This was, as the away support gleefully reminded Ivan Toney, a stroll in the park for Arsenal. It certainly presented some departure from the night, 13 months ago, when they buckled under a battering at this venue. Brentford were quickly subdued to near silence and their new England call-up barely had a sniff thanks to a visiting defence whose performance was almost immaculate.
Last year Toney had tweeted about a “nice kickabout with the boys” after his side’s 2-0 win; this time references to playground football became especially relevant in stoppage time, when Mikel Arteta felt sufficiently assured to create a piece of history. He sent on the schoolboy Ethan Nwaneri, who had not been born when the Emirates Stadium was completed in 2006: at 15 years and 181 days old, the England under-17 international became Arsenal’s youngest-ever player and the youngest to appear for any team in the Premier League.
Nwaneri made a tackle in his cameo and, taking his time to depart at the end, deservedly savoured the moment. Arsenal’s faithful were generous in their appreciation of the youngster and equally lusty in acknowledging their team’s return to the summit. When they resurface in two weekends’ time it will be for a north London derby between bitter rivals who both look in exceptional shape; perhaps it remains too early to make definitive conclusions but Arteta appears to have moulded a unit that can, at the barest minimum, challenge concertedly for the top four.
They were vastly superior to a Brentford team that did not have a chance until Mikkel Damsgaard tested Aaron Ramsdale late on. Toney was smothered by Gabriel Magalhães even though the Brazilian had clearly felt an injury in the warm-up, also requiring treatment midway through the first half; to Gabriel’s right William Saliba blended graft with grace, one piece of defending when Toney appeared to have broken through taking the breath away with its sheer composure.
It was Saliba who put Arsenal ahead with a more rudimentary action, glancing Bukayo Saka’s inswinging corner across David Raya via the far post and changing the complexion of a game that had begun scrappily in a brisk wind.
There was a brief wait before David Coote indicated it had crossed the line, Raya having scooped the ball back out, but nobody had been in any doubt. Saliba had got in front of Toney before rising high; it was a sequence that spoke aptly of the overall contest.
“You could see how much it meant to Arsenal; they knew it was difficult; look how they celebrated the first goal,” Thomas Frank, Brentford’s manager, said. They certainly enjoyed the moment, remaining in a prolonged huddle and perhaps reminding one another to push on from there. Frank had reverted to a back three, giving the fit-again Kristoffer Ajer his first appearance of the season, and Brentford’s starting XI did not look ideally equipped to chase a game.
They had opted for solidity but a superbly constructed second goal made further mockery of that. Granit Xhaka’s deliciously dug-out cross drifted over Pontus Jansson for Gabriel Jesus, whose movement had been too much for the centre-back, to flex his neck and propel an emphatic header into Raya’s top-right corner. Jesus celebrated by kneeling and pretending to polish the boots of Xhaka, whose creative juices have been flowing in recent weeks.
Arsenal were missing Oleksander Zinchenko and Martin Ødegaard through injury; the latter’s absence looked particularly troublesome at the outset and it was asking a lot of Fábio Vieira, the 22-year-old summer signing from Porto, to impose himself similarly. In fact he answered every possible question on his first top-flight start, delighting Arteta with his appetite for the game’s muckier aspects and providing the flourish that finished Brentford off.
It came four minutes into the second half after Saka, with a dart inside that twisted Ben Mee in knots, found him in a pocket of space. If it was a surprise that no home player was closing Vieira down, it was still quite something to see him arrow a breathtaking 22-yard finish that clipped an upright before bulging the net behind Raya.
The presence of Nwaneri on a young Arsenal bench might have suggested they lack depth, but the fact they can call upon such an accomplished deputy for their captain mitigated such concerns. “He’s a creative player who needs to play with his gut feeling and instinct,” Arteta said. “But what I like as well is the way he competes.”
The contest was over: the atmosphere, among Brentford’s ranks at least, had never really got going and perhaps the midday kick-off was to Arsenal’s advantage. Now it was completely flat and the only significant consolation for Frank was that his players did not fold. Raya saved twice from Jesus and, with a flying one-handed stop, from Saka but this did not develop into the rout it might have been.
Even so, the point was well made. Ghosts are rarely exorcised this easily but, as Brentford tried to build pressure late on, even long throws of the kind that caused such strife in August 2021 were dealt with comfortably. For Arsenal a stroll could yet become the headiest of sprints.