Arsenal withstood a late Nottingham Forest charge to win their Premier League opener 2-1 at the Emirates. It was a mixed showing from the Gunners — they were excellent in the first half and pretty poor in the second. The inflection point in the match was Jurrien Timber coming off with an injury a few minutes into the second 45. Arsenal were dictating the tempo of the match and dominating the ball with Timber on the pitch and lost a significant amount of control and composure when he went off.
Hopefully it’s nothing serious for Timber. He’d received treatment on his left leg at the end of the first half but presumably was cleared to continue at halftime. Not long after the start of the second half, the ball rolled out to him under no pressure, he took a few steps back, and immediately pulled up, grabbing at the back of his right leg. He limped off the pitch but didn’t seem too concerned as he spoke to Mikel Arteta before going down the tunnel.
Nottingham Forest had the first chance of the match just past 10 minutes in. Brennan Johnson broke free from what looked to be a harmless ball getting headed back and forth in the middle third. Aaron Ramsdale was off his line quickly which may have influenced the shot over the bar. It also would have been close on VAR as to whether the Forest attacker managed to stay onside.
A bit later in the half, the Gunners opened the scoring. Gabriel Martinelli split two defenders with a pirouetting backheel. He’ll probably tell you it was an intentional pass to Eddie Nketiah, but I think he was trying to wriggle through himself. Either way, Nketiah took a touch or two centrally and fired home. Matt Turner had no chance on the shot — it started out heading towards the far post and deflected off a defender back towards the near post.
Six minutes later, Bukayo Saka doubled Arsenal’s lead. William Saliba, well up the pitch because of a corner, won the ball back and worked it to Saka. The Arsenal winger dribbled across the top of the box and curled it into the far corner. Again, Matt Turner had no chance. The shot and goal was so good all Kai Havertz could do was put his hands to his head in disbelief.
Nottingham Forest made things interesting late in the second half with an excellent counterattack. Anthony Elanga ran the length of the pitch on the ball and Taiwo Awoniyi steered the ball home. Both Bukayo Saka and Declan Rice looked a bit winded tracking back, perhaps an indication that Arsenal haven’t quite reached peak match fitness.
The counter never should have happened, however. The play should have been blown dead. On the Arsenal corner immediately preceding the attack, Kai Havertz was hit in the head. He won the aerial duel and got blasted in the jaw / cheek for his troubles. Honestly, it was a borderline foul on Forest. Havertz stayed down holding his face. It was a clash of heads and an apparent head injury. The whistle should have gone immediately. That is the protocol and Michael Oliver simply didn’t follow it. It’s an inexcusable miss from him. As it turns out, Havertz was alright, but that’s not the pertinent point. It’s going to be aggravating when Arsenal are denied a counterattacking chance with an opponent is down holding his head.
The propriety of the Nottingham Forest goal is irrelevant to the more important takeaway for Arsenal: they need to be putting games like this out of reach. It shouldn’t come down to nervy moments at the end of matches, especially at home against inferior opponents. The Gunners were dominant in the first half but didn’t generate any real chances to score a third goal. The second half seemed casual and complacent, perhaps because as I alluded to earlier, Arsenal aren’t fully match fit.
Oh. One more officiating gripe. Arsenal had a great chance in the second half off a quick free kick. Bukayo Saka was one-v-one in the Nottingham Forest box with a step on his defender. But Michael Oliver blew it back because he was booking a Forest player. That’s really poor refereeing. Forest get the benefit of a professional foul in the midfield to slow Martin Ødegaard and then are allowed to set their defense off the back of it. Arsenal, on the other hand, are denied the initial attack and then denied the ability to restart play quickly. Seems like the incentives are a bit off there, yeah?
With the major negative out of the way, a few positives. Arsenal were really good at recovering the ball quickly when it turned over in both the attacking and middle third of the pitch. Declan Rice seemed to do it the most, which is undoubtedly part of why Arsenal bought him. Kai Havertz, Martin Ødegaard, and Gabriel Martinelli all harried the Forest defense into mistakes and turnovers, too.
Gabriel Martinelli was excellent. He provided a constant threat on the ball and was tenacious without it. He also reminded everyone that he’s got a great burst of pace, too. I think we sometimes forget because he’s not the most graceful runner.
Arsenal are going to be unpredictable and tough to defend this season. At various points in the first half, all four defenders made forays deep into the Forest half. Ben White was overlapping down the right side while ostensibly playing centerback. Thomas Partey was stepping into midfield off the right side. And so on.
Kai Havertz had a fine match. He’s going to catch a decent bit of flack this season, but like Granit Xhaka from the same position last season, he’s doing a lot of small things that go unnoticed but are critical to Arsenal’s success. He’s showing for the ball, attacking space that he sees, creating room for his teammates, and working really hard off the ball. I was quite happy with his performance today.
At the end of the day, three points are three points. Arsenal are still a team in transition, working towards making themselves more variable, unpredictable, and difficult to defend. I continue to believe that these growing pains early in the season will be important at the business end of the season. And I’ve got absolutely no problem with things not looking as pretty or polished if the results are still rolling in.