After Arsenal’s worst performance of the season versus Everton, everyone knew the feel surrounding the team hinged on the response. Some wanted to call the loss a wake up call, but a wake up call can only be such if the call is heeded.
The call went out and the response was flat as the points were shared against Brentford. Incrementally better than the Everton performance, although hard to imagine they could get worse, but Arsenal were foiled once more, and with some similarities.
After Everton I wrote that the big concern I had was Dyche handing the league a blueprint to follow. And while Brentford made it their own, it very much felt like Frank took the notes and ran rampant with them. Brentford were compact in the middle, they shifted to close down and double-team in the wings, and they were content to stay diligent in their defensive structure, willing to concede long range efforts. It’s a formula that has now been used by Newcastle, Everton, and Brentford — all in their own ways — to produce Arsenal struggles which should have a few alarm bells ringing.
Coming into the game, I listed four aspects I felt were key to win this game:
- Winning defensive duels
- Set Pieces
- Nørgaard and Ødegaard
- A Response from Arsenal’s Wings
After the game, it feels like you can run down the list and see why Arsenal struggled on the day. Almost all aspects played a role in the result, proving themselves critical, and few aspects were won by the Gunners.
Winning Defensive Duels: Toney, Gabriel, Saliba
All season Brentford have found success through Ivan Toney winning the physical battles and aerial duels up the pitch. Whether it’s to spring the attack or hold up play, his ability to win duels with center backs creates so much opportunity for the Bees. In a game where Brentford would be looking to transition and take advantage of space, the importance of that aspect only ramps.
It’s why Arsenal’s center backs had a challenge on their hands coming into this game, not only to win most the duels, but to really win on the day. Things got better in the second half, but Arsenal struggled all day to win in these spaces, especially Saliba who was 1/4 in ground duels and 0/10 in aerial duels.
Saliba has put together a really fantastic season, but on the day he was bettered too many times. From there, the relationship between Toney and Mbuemo was on display and a lot of chances were made, especially early in the game. Brentford created three real opportunities, and two of them probably should have been scored. But the ability to regularly relieve Brentford’s defensive structure from trouble and keep Arsenal from pushing men forward is a consequential for the matches result.
Arsenal have only given up four goals this season from set pieces. Two of those goals have come in the last two games. On the other end, Brentford have score nine goals this season from set pieces and boast a seemingly endless repertoire of schemes to create opportunities. It always felt that set pieces would play a role in a game where Arsenal wanted to restrict chances. Sadly, they did.
Fairly or not, defenses aren’t judged by defending set pieces mostly well, they only get credit if they defend them all well. The margins in this match were tight and it’s a single set piece, and a handful of poor defending plays, or lack of plays, that open the Bees’ scoring. It’s exactly was Brentford will have hoped for and it leads to another result against a Big 6 team.
Nørgaard and Ødegaard
Last time out, neither of these two players played and Vieira — in Martin’s place — had a field day finding pockets of space. And while that heading might read as if it’s 1v.1 between these two, it’s meant more as the influence they would have.
I believe Ødegaard was okay on the day. With 3 dribbles completed, 2 shots, 2 created chances, he was average. But Nørgaard was a difference-maker in Brentford’s defensive structure. He anchored the show, he denied central access, he hassled and harried the Gunners, and he even ends up with the assist.
It felt a lot like Onana’s performance Arsenal faced versus Everton, and Arsenal had minimal answers for the frustration. The Gunners were kept at a distance from dangerous, central areas, and on the day Nørgaard won out.
A Response in the wings
After the Everton match, Arsenal’s wings were put in the spotlight. The importance of Saka and Martinelli to this team’s success cannot be overstated. Seeing a team eliminate the threat from those areas in a match is a concern. Arsenal needed to respond with ways to create space for Saka and Martinelli to produce.
Unlike Everton in which Martinelli was left abandoned on the wings, Gabi and Saka took up much more tucked in, central spaces. We also witnessed more efforts from Ben White to overlap Saka, and it helped. Saka was much more effective on the day, but, overall, Brentford were able to double team the wings and stymie the flow of attacking potential.
Arsenal’s goal comes from Trossard’s patience at the backrest and diligence in holding his spot and creeping in, but the flowers really should be given to Saka who demonstrated a wonderfully decisive bit of play. He’s truly made another leap in his game this season.
If you’re on the losing end in 4 of 4 key aspects — 3 of 4 if you want to say Arsenal wings produce the Gunners’ goal and thats a win — it’s a recipe for dropping points. Arsenal manage the draw, but if you’re being honest, they could just as likely have lost. Brentford produced three chances in the opening half, two of which should have been converted, including an open look that hits the woodwork.
Many fans will be pointing to an image going around the internet (below) that suggests there may have been an offside call missed on Brentford’s goal.
After the match, Arteta ardently stated it should have been chalked off, and there was a clear feud all match between him and the fourth official. He looks offsides, but the angle is odd and the lines are never drawn.
It would sting a lot in a season like this to have a 2nd goal come back after the fact and be admitted as a mistake (first being against United earlier this season), but Arsenal have to take ownership of their performances and acknowledge they have the ability to take these tight margins out of referees hands — something they failed to do.
Update: Hours after the match, it was revealed that VAR forgot to draw the lines on the image above. It’s ridiculous. To be left saying, “I guess that’s how it goes”, in any season in which the title could be decided by a point or two. Incredibly infuriating.
Other aspects of concern
Eddie Nketiah across the long stretch
It’s come up twice in two games, but up against these structured blocks, Eddie Nketiah strikes a more predictable foe for central defenders to contain. He was far more mobile versus Brentford than he was against Everton, a mark of incremental Gunner growth, but there’s a ceiling on his play that demonstrates why he backs up Gabriel Jesus.
I’m really glad the fanbase rallied around his early success, but it always felt that people were forgetting the real judgement of this stretch would be his ability to do it for the complete span of time. He’s certainly demonstrated an ability to contend at this level and be effective, but at the moments it’s clear Arsenal are missing their main man at levels many thought they would.
Without getting too far ahead of things, it also suggests those say Arsenal should sell Balogun may be in need of rethinking things.
Granit Xhaka influence and effectiveness
Granit Xhaka left London for the World Cup boasting a campaign that almost put him in the running for player of the season. There were shouts for “most improved”, a remarkable statement for a 30 year old veteran. Sadly, he has returned and the fire has died down.
Nothing in a team happens in a vacuum, and I believe the absence of Jesus players a role here as well, but Xhaka hasn’t been contributing in those same spaces we saw the first half of the season. When he was claiming assists and wreaking havoc, he was splitting the seams, exchanging with players, and timing runs to absolute perfection.
Now, the left side of the attack has all but died and become a vehicle for building up play, forcing the opposition to shift, and then switching play to spring the attack through the right side. Xhaka plays a role, he creates some chances, he supports our defensive structure in transition, but we aren’t seeing that eye-opening firepower that helped Arsenal get where they are. Reviving that during this run- in matters because Vieira doesn’t look ready to fill those shoes and Smith Rowe can’t buy a healthy run of games.
1 points between Everton (away) and Brentford (home) in a title contending season will never feel good enough in this league. Now Wednesday’s matchup at home versus Manchester City feels more “must win” than “a result will do to keep us on top”.
Arsenal sit 6 points clear at the time of writing this, but it’s three matches without a win and the grip feels tighter.