Mikel Arteta smouldered and in front of him, Arsenal wilted. A comprehensive defeat to exuberant newcomers, a clutch of experienced players absent and others simply missing in action: this was the stuff nightmare starts to the season are made of and, in a situation that he is aware demands freshness and optimism, the manager finds himself on the back foot before 18 of his rivals have kicked a ball. Brentford’s night was a triumph for Arteta’s opposite number, Thomas Frank, and the latest occasion that laid the visitors’ long-standing problems starkly bare. Frank had noted before the match that there is “a part in every single game where all players feel a little bit insecure, a little bit under pressure”; he was spot on and it was Arsenal, facing top-flight novices, who buckled under moderate strain.
The mitigating factors are clear, although Arteta knows there is little room for excuses now and was unwilling to gloss over Arsenal’s vices. He entered this assignment without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, both of whom had fallen ill in the build-up. He had known for longer that Thomas Partey, who is likely to be out until next month, would not be around to anchor the midfield.
But it was initially possible to detect a silver lining in the reshuffle that ensued. There is legitimate unease about the lack of an obvious succession plan for Arteta’s two first-choice forwards, who are both struggling for consistency and in the autumn of their careers. The selection of Folarin Balogun and Gabriel Martinelli may have been forced on Arteta but it could have been framed as a welcome opportunity to point a way forwards. In the event neither player made much impression and it would have taken Olympic-level contortions to detect a revolution starting here.
That was little reflection on the understudies. Balogun’s start was his first in the top flight: the 20-year-old’s reputation had preceded him until now, a protracted contract saga and overtures from clubs around England and Germany the most public clues surrounding his potential. Martinelli is a comparative veteran of 13 Premier League starts, although he is a fortnight younger than Balogun and started to his left. With Albert Sambi Lokonga, signed from Anderlecht this summer, making his own debut in midfield an optimist might have detected a vigour to match that of the hosts. Arsenal’s resources may have resembled an overly familiar comfort blanket during pre-season but circumstances had lent them a welcome airiness.
The theory was appealing but then the cloud descended. Balogun was involved in Arsenal’s two brightest first-half moments, such as they were, but shot over and was foiled by Rico Henry as he attempted to spin in the box. For Martinelli the gruel was similarly thin, although he miscued a near-post header after the interval. Both players had been withdrawn by the time Christian Nørgaard exploited a bouncing ball and atrocious defending to seal the outcome and reduce an improved second-half display to huff and puff.
Who could Balogun, Martinelli or Lokonga look to for leadership when the going got tough? Their burden became infinitely greater when Sergi Canós lashed inside Bernd Leno’s near post midway through the first half; there was a tide to turn and senior players needed to step up. At 26 Nicolas Pépé was the closest approximation to that in Arsenal’s front line but his performance was inconsequential; he was handed a lesson in initiative by the 21-year-old Emile Smith Rowe. Lokonga put in a claim to be their most effective performer over 90 minutes, impressing with his scanning of space and smartly-weighted passes, but would have been excused a sense of exasperation given the lack of protection Granit Xhaka offered the back line before half-time.
The youthful new blend could hardly be held responsible for old habits further back. The night’s biggest concern was the ease with which Brentford, with Canós and Bryan Mbuemo causing particular havoc, exposed familiar defensive uncertainties.
Ben White endured a debut to forget but, in the circumstances, might be bracketed similarly to his fellow newcomers: would he have fared better under the guidance of a more resolute, brave and commanding partner than the woeful Pablo Marí?
The nagging fear for Arteta may be that, although £75m has already been invested this summer, it is hard to see how Arsenal will look significantly better even when Aubameyang, Lacazette and Partey return. The odds favour a deal for Martin Ødegaard before the transfer window is done but changes of the “ruthless” nature he demanded in May look far-fetched unless the revolving door speeds up dramatically. Against a Brentford side whose own rawness had been well trailed, with 19 minutes of Premier League action between them before kick-off, this was an opportunity to calm suggestions that the rebuild Arsenal desperately need looks far off. Instead the question marks loom as large as ever.