After the ecstatic scenes of five straight wins, all that raving on the terraces, losing at Manchester United was a crashing comedown. The defensive wobbles there, the raging at officialdom and the missing of clutch chances had been an Arsenal story often told.
Brentford, by contrast, soon became a Sunday session for their supporters, mixing up old-school anthems with the latest hits as their team returned to the top of the league. Though Manchester City’s Erling Haaland-inspired menace grows week on week, Arsenal are enjoying life at the top while they can. Do Arsenal fans trust Mikel Arteta’s process? The bond the match-going contingent shares with his players feels stronger than with any Arsenal team for many a year.
Brentford was where last season began with a 2-0 defeat that demoralised, even allowing for a Covid outbreak in the camp as mitigation. It signposted a campaign where the promise of progress would be dashed by eventual disappointment. To win in such easy style at the same ground suggested more profound progress. Gabriel Jesus’s goal, Arsenal’s second, set up by Granit Xhaka, flourishing in a free role, was a beauty, the Brazilian heading home in a fashion reminiscent of Haaland himself.
Almost three years into the job, Arteta is no longer a rookie manager but the location of his ceiling is still undetermined. Having worked under Arsène Wenger and alongside Pep Guardiola, the hope was for a combination of both, though he is working at a club far less rich in resources than those mentors enjoyed. If Arsenal’s £79m summer transfer net spend looks meaty, then it is still dwarfed by the £200m-plus lashed out for Todd Boehly’s Chelsea all-stars, and by United’s attempt to graft themselves into becoming Ajax.
Can this team challenge City for the title? With Chelsea under a new manager in Graham Potter, United amid an umpteenth rebuilding process and Liverpool frazzled after sailing too close to the sun last season, it may come down to the north London set of Tottenham and Arsenal to add any sense of intrigue at the top.
A match-day squad containing a 15-year-old in Ethan Nwaneri and Lino Souza, himself just 17, did not reflect heavy squad depth, even if it did allow Nwaneri, born a year after the Emirates Stadium was opened, three years after Wenger’s Invincibles season, to become the Premier League’s youngest ever player when coming on in injury time.
Beyond rewriting that in the record books, Arteta could do with having both Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kieran Tierney around, rather than in rotation. The Scot showed that, when fit, he is one of the best attacking full-backs in the game. Zinchenko and Martin Ødegaard’s absence gave Fábio Vieira the chance to make a first Premier League start in midfield, which he crowned with a special goal, Arsenal’s third, whipped in, all disguise and fade, to leave David Raya sprawling in the Brentford goal.
Seventeen years on from the departure of a bona fide club legend in Patrick Vieira, Arsenal fans have a namesake to hail, though he is a rather different player. The 22-year-old Portuguese playmaker is small, adroit, all left foot, very much modern Arsenal rather than an alpha male of the past, but Arteta has another creative talent to call upon.
Brentford probably represent a different test to that of a year ago, Thomas Frank having sought to add dimensions to a squad hardened by 12 months in the Premier League, even if the basic plan of swarming the opposition and picking up the pieces has not greatly altered. Though perhaps the novelty of a latter-day Crazy Gang chasing down every last throw-in has lost some of its shock value, even among those asked to carry it out.
Arsenal were more than capable of living with a Brentford energy and application that was decidedly under-amped, and the home fans, even though an early kick-off offered reasonable excuse for their stillness, were given little to work with.
Ivan Toney was playing in his first match since his England call-up and may this week become the first Brentford player to play for the country since Les Smith in 1939, an honour celebrated by his club during the half-time break. But there was little to suggest Toney can be the next-best thing to Harry Kane as he struggled to find any loose change from a central defensive partnership of Gabriel Magalhães and William Saliba.
That Toney was also culpable in letting Saliba get a run on Bukayo Saka’s corner to head in Arsenal’s opener will doubtless have entered Gareth Southgate’s scouting notebook.
“Nice kick about with the boys” was what Toney wrote on social media after Brentford’s 2-0 home win in the opening game of last season, revealing Arteta as an unlikely Twitter user in an enraged reaction caught in the All Or Nothing documentary. Late on this time around, Toney’s chance of imposing himself long lost, the away fans threw those words back at him. Here was more evidence of that growing bond with Arsenal’s manager and his team.