“It’s just Arsenal,” said Jamie Carragher. “Weak. Bullied. Men against boys again. New season, same old story.”
The Sky Sports pundit had just watched Mads Bech Sorensen’s long throw cause disarray in the Arsenal box, allowing Christian Norgaard to head home Brentford’s second goal of the evening and consign the Gunners to a defeat which feels all too familiar.
“We’ve seen these problems last season and in years gone by,” added Carragher. “Arsenal fans have ridiculed Spurs over the years, calling them ‘Spursy’ for different things. But this is an Arsenal performance. I think we all know what that is now.”
Earlier, Arsenal had conceded the opening goal in similarly passive style, failing to properly clear their lines then inviting Sergi Canos to send a low shot past Bernd Leno at his near post.
This was a Brentford side playing the first Premier League game in their history but even they knew they could bully Arsenal and so it proved in front of their delirious supporters.
“There’s nothing worse than thinking your team are a little bit soft,” said Gary Neville afterwards. “Brentford have looked at them and thought, ‘yeah, we’ll have you’, and that’s the worst feeling.”
Thomas Frank admitted as much, saying Brentford felt they could exploit Arsenal’s frailties from set-pieces in his post-match interview with Sky Sports. But that was not all they did to gain an advantage.
Pablo Mari was aggressively pressed, with Brentford correctly identifying the Spaniard’s vulnerability in possession, while Ben White, the club’s £50m signing from Brighton, was targeted with long balls and dominated in the air by Ivan Toney.
“A game of football is really difficult if your centre-backs are getting messed around by the opposition forwards and that’s happened from minute one tonight,” added Neville.
White and Mari are not the first Arsenal centre-backs to struggle in this way, of course, and it is not just the softness of their side’s display that will worry the club’s supporters.
It is that all the attacking problems of last season appear unresolved – and that, more than two months since the transfer window opened, the squad still looks so far short of where it needs to be.
Arsenal were not helped by Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang and Alexandre Lacazette’s absences through illness, of course, and while their youthful front line excited supporters ahead of kick-off, it also underlined a worrying lack of depth.
Arsenal have an excellent crop of young players in their squad but there is little in the way of support for them.
In Calum Chambers, they head into the new season with a centre-back as their first-choice right-back. They are a Bernd Leno injury away from having to turn to an untested 19-year-old in goal – not that Leno looked much better on Friday night.
Arsenal will hope to resolve some of those issues in the remaining weeks of the transfer window and in truth, they are not the only side struggling to get their business done in a difficult climate.
But their fixture list could hardly be more daunting, with Chelsea and Manchester City to come next. There is no time to waste and White’s struggles against Brentford are a reminder that there are also bigger issues than personnel.
Arteta inherited an imbalanced squad which is proving difficult to reshape but after more than a year and a half in the job, his plan for the side remains tricky to decipher.
The lack of cohesion and creativity in the final third was alarming for much of last season and it was the same story against Brentford. Arteta’s side dominated the ball and yet did little with it.
Emile Smith Rowe was outstanding but too often he had to do it on his own. The ball was funneled out to Kieran Tierney repeatedly but there is little to be gained from putting him in crossing positions when there is nobody in the box to meet his deliveries.
Further back, White was asked to do a very different job from the one he did at Brighton, where he played in a back three alongside Adam Webster and Lewis Dunk rather than a back four.
His ball-playing ability is undoubtedly a formidable weapon but is his game suited to that formation? “It will encourage teams to play two up front against Arsenal,” noted Neville afterwards.
It is a conundrum for Arteta and if Toney was not enough of a handful for White, his next test puts him against Romelu Lukaku. It is less than ideal when his centre-back partner looks as unconvincing as Mari did on Friday night.
The season is of course only a game old but Arsenal already appear to be playing catch-up and the sight of the same old problems resurfacing ensures optimization is in short supply.
With supporters returning to the Emirates Stadium for next weekend’s meeting with Chelsea, it may not be long before they are making their frustrations known.