On a weekend that saw Manchester United, Tottenham and Manchester City all kick on in their pursuit of domestic glory, Arsenal did their bit in keeping the league’s early pacesetters within their sights.
With another win under their belts here at the Emirates – Nacho Monreal and Alex Iwobi firing the side to a 2-0 victory against new boys Brighton – the north Londoners sit six points behind the two Manchester clubs – a gap Arsene Wenger will no doubt believe his men can bridge over the coming months.
After the calamity of the season’s early defeats, this was a largely assertive and, at times, delightfully stylish display that will add to the sense of restored equilibrium emerging here in north London – though the Gunners will know that the scoreline could have been greater.
Wenger made nine changes from the erratic midweek Europa League win over BATE Borisov, though there was no place for Mesut Özil whose fitness remains in doubt, and the return of Arsenal’s seniors made for a compelling start.
It took all of two minutes for Arsenal to set the game alight. Pouncing on a loose ball outside the Brighton box, Alexandre Lacazette’s well-struck volley pummelled the right upright. Alexis Sanchez was on hand to deal with the aftermath but his flailing attempt was off the mark.
Fifteen minutes of patient probing followed before Arsenal got their breakthrough. Granit Xhaka set things in motion, whipping in a free-kick to the far left post that was kept in play by a last-ditch, cross-box Lacazette header.
Shkodran Mustafi pounced but saw his effort cleared. Hector Bellerin tried his luck but he too was denied by a block. It fell to the unlikeliest of heroes to land the hammer blow. Up stepped Monreal, hitting hard and sweet to finally put the ball in the net.
Brighton’s players protested, arguing that Lacazette had failed to keep the ball in, but replays confirmed otherwise. Pascal Gross picked up a yellow for his insubordination.
But instead of galvanising Arsenal after a spirited start to the game, it appeared to instil Brighton with a sense of dynamism. The visitors came to life, surging forward down both flanks in a promising spell that almost culminated with an equaliser in the 22nd minute.
Having picked up play from a short free-kick ball, Solly March caught the hosts off-guard with a stinging strike that battered Petr Cech’s left-hand side post. Brighton reacted first but Lewis Dunk’s follow-up failed to find the target, hanging ominously in the air before sailing past the post.
Arsenal looked effectively ruffled but hit back to keep momentum on their side. Chances came and went for Iwobi and Lacazette before a rapid-fire counter-attack almost saw Aaron Ramsey double the lead.
It was a tantalising passage of play, kickstarted by Sanchez’s purposeful drive through the heart of Brighton’s midfield and brought to fruition by Sead Kolasinac’s goal-mouth delivery, that showcased what this Arsenal team are capable of.
The hosts’ second goal, coming 10 minutes after the restart, was imbued with a similar serving of class – and perhaps a dash of luck, too. Following a fluid interchange outside Brighton’s penalty area, Sanchez, looking for what seemed a one-two with Ramsey, instead found Iwobi with a speculative backheel. Unmarked and positioned on the edge of Mathew Ryan’s seven-yard box, the youngster did the rest.
From there it was one-way traffic against a Brighton team that appeared to be sinking deeper into the mire as the clock ticked down.
Sanchez could have added a third on the hour mark, drifting in from the left flank before letting loose with a curled, goal-bound strike inside the visitors’ box. Had it not been for Dunk’s goal-line intervention, that would have been game, set and match with 30 minutes to spare.
Sensing the game all but won, Wenger brought on new blood to seal the deal, replacing Iwobi and Lacazette with Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud respectively. The change failed to have the desired effect, though.
For all their lack of possession throughout the 90 minutes, Brighton continued to fight into the dying stages of the game, with substitute Glenn Murray’s close-range header zipping inches wide of the post late on. The visiting fans, an energetic presence throughout, thought it had gone in. Once the penny had dropped, the home supporters taunted their counterparts while seemingly breathing a sigh of relief. It was three points in the bank and another step forward.
Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Cech; Holding, Mustafi, Monreal; Bellerin, Ramsey, Xhaka (Elneny 83), Kolasinac; Iwobi (Walcott 71), Sanchez; Lacazette (Giroud 71).
Substitutes not used: Ospina, Mertesacker, Maitland-Niles, Wilshere.
Brighton (4-2-3-1): Ryan; Bruno, Duffy, Dunk, Bong; Stephens, Propper; March (Schelotto 72), Gross, Izquierdo (Knockaert 76); Brown (Murray 76).
Substitutes not used: Krul, Goldson, Suttner, Molumby.
Referee: Kevin Friend.
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