Result: Brentford 2-0 Arsenal
Competition: Premier League
Date: 13 August 2021
Venue: Brentford Community Stadium
Arsenal lineup: Leno, Chambers, White, Mari, Tierney, Xhaka, Sambi, Smith Rowe, Pepe, Martinelli, Balogun.
Subs: Hein, Bellerin, Cedric, Maitland-Niles, Holding, Tavares, Elneny, Saka, Nelson
Goals from Sergi Canos and Christian Norgaard helped Brentford to a 2-0 win over an injury-hit Arsenal at the Community Stadium.
The Gunners dominated for long periods and created far more opportunities but the home side’s ruthlessness proved decisive at vital moments of the match.
Given Mikel Arteta’s side face Chelsea and Manchester City in the coming weeks, this was exactly the start we didn’t want.
This time last week, Mikel Arteta could not have envisaged fielding such a young starting lineup for the first game of the season but with ‘illness’ working its way through the camp, the Gunners were shorn of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alex Lacazette and backup keeper Alex Runarsson.
Thomas Partey, Gabriel and Eddie Nketiah were already nursing injuries so, it was very much a case of make do and mend. The spine of the starting XI were making debuts; Ben White partnered Palo Mari in the centre of defence, Sambi Lokonga tucked in next to captain Granit Xhaka and Flo Balogun led the line. On the flanks, Chambers and Pepe worked the right with Tierney and Martinelli on the left. Emile Smith Rowe, our new number 10, was charged with creating our chances.
Karl Hein got the nod ahead of Arthur Okonkwo to take up a place on a bench that was packed with defenders and not much attacking threat. At least Bukayo Saka made the trip.
A sunny Friday night in West London, Brentford’s first game in the Premier League and a new stadium at full capacity; unsurprisingly, the atmosphere created by the home fans at kick off was absolutely electric.
Arsenal kept Brentford at arm’s length in the opening 10 minutes but Thomas Frank’s side gradually grew into things. Onyeka headed over the bar on 11 minutes and Mbeumo, played in by Toney, rattled the outside of Leno’s post with a shot from a tight angle.
Back came the Gunners. Pepe and Xhaka combined to find Smith Rowe between the lines and he was close to getting the ball back off Balogun who tried a deft backheel in the box. It was slick football coming in off the right flank.
The home side wrestled back control soon enough and a spell of pressure which included a couple of corners eventually led to an opener. Calum Chambers thought he’d cleared the danger when he hacked away but the ball was returned by the Bees midfield to his area of the pitch where Sergi Canos stepped inside onto his right foot and fired home a low drive that beat Leno at his near post. (1-0)
Nervous about Brentford’s high press, Leno’s policy was to go long on his goal kicks. It wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision but the fact we won so little ball in the air in midfield repeatedly left us on the back foot. Concerted spells of possession were few and far between in the first 30 minutes and that continued to buoy the home side. Mbeumo, the dangerous French forward, should have doubled the lead when he wriggled clear of Pablo Mari and White in the box before firing wide.
The Gunners continued to huff and puff in the final third and when we did play a penetrating pass, our touch or finishing let us down. Tierney fizzed a cross into Balogun who tried to spin but couldn’t keep the ball close enough before Brentford cleared the danger and Pepe tried two curlers; the first went wide, the second was blocked at close quarters.
Thanks to the urgency of Smith Rowe and some bright touches by Lokonga, Arsenal took the game by the scruff of the neck in the opening stages. Tierney tested Raya’s handling with a low driven cross before Smith Rowe tested the Spaniard from just inside the box after a great turn and driving run through the middle.
Unable to find an equaliser, Arteta turned to Saka to add extra impetus to the attack. The England international, greeted by a rousing standing ovation from the home fans, took over from Balogun meaning Martinelli went up top.
Lokonga tried his luck with a shot straight into Raya’s arms and Tierney lashed one with his right foot that was deflected just wide. It was the closest we’d come. From the resulting corner, Martinelli flicked a header just wide.
At the other end, Leno beat away a Canos effort and then did very well to stop an Mbeumo effort even though the flag went up afterwards.
Arsenal kept plugging away and continued to win a lot of balls high up the pitch but our failure to finish proved costly. Xhaka’s half volley came within inches of an equaliser.
Two minutes later, the home side doubled their lead in the most agricultural fashion. A long throw to the near post should have been met by Pablo Mari but under pressure, he missed the ball and at the back post Norgaard met the bouncing ball to head in from three yards out. Leno was clearly being blocked on his line but VAR ignored the German’s claims of a foul. (2-0)
Norgaard came very close to adding a third with another header as he connected with a corner at the near post. With so few options on the bench, Arteta chucked on Tavares to sit behind Nelson, also on as a sub, on the right. It was a change made more in hope than expectation as the clock ticked down.
The Portuguese’s first involvement saw him shoot over as he cut in from the right. Xhaka sent another effort wide not long after. The frustration was clearly building. To be fair, we kept going. Saka and Smith Rowe combined to release Tierney whose cross was met first time by Pepe. Raya made a fantastic save. It was our best move of the match.
Arteta paced the touchline clearly seething. He’ll take some heart from the way we dominated the second half but the problems are the same as last season. Scoring goals is a problem. He has 19 days of the transfer window to find a solution or it will be more of the same.