Saka and Lacazette deliver for Arsenal again to leave Brighton in trouble

Maybe, just maybe, Arsenal are edging out of the woods. They had to beat Brighton if suggestions of an upturn were to hold much credibility and, while this was hardly a victory for the ages, an assertive second-half performance did plenty to ease the pressure on Mikel Arteta.

Match-winners have been few and far between for them in recent months but the deciding goal offered an exhilarating reminder that they have a seemingly priceless one in their ranks.

That is not a reference to Alexandre Lacazette, even though the substitute’s well-taken low drive, 21 seconds after coming on midway through the second half, was of a piece with the better moments in his Arsenal career. The player who made it all possible was Bukayo Saka, whose maturity and confidence have survived this season’s darkest moments. This time the 19-year-old unlocked a defence that, having barely been troubled before the interval, had started to creak as Arteta’s side re-emerged with a sharper tempo.

There was no hint of threat when Saka took possession with his back to goal, eight yards inside his own half. The towering frame of Dan Burn was all over him but against such a blistering operator, the defender was always in danger of being spun. Saka did exactly that, holding him off before nudging the ball to his side and darting around him, sprinting 60 yards down the right flank and resisting Burn’s attempts to keep up before timing his pass perfectly.

An unmarked Lacazette, his introduction perhaps recent enough to render him undetectable to the home side, took a touch and did the rest; Arsenal, slightly wobbly earlier, never looked like letting the lead slip.

“We like everybody to be cautious and let him develop,” Arteta said of Saka. “He’s having the right progression, he’s got the right people behind him in his entourage, and he’s got the right teammates to give him support and confidence.”

It is inescapable, though, that Saka also offers those qualities to his colleagues. He had been relatively quiet during the opening period, showing for everything but finding himself crowded out or on the end of passes that had been timed too slowly. Soon after half-time he served notice of what would follow by escaping on the left to centre for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who had taken Lacazette’s starting place, to draw a brilliant point-blank save from Robert Sánchez. Arsenal flooded forward in the subsequent spell, the increasingly influential Emile Smith Rowe creating half-openings for Gabriel Martinelli and Aubameyang.

Alexandre Lacazette fires home the winning goal.

Alexandre Lacazette fires home the winning goal. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/AP

“We created four or five big chances and [Saka] was involved in most of them,” Arteta said. Given the exuberance of their Boxing Day win over Chelsea it was imperative that his team won here. They did not have everything their own way, though, and Graham Potter was left to sing a familiar song: Brighton had passed well, were rigorously structured and never looked in danger of being outplayed, but they simply lacked attacking thrust when it mattered and now look in severe danger of a drawn-out relegation fight.

“Certainly in the first half we did well,” Potter said, and that was unarguable. It had not seemed a given at the outset; he had made six changes from the team who drew at West Ham presumably in part due to a day’s shorter recovery than their opponents, and three of the newcomers had not started in the top flight all season.

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In the event Bernardo, Davy Pröpper and Alexis Mac Allister all performed creditably; the latter came close with a long-range effort before the interval and had Bernd Leno not saved from Propper shortly before Saka and Lacazette combined, the night would have taken a very different hue.

But Brighton, who also tested Leno through Alireza Jahanbakhsh, are now winless in seven and this was a far cry from the sunny afternoon on which these sides met in June. Back then they punished Arsenal at the death and Arteta was left with a cleaning-up job that included the banishing of Matteo Guendouzi. This time there was no late pressure; instead Arsenal could feel that they have the base for a far more constructive six months.

“With these two wins I think everyone is in a better mood,” Arteta said. It will not be the last time Saka gives them cause to smile.


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