt with by Thomas Partey. The Ghanian slipped the ball to Granit Xhaka, who then played a simple ball into midfield to Martin Ødegaard, who then hit arguably the pass of the season downfield first-time for Gabriel Martinelli to sprint onto. The resultant sprint chase may well have scared a lesser attacker, but Martinelli was able to shrug off Tariq Lamptey and, despite the calls for a pass from Bukayo Saka in the middle of the box, Martinelli (perhaps a little luckily) tucked the ball through Sánchez to give the visitors their fourth.
Brighton again found themselves reducing the deficit through substitute Evan Ferguson, who slotted his first senior goal beyond Aaron Ramsdale and a hapless looking William Saliba, but the damage looked to be done.
Brighton may have blown any credence to the idea that they were down and out when Mitoma once again managed to score Brighton’s third, but a timely VAR intervention spared Arsenal’s blushes and the potential for a nervy final 5 minutes.
The final whistle blew out on a 2-4 Arsenal win and, most crucially of all, a seven point lead at the top of the table.
If the 3-1 win over West Ham had been as close to “one-way traffic” as you could find, this was a slightly harder fixture.
Arsenal never looked especially poor, but they were far from their commanding best. Three of their goals in particular looked a result of poor goalkeeping than excellent finishing, but Arsenal will take what they are given.
The importance of both Martin Ødegaard and Thomas Partey cannot be overstated to this game.
Ødegaard looked his usual imperious self, dictating tempo, controlling possession and creating chances galore. The only thing missing from his Man of the Match performance against West Ham was a goal and his patience was rewarded on Saturday with a somewhat scuffed finish for Arsenal’s second. His assist for Martinelli’s goal is sure to be voted Assist of the Year as soon as the appropriate awarding boy actually invents the award.
However, the performance of Thomas Partey is sure to have caught the attention of many. Three of Arsenal’s attacks involved the Ghanian clearing up in midfield or in defence and without his peerless ability to defend the backline, Arsenal would not have had a victory. His partnership with Granit Xhaka seems to be growing by the game and perhaps underlines how important a genuine back-up for him is.
No one predicted Arsenal would be seven points clear at the top of the table come January 1st, yet here they are. It will be a challenge to maintain and potentially even extend their lead, but they will have the confidence to push on, knowing there is room for improvement.
Arsenal will now focus to the visit of Newcastle United on Tuesday. A significant game that, if won, would put Arsenal 12 points clear of Eddie Howe’s side with a game in-hand.
Brighton & Hove Albion team:
1.) Robert Sánchez
2.) Tariq Lamptey
5.) Lewis Dunk (c)
6.) Levi Colwill
30.) Pervis Estupiñán
27.) Billy Gilmour
13.) Pascal Groß
7.) Solly March (Enciso 76’)
14.) Adam Lallana (Sarmiento 61’)
22.) Karou Mitoma
11.) Leandro Trossard (Ferguson 60’)
Brighton & Hove Albion subs:
23.) Jason Steele
29.) Jan Paul van Hecke
34.) Jöel Veltman
43.) Ed Turns
71.) Jack Hinshelwood
49.) Andrew Moran
19.) Jeremy Sarmiento
20.) Julio Enciso
28.) Evan Ferguson
1.) Aaron Ramsdale
4.) Benjamin White (Tomiyasu 60’)
12.) William Saliba
6.) Gabriel Magalhães
35.) Oleksandr Zinchenko (Tierney 60’)
5.) Thomas Partey (Elneny 74’)
34.) Granit Xhaka
8.) Martin Ødegaard (c) (Holding 87’)
7.) Bukayo Saka
11.) Gabriel Martinelli
14.) Eddie Nketiah
30.) Matt Turner
16.) Rob Holding
18.) Takehiro Tomiyasu
17.) Cédric Soares
3.) Kieran Tierney
25.) Mohamed Elneny
23.) Albert Sambi Lokonga
21.) Fábio Vieira