Kai Havertz and Gabriel Jesus deliver goods as Arsenal sink Brighton to go top

Havertz scored his fourth goal in seven games for Arsenal. Photograph: Skysports

At the end of this controlled, arm’s-length victory against a defanged Brighton there was a sense once again of this Arsenal team operating in a kind of stealth mode.

Defeat against Brighton here in May had effectively ended Arsenal’s hopes of winning the league last season. This time around second‑half goals from Gabriel Jesus and Kai Havertz lifted Mikel Arteta’s team back to the top of the table.

Afterwards Arteta spoke about things like maturity and game intelligence. Roberto De Zerbi was more effusive: “Arsenal are the best team we have played so far this season. We are not used to suffering in this way. We are used to controlling the game.”

Control is the key word. There has been a less emotionally draining pitch about Arsenal’s progress so far this year after the adrenal highs of last season, the talk of collapse, of being, of all things, “too emotional” in the final knockings (never mind losing your best defender or being reeled in by one of the great club teams: emotion is definitely a better story). Even the celebrations at the end here were relatively contained, Martin Ødegaard restricting himself to a rather mannered fist-pump toward the home end.

Sporting narrative is always entirely outcome-based. This kind of victory will either become evidence of a team ready to win titles or evidence of a team still looking for fluency. Take your pick and count backwards from the end.

For now Arteta and his players will be delighted with the routine, energy-saver feel of a 12th league victory of the season. This is a relatively novel fixture, to the extent Arteta has been on the touchline for more than a third of all Arsenal versus Brighton games ever. Even in that limited time Brighton have still been able to attain mild bogey-team status, although here they always looked to be feeling the burn from their Europa League win against Marseille on Thursday.

The key moment arrived just after half-time, as Arsenal re-emerged predictably geed up after dominating territory and possession without any real sense of devil. Havertz and Ødegaard pushed higher up the pitch. Suddenly there were overlaps and half-chances. But the opening goal still came from the latest in a series of knife-edge Brighton passing moves inside their own box.

Jack Hinshelwood won the ball back from Bukayo Saka deep on the right flank. At which point the Brighton defence enacted a startlingly intricate passing zigzag across the penalty area, no doubt with the intention of sucking Arsenal in, avoiding the counter-press and so on, but they were hurried and harried and ended up conceding a needless corner.

Saka took it. The ball swung violently in towards goal and flicked off the top of Jan Paul van Hecke’s head. Unmarked, Jesus stooped to nod it into the net. From there Arsenal were able to sit a little deeper. Declan Rice controlled the angles in midfield. Ødegaard had a fine game and produced the pass of the afternoon in the first half, a stunned, back-spun, curving piece of stage direction, eased into the tiniest channel of space to put Saka in on goal, only for Gabriel Martinelli to scoop the cut‑back over the bar.

Gabriel Jesus celebrates his goal for Arsenal. Photograph: Skysports

The Emirates Stadium had been a chilly, drab, Sunday-ish place at kick‑off. Arsenal were unchanged from the defeat at Villa Park last weekend. De Zerbi was forced to persist with James Milner at left‑back. It took 50 seconds for Saka to engineer his first odd-couple duel down that flank, although to Milner’s credit he battled away all afternoon, an act of will as opposed to any great defensive technique, whirling about staunching the danger like a tugboat captain in a storm.

Arsenal had control without penetration in the first half, Rice easing about like a triple-masted galleon in midfield. The only real incident of note involved Arteta himself. Fresh from walking away a free man on the steps of the highest VAR court in the land, he was booked just before half-time for another moment of sideline rage.

Kaoru Mitoma had pulled Saka back. Arteta responded by leaping about weirdly with both hands in the air, like a man on a desert island spying a sail just as it fades over the horizon. It seemed pointless and performative. The foul had been given. There was no logical reason to go full touchline-disco.

Brighton did have their chances. Pascal Gross might have equalised 10 minutes before the end but poked his shot wide from four yards out. Moments later Havertz sealed the game with a fine finish after another rapier break down the left flank.

Havertz had spent much of the autumn running on sympathy and pity-penalties. Here he picked up Arsenal’s player of the month award before kick-off, posing a little awkwardly with the trophy (unless specifically stated otherwise Havertz is always doing things a little awkwardly. This is a footballer who can win the Champions League a little awkwardly). The goal was his fourth in the past four weeks, the victory Arsenal’s seventh in nine since defeat at Newcastle.