Gabriel and the spirit that is fuelling Arsenal’s Premier League title challenge

Something-nil to the Arsenal: it has a ring to it. But if the chants from the Arsenal away end at Brighton were a throwback to the 90s, Mikel Arteta’s has now built a defence to match the days of Dixon, Bould, Adams and Winterburn. As the Gunners returned to the top of the Premier League table, they did so while keeping five clean sheets away from home in a row for the first time since 1997.

You could see why, as Gabriel Magalhaes threw himself to block Joao Pedro’s shot in stoppage time. Arsenal were 3-0 up and cruising, but Gabriel celebrated as if it had won the Gunners the match.

It is that defensive intensity that is fuelling Arsenal’s title challenge. There was an inevitability about Arsenal once Gabriel Jesus tumbled over Tariq Lamptey’s kick in the box and Bukayo Saka stepped up to give the visitors the lead from the penalty spot. Kai Havertz doubled Arsenal’s advantage after the break, easing the tension on an evening that began with the Gunners suddenly becoming wasteful in front of goal, before Leandro Trossard raced away to chip a delightful third on his return to the south coast. This was another big win for Arsenal’s goal difference.

Trossard added a third in front of the away end (Getty Images)

But if attack has got Arteta’s side back into the title race, it’s the defence that is keeping them there. The foundations of Arteta’s title challengers are so solid, with William Saliba and Gabriel’s partnership ensuring they became the first away team to win at Brighton since September with relative ease. David Raya made his own spectacular contribution as he tipped away Julio Enciso’s curling strike before half-time.

And while Liverpool and Manchester City have both been forced to come from behind in the title race this week, Arsenal continue to lead from the front. That has been particularly evident away from home, where Arteta’s side have not trailed since the turn of the year in the Premier League.

For Arsenal, it is further encouragement that they can go on to win their first title in 20 years. They will have to be close to perfect on the road to beat Liverpool and City, with trips to Wolves, Tottenham, and Manchester United still to come. Yet they have arguably come through the worst of it, in resoundingly assured style. After keeping the first clean sheet at the Etihad, Arsenal then managed to shut out Roberto De Zerbi’s side for the second time this season. They again made light work of a Brighton side who had scored in 33 consecutive top-flight matches before arriving at the Emirates back in December. Brighton have now failed to score in seven of the 14 since, and two of those have been against Arsenal.

It meant the first goal in the game felt so crucial, and is why Brighton felt so aggrieved with the penalty decision on 33 minutes. Both teams were playing on a knife-edge: Arsenal missed four big chances inside the opening 15 minutes. Brighton also started well and slick play pulled Arsenal open on more than one occasion, sucking Arteta’s side into the press before cutting through the midfield. It created a tension around Arsenal that hasn’t been there away from home since the turn of the year, last week’s trip to City included.

The chances weren’t as clear as Arsenal’s but the threat was obvious and there was a feeling the visitors were going to be punished after their early misses. At the heart of it was Lamptey, partnering with Simon Adringra to target Oleksandr Zinchenko down Brighton’s right. It was where Brighton’s early glimpses came from, with Enciso firing over from the edge of the box following a swift break.

Yet it was the other direction where Arsenal found the source of their breakthrough. Jesus, very much a winger now while Havertz continues to lead the line, received possession out wide before squaring up to Lamptey on the edge of the penalty area. The Brazilian skipped inside Lamptey, who clipped some of the ball but took more of Jesus as he dived in and swiped his legs. Referee John Brooks pointed to the spot and Saka converted past Bart Verbruggen to make it five out of five penalties this season.

Enciso offered a reminder of the magic Brighton have missed during his injury absence when he forced Raya into a superb diving save before half-time. It was almost a mirror image of Galeno’s last-minute winner for Porto in the Champions League last month, though this time Raya just about adjusted his position in time to claw away Enciso’s curling strike from 25 yards.

But in front of Raya, Gabriel and Saliba were once again immense, reading the play as Brighton threatened more counter-attacks, holding firm as Arsenal defended a series of set-plays at the start of the second half. And as soon as Arsenal steadied and took back control, they finished the game by doubling their lead. Jorginho leapt into action to cut out a loose pass from Enciso and carried on his run to reach the byline. In the middle was Havertz, who tapped in for his ninth of the campaign. A poacher’s finish was a fitting way to celebrate what is now Havertz’s best goal-scoring season in England.

It was Arsenal’s defensive record, though, which created the platform for this cruise to victory, Brighton barely creating a chance after falling behind. Instead, Arteta’s side threatened to run rampant. Trossard added Arsenal’s third to take their goal difference nine clear of Liverpool, 11 ahead of City. That may prove crucial come the end of the season, but Arsenal have built it thanks to both ends of the pitch.

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