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Arsenal 1 - Brentford 1: disappointing

The Gunners need to rediscover their form from earlier in the season.

Arsenal FC v Brentford FC - Premier League Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images

Arsenal battled to a disappointing 1-1 draw against Brentford at the Emirates today. The Bees are a tough out, as I said they would be before the match. A draw against them isn’t a bad result per se, but when you’re in a title race in which you’re going to need north of 90 points to win, there isn’t much room for dropped points, period.

There’s no two ways about it. Arsenal are in the midst of a dip in form, which is unfortunate with a critical match against Manchester City looming in a few days.

Gabriel Martinelli misses Gabriel Jesus to combine with down the left. Martinelli looks a bit tired and out of ideas. William Saliba isn’t the dominant force at the back he was earlier in the season. He lost every aerial duel against Ivan Toney. Martinelli and Saliba are both young and aren’t going to be at the top of their game every time out. That’s how it goes.

Thomas Partey isn’t fully fit. Ben White is just a bit off, the majority of his crosses feel like hit and hope as opposed to aimed at a teammate. Aaron Ramsdale is fine, as compared to the “great” he’s been at other points of the season. Granit Xhaka isn’t as involved in the attack. Alex Zinchenko is misplacing passes he normally could make in his sleep. Nothing is running as smoothly or sharply for the club as it was earlier in the season.

The shooting was poor today, as it was against Everton. The shots that the Gunners got on target were hit directly at David Raya. Equally poor was the shot selection. Time and again Thomas Partey, Alex Zinchenko, and Granit Xhaka fired harmlessly over the bar from more than 20 yards out. Arsenal need to stop ceding possession and letting off the pressure by taking harmless potshots from distance.

Arsenal need to get right. And they need to do it in three days’ time.

On the one hand, a draw feels like a fair result. Brentford created plenty of chances in the first half but didn’t convert any of them. You’d expect at least one of those to find the back of the net, and the Gunners were fortunate the Bees didn’t hit pay-dirt. Brentford do what they do well. They sit extremely deep, at one point all 10 players were crammed between the 18-yard line and about 30 yards out to defend. When they win the ball, they play it long for Toney to win for Bryan Mbeumo running beyond, and they look to capitalize on set pieces. It’s effective but it makes for dreadful watching.

The deep block gave Arsenal plenty of trouble. A healthy Gabriel Jesus with his excellent close control in the box would have worked wonders in helping to unlock it. The Gunners did well to break down the deep block on the goal. Martin Ødegaard played a line-breaking ball for Bukayo Saka. Saka beat his marker for strength and pace, and played a perfect pass across for Leandro Trossard to put away to open his Arsenal account. Trossard made the finish look easy, but the volley was much tougher than it looked. It was one of those you probably expect him to score but you’ve seen plenty of similar-looking chances missed.

Like Newcastle and Everton, Brentford frequently sent multiple defenders to defend the Arsenal wide attackers. And like against Newcastle and Everton, Arsenal didn’t really have a good answer for that particular defensive tactic. The Gunners need somebody to run into the interior channel created by the defense getting pulled wider. The space is there, it’s just a question of moving into it and finding the pass from the touchline to whoever has made the run into that area. It would also help if Ben White and Alex Zinchenko had better passing performances than they did this time around. Arsenal also need more from Granit Xhaka and Martin Ødegaard in those areas on their respective sides. And not to beat a dead horse, but that’s another area in which Arsenal miss Gabriel Jesus. He filled in that space on the left in particular in a way that Eddie Nketiah, who is more comfortable staying through the middle, does not. Jesus’ control and passing is much more punishing to teams that leave space on the interior to shut down the wide play.

On the other hand, it feels as if Arsenal were hard done by. Christian Nørgaard, who headed it back across the face to Ivan Toney for the goal sure looks offside there. Angles do weird things, so he might have been onside. But as far as I can tell from the TV broadcast and from Twitter, the moment below wasn’t even checked for offside. The goal was reviewed for something, possibly a foul on Zinchenko or a potentially offside Ethan Pinnock impeding Gabriel Magalhaes, but it stood.

After the match, Mikel Arteta said, “I just looked at it [the Brentford goal] and it is offside. If we apply what the referee told us every single week, before the game, that blockers, if you are offside, it will be offside. It’s offside...You have to apply certain principles in defending but that depends on you following the rules.”

That’s about as clear and definitive as I’ve ever heard him be about a refereeing decision. He was referencing Pinnock blocking Gabriel off. He’s essentially saying that he sets Arsenal’s set piece defense up in a certain way with the expectation that the attack won’t be permitted to do certain things. He feels that Brentford’s set piece routine for the goal was allowed to do things referees and the Premier League have told him would be called.

Thomas Frank, not surprisingly, took a different stance. He admitted that Pinnock was offside but agreed with the decision that his player didn’t do enough to rise to the level of an offside infraction

If you really want to dig down into that goal, there are a couple more instances that easily could have gone the other way. The “foul” called against William Saliba on Ivan Toney easily could have gone the other way. Toney initiated the contact and both players grabbed each other. Brentford got the foul call. Alex Zinchenko was obstructed off Ivan Toney at the start of the free kick routine by a Brentford player moving away from the Arsenal goal. Gabriel Magalhaes was then obstructed and grabbed by Pinnock, who in addition to committing what could have been a foul, was offside. And as I mentioned earlier, it sure looks as if Nørgaard was offside, too.

And not for nothing, the color commentator, who was annoying anti-Arsenal in his analysis, thought that Bukayo Saka could have been awarded a penalty in the first half.

The opposing team not converting chances is one thing. A goal standing that looked remarkably like it shouldn’t have is another. Arsenal have every reason to feel aggrieved by the final score, even granting that they aren’t playing particularly well right now.

Against most of the other Premier League clubs, but probably not Manchester City, Arsenal are good enough to overcome not being at their best. They’re also good enough to overcome a handful of 50-50 calls not going their way. But they aren’t good enough to overcome both. And that’s what we had today. Arsenal needed a bit of help with a fortunate call or bounce, and they didn’t get it. That’s the way it goes.

To end on a positive note, Arsenal are 6 points ahead of Manchester City with the same number of matches played (21). At 14 matches played, they were 5 points ahead. So far, the Gunners have held their ground without Gabriel Jesus in the lineup and going through a bit of a wobble. We’re going to hear a lot of “if Manchester City win on Wednesday” whatever will happen over the next few days. But what if Arsenal win? Everybody wants to write Arsenal off. They’re ready for the team to collapse. I think the haters are going to be sorely disappointed.