Arsenal moved back to the top of the Premier League table with a controlled 2-0 win against Brighton and Hove Albion at the Emirates Stadium. At times there was something routine and energy-saving about Arsenal’s 12th win of the league season against a Brighton team that played most of the opening hour, as if Thursday night’s opponents were still feeling the burn from a Europa League game.
The crucial moment came after Mikel Arteta’s side, who had underperformed in last week’s defeat at Villa Park, predictably bounced back after a first half of cautious dominance. Arsenal shot on target 16 times in the first half, dominating both territory and possession without any real sense of devilry or precision. The half ended with what felt like a repeat of the space-time loop of the previous 45 minutes, as Bukayo Saka turned inside on the left and shot high over the crossbar, prompting a general outcry of frustration.
When the game started again there was more movement, more overlap and more attacking hunger, although the opening goal was scored by a series of sharp passes from Brighton in their own penalty area. Jack Hinshelwood won the ball back as Saka tried to find a way through on the right flank. At this point the Brighton defense executed a stunningly complex zigzag pass across their own penalty area, no doubt with the intention of sucking Arsenal in, creating space, avoiding counter-pressure etc, but they were rushed and harassed and ended up conceding a goal an unnecessary corner.
Saka took it. The ball swung violently towards the goal, Jan Paul van Hecke accidentally shot it further and Gabriel Jesus stooped to direct the ball into the net with a header that was just wide of the goal.
From then on Arsenal pressed even more forcefully. Declan Rice controlled the angles in midfield. Kai Havertz found space on the left side. Roberto De Zerbi made a triple substitution but Arsenal were able to play well on the counterattack as Billy Gilmour started to see more of the ball in midfield. Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Ødegaard both had chances to extend the lead before Havertz was able to add a second just before the end.
Havertz had spent most of the autumn running for sympathy and was kept afloat by the odd pity penalty, but here he was, somewhat awkwardly, accepting Arsenal’s player of the month award before kick-off posed with the trophy (no change: unless specifically stated). In other words, Havertz always makes things a little awkward. This is a footballer who can win the Champions League, a bit clumsy. This was his fourth goal in the last four weeks.
The Emirates had been a cool, dreary, Sunday place at kick-off, with a dash of pre-festive splendor. It took 50 seconds for Saka to make his first attack on substitute left-back James Milner, who persistently turned back and smothered the danger as he did in the first half, an act of will and persistence rather than any great act was defense technology.
It made for a riveting one-two punch at times in an otherwise sluggish first half. Arsenal were in control and Rice moved like a three-masted galleon in midfield. But Brighton doesn’t mind if you’re in control. It’s part of the plan.
Half an hour later, Ødegaard played the pass of the day, a stunning, backwards, sweeping piece of direction that slid into the smallest space on Brighton’s left to put Saka on goal, but his cut-back was shot high over the crossbar by Martinelli.
And Arteta managed to make his mark again here with another yellow card just before half-time for a moment of anger on the touchline. Kaoru Mitoma had pulled Saka back and then slipped away with the ball. Arteta responded by jumping around strangely with both hands in the air, like a man on a desert island spying a distant sail just disappearing over the horizon.
Mitoma was fully booked. Arteta was also cautioned and reacted by throwing his head back in disbelief. What did he expect? The foul was given. There was no logical reason to go to the full Touchline disco.
Otherwise it would have been an extremely satisfying game for Arsenal and their coach. This is a relatively novel game, as just over a third of all Arsenal-Brighton games have ever taken place with Arteta on the sidelines. Even in this short period of time, Brighton have acquired the status of a weak shambles team. But they were kept at arm’s length here for most of the afternoon.
Pascal Gross had the chance to equalize ten minutes before the end after good preparatory work from Mitoma, but shot his shot wide of the goal from four meters away. Shortly afterwards, Havertz sealed the game with a great finish after another quick break through on the left. Liverpool’s 0-0 draw with Manchester United later on Sunday means Arsenal are a point clear at the top.