Arsenal have accepted how they must play to win a Premier League title

A sign of champions, the theory has it, is winning ugly. No side can be at their very best all the time and so, over the course of a season, there will be occasions when a team that is going to win the league has to gut it out, to keep going with their plans, to keep believing, whether that means withstanding pressure or burgling a late goal. Not all points are won with beauty; some have to be fought for or stolen. In a title race, character matters as much as ability.

Or at least that was the theory. It perhaps matters less now that the elite are so much richer than the rest, the stratification of clubs much more defined, and when Pep Guardiola has implemented a tactical system that offers such control and consistency. It’s very rare that Manchester City find themselves clinging on, or that they are left desperately seeking late winners.

For others, though, the truism continues to hold at least some truth. Saturday’s late kick-off at Brentford was a big test for Arsenal. With Manchester City drawing with Liverpool earlier in the day, they knew a win would put them top – not to have claimed the three points would have given ammunition to those who still see Arsenal as a little weak, who regard their loss of form in the final weeks of last season less as a consequence of fatigue catching up with a slender squad than of choking. Given City’s history of clicking into gear in the spring, it feels essential for any potential challenger to establish a lead.

It was not a great game. Arsenal dominated possession and prompted and probed without creating many chances. One effort had been ruled out for a tight offside. As at Newcastle, neither Bukayo Saka nor Gabriel Martinelli had really been able to impose themselves. And then Kai Havertz nodded in a last-minute Saka cross to give Arsenal a 1-0 win, and the post-match discussion was transformed from lamenting the team’s creative shortcomings to praising their patience and character.

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Mikel Arteta’s reaction was intriguing. He is well aware of the idea of winning ugly. “In England you say ‘win ugly’,” he said for instance after victory at West Ham in May 2022. “I think from my point of view today we won ugly, and I’m extremely happy to see a team that has this capacity to find a way to win and show the character that they showed today.”

But the win at Brentford, he said, was not that. Asked about winning when “not at your fluent best” he replied: “I think we were at our best today. You cannot have a fluent game here against the way they play. They do not allow you to have a fluent game. It’s stop-start, stop-start. You have to play that way. Unfortunately, sometimes you cannot play the game that you want.”

And that, frankly, seemed almost as significant as the Havertz goal. Arteta is far from alone in this, but he has been guilty in the past of complaining about teams who don’t let Arsenal play, as though the role of those in the middle and lower reaches of the table is to be patsies against whom his side can prove its brilliance. Brentford are physical. They are hard to break down. They are good at disrupting the rhythm of a game. And all that is a perfectly legitimate – for a club of their budget, perhaps the only – way to play. It’s not their job to make Arsenal look good; it’s Arsenal’s job to break them down. And, of course, it’s much easier to do that if you’ve accepted the nature of your opponent and the type of game you’re going to have to play.

How much difference Saturday’s win will make is debatable. The points, obviously, are valuable: teams hoping to challenge City can probably drop only about 20 over the course of a season, but a win like this is about more than that. It’s not even just about the boost to morale of scoring a late winner: Arsenal had plenty of that last season as well – against Manchester United, against Aston Villa, against Bournemouth; eventually, there can be a sense of too much expenditure of emotional energy in what should be quotidian games.

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But what was hinted at on Saturday was a new pragmatism about Arsenal. Injuries meant they had Leandro Trossard playing in midfield rather than in the forward line. The recalled Aaron Ramsdale hesitated in possession early on and was very fortunate to get away with it. They created little. But they won anyway.

Nobody should take too much pride in winning while being some way off their best – football will find you out eventually; at some point winning ugly just becomes playing ugly – but perhaps the greatest reason for Arsenal to feel optimistic is that last season it felt they had to play at their maximum just to stay in the race; this season, they are top of the table with a sense of more to come.

This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Have a question for Jonathan? Email, and he’ll answer the best in a future edition