New season, Same Arsenal

Hopes of a New Chapter for Gunner tore by opening-day loss at Brentford

The start of a new Premier League season brings with it a sense of regeneration and hope, everywhere that is except Arsenal.

Nowhere was that optimism and anticipation greater than Brentford, an enclave of west London deprived of top-flight football for 74 years and desperate to fill their new stadium for the first time en masse. To heighten the excitement still further, crowds were able to return without restrictions on capacity for the first time, meaning 16,479 supporters crammed into this compact but comfortable arena surrounded on three sides by railway lines.

And how Thomas Frank’s team rose to the occasion. Sergi Canos fired a 22nd-minute shot past Bernd Leno to settle any lingering nerves before the hosts doubled their advantage 17 minutes from time with a goal from a throw-in that typified how they out-fought and out-thought opponents who really should know better in an emotional 2-0 win.

“We’re just a bus stop in Hounslow, but we’re top of the League,” said Frank afterward, summing up the David and Goliath feel.

Yet the most damning aspect of this is that it wasn’t much of an upset. Sources at Brentford were quietly confident all week they could deny their underdog status and cause a stir, conscious of the soft underbelly Arsenal have long carried.

What does it say about the Gunners that they were proved so emphatically correct? The opening game of a campaign is palpably too early to declare a club in crisis, but then this result doesn’t reflect 90 minutes but an unfinished summer.

If it is misfortune that both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette missed the game through illness, and key midfielder Thomas Partey was absent due to an ankle injury, there are still questions to ask about a process that left a 20-year-old, Folarin Balogun, to lead the line on his debut in such circumstances.

Balogun could be anything, but he isn’t ready yet. And neither were Arsenal, despite this being such a vital game given the fragile mood around the club, the culture shift Mikel Arteta is trying to implement and a fixture list that pits them against Champions League winners Chelsea and Premier League winners Manchester City before the end of the month.

Instead, this felt all too familiar: frail at the back and sterile in attack, despite having their £50 million centre-back, Ben White, and £17m midfielder, Albert Sambi Lokonga, on the pitch.

White and defensive partner Pablo Mari struggled all night. Their third summer signing, Nuno Tavares, made an ineffective late appearance as a substitute as Arsenal failed to show any sustained attacking cohesion to force their way back into the game. They ended with 22 shots but just four on target, a small indication of the desperation on show.

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