Thursday, February 29, 2024

Luton 3-4 Arsenal: Declan Rice embodies Gunners’ character with late winner

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Holy fucking shit. An opening to this blog that will ensure it gets filtered out of NewsNow for profanity, but after 20+ years of writing about this football team, having seen plenty along the way, I feel that is the best way to start.

How to start? Where to start? Even after some sleep – although it’s always patchy and weird when a game finishes late and finishes like that – it’s hard to know how to put it all into words. Just keep typing, I guess, and see what comes out.

Beforehand, Mikel Arteta said he’d told his players about the occasion, the small stadium, and what the atmosphere was going to be like. It’s fair to say Luton were up for this one. The tone was set early on when Gabriel Martinelli took a knee to the back, and it was clear the home side were going to be physical. And look, it felt a bit Stoke to me, but at the same time when you’re facing a newly promoted side down the wrong end of the table, you have to expect a bit of that.

We took advantage of a mistake to go ahead, a quick throw saw Bukayo Saka provide an assist for Martinelli who made it 1-0. It ought to have settled us and given us some control, but there was a sloppiness about our play for a large part of this game. Perhaps it was the schedule, this being our fourth game in twelve days, but there were things we could have done better. Their equaliser stemmed from Gabriel Jesus failing to control a ball in midfield, they won a corner, our defending of the set-piece wasn’t good enough, and it was 1-1.

Saka and Martinelli forced saves from Thomas Kaminski, and just before the break we got ourselves ahead again. A lovely pass from Saka sent Ben White in behind, he dinked a nice cross into the mixer, Kai Havertz’s run took a couple of defenders to the near post allowing Jesus to run onto it and head home. 2-1, and scoring that close to half-time is usually a kick in the teeth for the opposition.

Again though, we were not at the right level. They got another corner early in the second half, Declan Rice was out-jumped, but all eyes were on David Raya who came, didn’t get near the ball, and it was 2-2. The goalkeeper was poor for Luton’s third too, I’m not sure trying to get down and save with your hands is the right choice when it’s fired in that close to the body, and it looked bad for the Spaniard – even if Ross Barkley was given too much space by White to get his shot off. 3-2 down, and if Kenilworth Road was rocking, so too were Arsenal.

It was a game characterised by sloppy moments on both sides. Luton will surely feel they could have defended better just three minutes later when Saka hooked the ball forward, but Jesus was tigerish up top, securing possession, and playing in Havertz who scored again – not dissimilar from the one against Lens where he timed his arrival perfectly to finish from close range. It felt somewhat chaotic, the three goals coming in an 11 minute period of that second half.

Mikel Arteta’s reaction was to withdraw Jakub Kiwior at left-back for Oleksandr Zinchenko, and replace Martinelli with Trossard. The impact was obvious. Game-state might allow for some of it, with Luton sitting off to defend a lead, but we went from having 50% possession to 75% possession. They had 3 attempts on goal in the opening 15 minutes of the second half, they had just 1 after we made those changes. Arsenal, chasing the game and chasing a winner, had 11.

We had corners. We should have had a penalty when Gabriel was clearly being pulled in the box. Not just a light tug either, but literally pulled out of the way of the ball when he was jumping for a header. When you think about the penalty Man City got a few weeks ago in the Manchester derby, this ought to have been given, but VAR looked and VAR thought it wasn’t a penalty. I’m at a loss to explain why beyond the continued incompetence of the officials, but thankfully that’s not a discussion we need to get into again.

The pressure was mounting. We had more corners. Odegaard became more and more influential, forcing a save from the keeper with a shot from distance. Trossard had chances. Havertz headed one which the keeper tipped over. 6 minutes of injury time were signalled. Luton had a throw and took their time. The ref tapped his watch to tell them he’d just add that time on too. And thank goodness he did.

With 96+ on the clock, Zinchenko whacked a free kick forward from halfway line. It came to White, who gave it to Odegaard. He played it to Zinchenko who had sprinted forward. I thought he’d cross it, but he gave it back to the captain whose first time ball was superbly headed into the net by Declan Rice.

4-3!

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

Luton’s players slumped to the ground, knowing they’d lost it. Arsenal’s players went wild, as you would imagine, knowing they’d won it. Mikel Arteta celebrated the goal on the sideline with his staff and absurdly picked up a booking, one that means he is suspended from the touchline for our game against Aston Villa at the weekend. He said afterwards:

I could not be seated in my seat, unfortunately. I left there, I had no special awareness at all. It was pure emotion. If that’s a yellow…okay, that’s a yellow.

I’m sure it will vex him a bit in the next couple of days, but in the moment, a small price to pay for three points. He’d have swapped a yellow for a goal if it had been offered, but I don’t even know what they expect from managers when something like that happens. And where is there to go at a ground as small as Kenilworth Road? From what we saw on the TV pictures, it’s hard to understand why he was booked, but it’s something we have to just deal with now.

His reaction to the result:

I really enjoyed it, especially the end. The incredible thing about football, the emotions and the moments that you live together with a lot of people. It was a special night. Credit to Luton for the incredible atmosphere they created, the way they played, the way they were coached, they made life really difficult for us, but we found a win. The resilience, the character and quality that the team showed, and how much we wanted it, it was great.

When you try and analyse something like this, you have to acknowledge that conceding three goals – even away from home – against a team like Luton, is a concern. It’s the first time this season they’ve scored three times in the league, and you can look at the way we allowed those goals and see very clearly what we could and should have done better. It doesn’t do any good to ignore that just because we ended up winning.

At the same time though, this team’s ability to score late goals is second to none. It’s not just a fluke that we keep doing it. It’s part of our armoury, and the frequency with which it happens tells you that. Ideally, you don’t want to keep leaving it that late, but such is the level of competition we face from good teams, it’s just part and parcel of what we have to do.

Whether you put it down to character, resilience, never-say-die spirit, or whatever else, the fact that we can do it is invaluable. The other aspect is that the opposition know we can do it, and I think that plays a part too. Pressure takes a toll in football games, and if you’re sitting deep and defending against a team that never scores late goals, I think that’s a very different job than when you’re facing a team that scores them as often as Arsenal. It must be in the back of your mind that we’re capable of it, and all it takes is one tiny lapse in concentration, in organisation, and you can be punished.

I don’t suppose it’s coincidence either that this was Declan Rice’s second late winner of the season. As much as this is a collective thing, I think he embodies that character as much as anyone – not just in the late stages of a game, but in how he plays from first whistle to last. I also think Martin Odegaard is a key part of how we pile on pressure in the closing stages of games, the ability to find passes others can’t is fundamental, and he really took control in the final 20 minutes or so.

In the end, three points that were the order of the day, but ones which we won in a way that says a lot about what this team wants to do this season. Should it have been more straightforward? Perhaps. But football isn’t always about control, as much as you might try. Sometimes it’s chaotic and random and turbulent, as we saw last night. And if you can adjust and cope with that as well as we did, you stand a better chance of going the distance over a league campaign.

And breathe.

We are recording an etra Arsecast Extra for you today, so keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out around lunchtime. Until then.

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