When Brighton all but ended Arsenal‘s title chances with a 3-0 win in May, Roberto De Zerbi celebrated with a knee slide onto the pitch. On Sunday, after a defeat that was just as comprehensive, the Italian acknowledged that his team might have just played the best that the Premier League has to offer.
“Arsenal played much better than us,” the Brighton boss admitted. “They deserved to win the game. We suffered a lot. I think Arsenal are one of the best, maybe this season the best team in the Premier League.”
It was a gracious and fair assessment. Brighton have been awkward opponents for Arsenal in recent times, winning on three consecutive visits to the Emirates prior to this weekend, but they were almost entirely dominated from the first minute until the last.
As home fans filed into the concourses at half-time, the palpable emotions shared by all were frustration and disbelief that their side weren’t in front. Arsenal had 15 shots in the opening 45 minutes and prevented Brighton from having any at all, a first for them in 49 Premier League games under De Zerbi.
The second-half shot count was much closer – 11-6 in Arsenal’s favour – and the visitors even threatened to snatch a point that De Zerbi acknowledged would have been unfair through Pascal Gross late on, before Kai Havertz rattled in Arsenal’s second to kill the game at 2-0.
The Gunners hung onto the clean sheet, becoming the first team since Fulham in February to prevent Brighton from scoring in a Premier League game.
Brighton were obviously fatigued, but Arsenal controlled them in a way that virtually no other team in the division has done since De Zerbi took charge 14 months ago. “We are not used to suffering in this way,” De Zerbi confessed.
Arsenal have won league matches by a wider margin, finally beaten Manchester City in north London after going years without doing so and edged awkward away assignments so far this season. But based on the control they had and the quality of their opponents this was their most complete performance yet, an ominous 90 minutes in which Mikel Arteta’s grand masterplan for this team came to light.
It has been evident throughout this campaign that Arsenal’s defensive collapse towards the end of last season spooked Arteta and that he has attempted to remedy it by making his team more resolute to break down. Alongside Liverpool, the Gunners have conceded 15 goals in 17 games, at least five fewer than any other club, while their xGa (expected goals against) total of 12.7 is by far the best in the league (and an indication of David Raya’s struggles).
At points, it has felt as though that strategic shift has impacted Arsenal’s fluency going forward, but that was certainly not the case against the Seagulls. An xG (expected goals) total of 2.77 signalled their best return against a top-half team so far this season. Martin Odegaard orchestrated much of Arsenal’s best moments, while the front three tormented Brighton’s makeshift back four with their pace, trickery and movement.
The one negative was that Arsenal did not wrap up the win sooner. Last month, Jamie Carragher claimed Arsenal cannot win the league unless they win matches more convincingly, criticising their forwards explicitly for not being clinical enough.
“If we generate more [chances] the probability of scoring will be higher and that’s the only thing that we can focus on,” Arteta said on Sunday. “We have great players that can define games and finish actions. Today we needed too many situations to kill the game and that was the fear especially after half-time that it was going to be one of those days.”
It was also a good day for Arteta’s summer recruits. Declan Rice has justifiably earned praise for his authoritative midfield displays since making a club-record move from West Ham and alongside Odegaard was the game’s standout player.
Raya and Havertz have faced more scrutiny of their form than most players in the Premier League, but the former ended the game with a clean sheet and the latter scored the goal that secured the win.
Brighton’s limited attacking threat meant Raya had a largely stress-free afternoon, but his distribution was sound and the connection between him and William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes seems to be improving.
Havertz, meanwhile, is going from strength to strength in the left-sided central midfield role. After scoring just once (from the penalty spot) in his first 19 appearances for the club, he has since netted four times in his past seven matches, and all from open play.
Arsenal were the big winners on a weekend in which both City and Liverpool dropped points at home. If they can use the Brighton win as a template both in terms of their offensive and defensive play, their title rivals will have plenty to worry about.