Arsenal end 2022 with a final perfect day and inch ever closer to turning ‘could’ into ‘should’

Bukayo Saka celebrates after scoring for Arsenal in a 4-2 Premier League win at Brighton Credit: Alamy
Bukayo Saka celebrates after scoring for Arsenal in a 4-2 Premier League win at Brighton Credit: Alamy

Arsenal thrillingly capitalised on unexpected dropped points from City and Newcastle to soar seven points clear at the top of the Premier League…

 

They really might do this, you know.

It’s not just that they’re seven points clear at the top of the Premier League. It’s not just that they’ve gone away from home and beaten a very good side 4-2. It’s not just that they’ve only dropped five points all season. It’s the fact that all these facts flatter their opponents more than they do Arsenal.

The Gunners have been the best team in the Premier League this season by at least a seven-point margin.

Bizarre as it sounds, City really are quite fortunate to be that close. And the briefly nerve-inducing nature of Brighton’s spirited second-half fightback from 3-0 down to being an offside stud away from making it 4-3 with six added minutes to play only serves to highlight how impressive Arsenal’s initial saunter into that position of utter dominance was.

Their opponents put everything into the fightback and there were a couple of undoubtedly nervy moments, but in truth Arsenal never truly looked like losing the commanding advantage they had so compellingly established.

In this, the Gunners will hope the final day of 2022 serves as a microcosm for the 2022/23 season as a whole. And there is now no reason to doubt that Arsenal can do this, even if it remains far too early to say they will and even still a smidge presumptuous to argue they should.

What they have done, with the unexpected assistance of Frank Lampard’s Everton, is create a cushion that even defeats home and away to Manchester City would not be enough to eradicate. It’s an astonishingly good position in which they enter the new year.

Much of their general play possesses the hallmark of (potential) champions. The confidence on the ball, the snap and precision in the passing – especially that of Martin Odegaard, who is emerging as a genuine contender for Kevin De Bruyne’s king of the playmakers crown.

But what really stood out here on what promised to be a tense and tricky and trappy afternoon was the timing of their goals.

Kicking off the final game of the year with an unexpected chance to go seven points clear? What would be a really good nerve settler in that sort of situation is to have your best player calmly slot home the opening goal after 65 seconds.

Opposition starting to get a foothold and work their way back into the game after that early setback? Probably a good idea to have your second-best player nip that in the bud with a second goal, we reckon.

Still, though, 2-0 is a dangerous lead as all co-commentators know; the first goal of the second half is going to be absolutely crucial. So score that after less than two minutes of the second half through your second-choice striker who has now scored in back-to-back games since taking on an all-important starting role due to injury.

Opposition pull one back and threaten another? Instantly scoring a fourth goal seems a good idea, so do that.

And if your star defender and goalkeeper are going to have a joint disaster catastrofuck of a moment, then at least do at 4-1 up with 10 minutes to go.

The changing of the year already makes this feel like an obvious if arbitrary marking point, but if Arsenal do go on to win the league it will be one of the crucial days.

It was a day when maintaining the advantage would have been perfectly acceptable given on paper – and in truth even on grass – they faced a far tougher challenger at Brighton than either of their closest rivals in the table in home games against relegation battlers.

To extend their lead over both Manchester City and Newcastle is dreamy stuff. Maybe tomorrow Arsenal will get even more good news with Unai Emery’s Aston Villa doing a number on Spurs. Not because Arsenal need worry about Spurs in terms of the league table, but just because it would be funny.

This is the carefree world in which Arsenal can currently operate. They are on a giddy freewheeling ride and while it’s inevitable if they remain where they currently are in the table the pressure will switch when “could” becomes “should” that is a concern for another day. Another year, in fact. For now it can all just be enjoyed.

And the same is true for Brighton. There will be frustration at the defending for all four goals conceded – and at their markedly inopportune momentum-stealing timing – but righteous pride at the second-half performance here and that across the year as a whole.

They were the eighth best Premier League side in 2022 and showed precisely why even in defeat. This year they’ve lost a manager as well as the customary pair of key players yet once again never missed a beat. We don’t need to say they will get results against big teams with performances like this, because we’ve already seen it time and time again.

It’s just that at the moment Arsenal exist on another level not only to Brighton but even a Manchester City side that had previously looked almost unstoppable by conventional methods even before adding a 50-goal cheat-code striker to the mix.

Something is building at Arsenal. Theirs would not be a comparable miracle to Leicester’s in 2016, but it’s starting to have the same feel of a gathering momentum that could take them absolutely anywhere.

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