The anticipation had been building. For generations. Not since 1947 had Brentford hosted a top division match and, when it happened – in the club’s lovely new-ish stadium, which was packed out for the first time – it unfolded exactly how everybody would have dreamed.
There was a blockbusting first-half strike from the wing-back, Sergi Canós, to get the place rocking and, after resolute defending, as Arsenal tried to mount the salvage operation, Brentford eased home when Christian Nørgaard rose to punish a basic lack of desire in the visitors’ defence.
The Arsenal inquest will rage. They normally do. It will rake over plenty of familiar ground – the soft underbelly, the lack of cutting edge up front. They had plenty of the ball, particularly in the second-half, and yet they never truly looked like hurting Brentford when they needed to.
It was a night that belonged to Thomas Frank and the players in red and white stripes. They felt that Arsenal could be there for the taking and so it proved, the completeness of their evening rounded off late on when David Raya produced a wonderful save to keep out Nicolas Pépé and preserve the clean sheet.
You want drama? Dial into Arsenal. Amazon Prime clearly thought so when they signed up to document the club’s season and Arteta being shorn of his three main centre-forwards had felt like a strangely typical plotline. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette were declared ill, with Eddie Nketiah injured.
Arsenal knew what awaited them. They knew that Brentford would run and press; that it would be no easy feat for them to play out from the back. Twice in the opening ten minutes, Thomas Frank’s team brought the hustle at the sharp end of the formation to discomfort their opponents. The home crowd was energised. The tone was set.
It was incumbent on Arsenal to make their quality tell and they were assured in possession for the first 15 minutes. Albert Sambi Lokonga, the new central midfielder, was smooth in possession and Arsenal tried to build with patience.
And yet anything that Brentford did, any challenge or any thrust, was met with tremendous enthusiasm from the stands. The movement of Bryan Mbeumo and Ivan Toney up front was lively and the jitters bubbled for Arsenal.
Brentford had almost unpicked them in the 12th minute when Frank Onyeka, the new signing, found Toney and he hooked on for Mbeumo, who needs no invitation to run. His shot from an angle on the right appeared to brush off Bernd Leno’s gloves before hitting the outside of the near post.
The breakthrough came when Brentford pushed up the left and Vitaly Janelt threw himself at a cross only for Arsenal to half clear. Calum Chambers completed the job from flush on the byline – was the ball actually out? – but back came Brentford, who were stationed high, scenting blood.
Brentford worked the ball to Sergi Canós on the left and he tore at Chambers, mindful that no Arsenal defender likes it when this happens. He skated inside before unloading a low shot that flew inside Leno’s near post. The power was too much. Brentford had lift-off.
The remainder of the first half was extremely uncomfortable for Arsenal. Arteta’s team were stretched, their defending last-ditch and Brentford, stepping onto the front foot, ought to have scored again on the half-hour when Kristoffer Ajer released Mbeumo up the inside right channel and he ran at Ben White.
What happened next made Arteta’s blood boil. Mbeumo over-ran the ball but Pablo Mari gave up on the covering challenge and White melted away. Mbeumo was in only to drag wide of the far post. Would Brentford live to rue the miss?
Ragged at the back, Arsenal offered little in the final third before the interval. Arteta had turned to Folarin Balogun up front, handing him his first Premier League minutes and, once behind, he could not fail to feel the pressure. Ditto all of Arsenal’s callow front line, which also featured Gabriel Martinelli, very recently back from the Olympics.
Brentford’s compact, well-appointed new home had been 15 years in the making and so imagine it finally being ready for the start of last season – just as the pandemic gripped and no fans were allowed. The club were able to squeeze in a couple of thousand for two games in December but that was it until May and the Championship play-off semi-final, second-leg, when nearly 4,000 roared their team to a famous come-from-behind win over Bournemouth. What a night. The idea was that this would trump it.
Arsenal had to be better in the second half, they had to show more drive and personality on the ball. As in the first period, the early signs were promising but could they show the needed penetration? Emile Smith Rowe offered a flicker, spinning away from Nørgaard, racing to the edge of the area and shooting at David Raya.
This time Arsenal remained on the front foot for longer. Arteta introduced Bukayo Saka, who was applauded by the Brentford fans – a nice, supportive touch after his penalty miss for England at the Euro 2020 final. Kieran Tierney pressed higher up the left. Brentford dropped deeper.
Martinelli fluffed a near post header. It felt as though the equaliser might be coming but assume nothing with this Arsenal team. Instead they were unhinged by a long throw from the Brentford substitute, Mads Bech Sørensen, the ball coming off the hapless Mari for Nørgaard to rise unchallenged.