Arsenal made it closer than it should have been at the City Ground, conceding a sloppy, late goal before killing off the match against Nottingham Forest 2-1. That scoreline belies the tenor of the match, too. The Gunners dominated the Trees and were firmly in control from start right up until inexplicably falling asleep defensively to gift the home side a goal. Three points are three points however, and the win takes Arsenal two off Liverpool (who have yet to play) ahead of the critical showdown between the sides at the Emirates on Saturday.
The first half was a frustrating one for Arsenal. They had more than 80% of the possession but couldn’t really unlock the defense to threaten Matt Turner’s goal. The attack got better as the half progressed and the Gunners started to move the ball more quickly. Even then, the decisionmaking in and around the box was off. Players were taking an extra touch or passing when they should have been shooting, and shooting when passing was the better option.
Nottingham Forest, somewhat inexplicably, opened up in the second half. The change may have been in part due to bringing on Taiwo Awoniyi for Chris Wood, which led to the home side taking more chances to break on the counter. Arsenal exploited the decreased rigidity and structure, creating better chances and eventually scoring two goals.
It looked as if it was going to be one of those nights for Gabriel Jesus, who was involved and playing well but couldn’t find the critical, killer touch for a time. He blasted a shot off the inside of the near post from a fabulous Arsenal attacking move. Undeterred, he found the back of the net a few minutes later. Oleksandr Zinchenko took a quick throw, Jesus broke between defenders, and squeezed the ball underneath Matt Turner, deflecting it off his leg and in when the former Arsenal keeper was a fraction to slow getting down to block the shot.
The Gunners doubled their lead seven minutes later. Kai Havertz cleared with his head and Arsenal broke quickly. Gabriel Jesus picked out Bukayo Saka with a fantastic cross and the winger buried it into the bottom corner.
Arsenal were set to see out a comfortable win when they fell asleep at the wheel. A seemingly innocuous crossfield ball turned into a weirdly floated cross. Taiwo Awoniyi bumped William Saliba in the back (contact that probably is a foul elsewhere on the pitch more often than not), had the ball take a fortunate bounce to stay under his control, and scored to force the Gunners to sweat out the added time.
The goal was the second time in recent matches that Oleksandr Zinchenko had trouble tracking a long, crossfield ball leading to an opposing goal, the previous time coming against Liverpool. That seems like something he could work on. It’s a shame, too. He was comfortably Arsenal’s best player in the first half. His incisive passing was a bright spot and he made a solid defensive play tracking back on a Forest break, too. Ben White reportedly had a go at him at the fulltime whistle. I’m certain it will be shrugged off by both players and the manager. That’s the kind of intensity you want.
The Gunners would do well to progress themselves from seeing 2-0 turn into 2-1 and having to sweat out finishes to turning 2-0 into 3-0 to kill off matches.
A few other notes from the match:
- It was good to see Emile Smith Rowe get a start and play 60 minutes. It seems like he’s being eased back into things, which is smart for a player who has had so many injuries. He had an average game. He wasn’t any better or worse than the Arsenal attack was generally in the first half. It’ll take a bit for him to get back to match sharpness.
- Ben White seems back to full fitness. He’s got his legs back and is bombing up and down the right flank, overlapping Bukayo Saka to create space.
- Gabriel Jesus has 7 goal involvements in about 12 Premier League 90s. He’s got 6 goals in the Champions League. Reports of his struggles may have been premature.
- Martin Ødegaard had a quiet game. His shooting was off — he had several attempts blocked and sliced one badly wide.
My only other note is that several times I noticed how well Arsenal were moving as a unit out of possession to close off options, limit time and space, and eventually force turnovers. Declan Rice was at the heart of it, but Ødegaard and the wingers did well to squeeze things off, hunting in packs. It was enjoyable to watch, really good team play.
All in all, not a bad outing. Arsenal have struggled at the City Ground lately. They dominated the game and took three points. We shouldn’t let a lapse in concentration sully what was otherwise a strong performance.
On to Liverpool at the Emirates on Saturday. One of the two biggest, highest table leverage matches remaining on the schedule.