LONDON -- Kai Havertz has his moment, the instant that can serve as the start for a career in north London that already seemed in danger of sputtering out. No pity penalty with a game already won, the £65 million man delivered one of the most precious goals an Arsenal player has scored this season, propelling Mikel Arteta's side past an obdurate, outstanding Brentford and to the top of the Premier League table with an 89th minute winner, breaking a 0-0 deadlock.
Even for a player without an open play goal for his new club, the final 11 minutes seemed tailor made for Havertz. Brentford had forced Arsenal out of their rhythm, the game devolving into lumped long balls that hardly suited the likes of Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli. What threat Arsenal had posed came from crosses looped to the back post. Barring a Leandro Trossard goal ruled out for a tight offside, those deliveries went to no one far too often. The man who they had bought to get on the end of them was on the bench.
The last of those crosses had a rather different outcome. It helped that Saka's delivery was his best of the night, whipped with pace to the zone where Arsenal had three men to Brentford's two. Mark Flekken could not scurry back quickly enough to get himself set but there was still precious little angle for Havertz to work with. He found the gap between the goalkeeper's legs with a hard, downward header, a textbook finish. If he hadn't found a way, you sensed no one would.
"Against these blocks, and against teams that defend the box like this, you need this kind of profile," said Arteta. "He's exceptional at that. Today he won the game in that action for us."
No one seemed to appreciate the enormity of the moment quite as much as Arteta. As the visiting fans toasted him to the tune of 'Waka Waka' (Arsenal travelling fans, can we have a word about your selection of atrocious songs please?), the manager grasped Havertz in a loving headlock, dragging him to the away section for them to hail their hero. "Go and face the beautiful moment," said Arteta. "I knew he wasn't going to do that. I had to push him."
During the international break Chelsea's once record signing spoke of the struggles at winning the "trust" of his new supporters. That did not always ring true at the Emirates Stadium, however. Naturally there was fear that Arsenal had bought another Willian or Petr Cech, paying big money to manage the decline of a player so their rivals didn't have to. The overwhelming majority of Havertz's near misses and heavy touches have, however, drawn cries of encouragement. Supporters see a man with the right ideas but one whose confidence has been obliterated by three years in the Stamford Bridge asylum.
This transfer always had the feel of an expensive reclamation job, trying to turn the shell of the idiosyncratic number 10 into an off-ball killer. That is not complete because of one well-timed header. After all, he could not even get in today's XI. Havertz has, however, bought himself time.
Arsenal seemed like they needed all of that they could get in west London, where Brentford defended outstandingly across the pitch. A guttural cry of "Mee!" emanated every few minutes when the ball flew in the box. Ahead of the backline, Christian Norgaard and Frank Onyeka hoovered up possession. The Gunners could cycle the ball endlessly around the attacking third but every touch in the penalty area had to be fought by tooth and nail. Even this somewhat neutered version of Arteta's side tend not to go 27 minutes without a shot or 17 minutes without a touch in the box.
This wasn't some "what we have, we hold" display from Brentford, however. Their off ball work forced Arsenal to go long, no wonder when the returning Aaron Ramsdale had nearly handed an opener to his hosts with an ugly early error with his feet gifting possession back to the Bees. Striking at thin air when Bryan Mbeumo and Yoanne Wissa are haring at him is the sort of skittish action that comes from a goalkeeper with 90 minutes to his name since the start of October. So was hurling the ball into the turf. In the first half hour it took brilliant flicked passes by Declan Rice and Oleksandr Zinchenko to break through the Brentford press. From then on, they simply concluded they would have to go long.
"We went toe-to-toe with them," said Thomas Frank. "That is unbelievable." He rightly noted there were as many clear opening for Brentford as Arsenal, who twice had to clear the ball off their own goal line. First it was Rice to the rescue when Ramsdale's pocket was picked by Wissa and Mbeumo struck for goal, then Zinchenko denied Neal Maupay as the second half accelerated to its conclusion.
A team so damaged by injuries that they fielded a forward and central midfielder at wing back held the league leaders at bay for nearly 90 minutes, perhaps denied a victory only by the most last gasp of interventions. There might be no greater evidence of the quality in the Premier League's middle classes than that.
What they do not have, that Arsenal do is a player capable of delivering a cross with the precision of Saka, who even on a down day put in two balls that ended with the ball in Brentford's net. Perhaps if the remodeling of Havertz goes to plan the same will be said of the German, who not so long ago was coveted by every club in the world. If he develops into anything like the player he threatened to become in his youth, this goal will surely be viewed as the starting point.