Memorable title winning seasons have games like this. Illogical games, where the team fighting at the top is behind a team looking to stay up, and then, against the odds, not only do they come back, they come back through an unexpected source. For Reiss Nelson in 2023, read Federico Macheda in 2009, and Christopher Wreh in 1998, who scored all 3 of his Arsenal league goals in a six week period in March and April of 1998. And, while Arsenal might not go on to win the league, if they do, Reiss Nelson will be part of the lore, for his 97th minute winner against Bournemouth on Saturday.
Yet Nelson was also needed on Saturday. With Leandro Trossard going off injured, Gabriel Martinelli was moved to centre forward and Emile Smith Rowe brought on to the left hand side. Smith Rowe and Martinelli are very different players, and it is perhaps telling that Smith Rowe’s biggest contribution was from a set piece.
In short, Smith Rowe likes to come inside. With his ability to play sharp combination passes and one-twos that is a way of breaking down a packed defence, but with Smith Rowe not fully match fit, that aspect of his game was missing. And with Fabio Vieira and Oleksandr Zinchenko both operating on the inside left of Arsenal’s attack, Smith Rowe wasn’t taking up useful positions. Beyond that, Smith Rowe hasn’t played much with Zinchenko or Vieira, and thus, the automatisms aren’t there.
It obviously wasn’t an ideal situation. There is speculation that Smith Rowe might be better on the left with Kieran Tierney at left back than Zinchenko, and while that may be true, Smith Rowe could also end up being able to play well with Zinchenko behind him. But on Saturday, Zinchenko wanted Smith Rowe wider, to go down the outside of the Bournemouth defence and attack that way.
Nelson came on, and immediately took on the full back and delivered a cross that Ben White tucked away for a goal. Minutes earlier, Smith Rowe had done the same, and delivered a dangerous cutback across the penalty box. But Nelson was more prepared to take his full back on, and provide the width. This enabled Arsenal to turn the screw in the second half, and while it took an improbable shot from Nelson, it was a goal that came about after relentless pressure, because Arsenal were stretching Bournemouth on both sides. Usually, this is provided on the left by Gabriel Martinelli, but with Martinelli central, Nelson stepped up and became Arsenal’s unlikely hero.