Arsenal moved up into second place in the Premier League after a 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest that had shades of our early season 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest.
There was a surprise, and welcome, start for Emile Smith Rowe in midfield, while the injury worries over Declan Rice and Gabriel were allayed as they both made the starting line-up. From the off the game settled into a familiar pattern: we had lots of possession, Forest sat off in a deep block. Perhaps the deepest we have faced this season. At times they had a line of six or seven players across the back, with the remainder sitting resolutely in front of them.
Nottingham Forest, Defensive Actions Heat Map – Nottingham Forest vs Arsenal
One of the lowest of low blocks, often 21 of 22 players in the final third pic.twitter.com/UYC0IzMDLe
— Scott Willis (@scottjwillis) January 30, 2024
It was interesting to hear Nuno Espirito Santo speak about it so openly afterwards, saying:
Frustrated. Especially the way we conceded after so much hard work that we’ve done, how organised and committed we were blocking the game of Arsenal. We conceded from two moments that we require more attention. The first half, we didn’t allow too many situations, we blocked the game.
Blocking the game. They defended well in the first half, and their organisation made it tough for us. Yes, there were things we could have done better, and did better as the game went on, but let’s not ignore the fact that when a team plays like this and actually executes that game-plan effectively, it’s really difficult to break them down. Whatever you might think of the approach, it’s a real challenge at this level of the game to find a way through.
There were a couple of moments in the first half. One where Smith Rowe’s cross for Jesus was deflected just over the bar by a defender, and late on when Bukayo Saka’s shot was deflected just wide when Matt Turner was going the other way. That said, we were a bit too keen to take an extra touch, to make the extra pass, to recycle possession rather than try something a bit more quickly. As I said, it is difficult, but there needed to be a bit more zip to our play. A pot-shot here and there.
I think we saw that towards the end of the first half, and as the second went on there was more of it too. It takes serious energy, both physically and mentally, to play the way Forest do effectively, and we began to wear them down. A smart move saw Gabriel Jesus presented with a great chance to break the deadlock, but he hit the post from a position he really ought to have scored from. The Brazilian then fashioned an opportunity for himself with a lovely turn in the box but whacked his shot miles over.
If it felt like it might be one of those nights in front of goal for him, that was put to bed when he got on the end of a quick Oleksandr Zinchenko throw, Forest weren’t quite set for him, and he scored from a very tight angle between Turner’s legs. It’s one of those that looks really bad for the goalkeeper, but credit to the Arsenal man for being on his toes and finding basically the only way through from the position he found himself in.
The lead was doubled a few minutes later when we took full advantage of some carelessness at the back from Forest, a dodgy pass gave us the ball back in midfield while they had committed men forward. Martin Odegaard fed Jesus, he took it on and played it to Saka, whose right-footed shot nestled into the bottom corner to make it 2-0.
And for most of the rest of the game, that put us in a very comfortable position. Substitute Leandro Trossard threatened after good work on the left hand side, we made some changes, and Forest never looked like threatening at all. That was until a long diagonal ball to the left-back position, otherwise known as Zinchenko’s Kryptonite, saw the ball headed into the box, and unusually William Saliba was found wanting in the middle. There was a touch of good fortune in how the ball broke for Taiwo Awoniyi and he slotted beyond Raya to make it 2-1 with a few minutes of injury time left.
This was basically the same scenario as the home game earlier in the season, the same scorer too, and it made the last five minutes more nerve-shredding than they needed to be. Thankfully though, we showed some decent composure to see off any further threat, and to take all three points.
Afterwards, Mikel Arteta said:
I thought we completely dominated the game. We had to be patient, and we were able to generate chances in various ways, which is really pleasing to see for the team.
I think we showed a lot of maturity to deal with the game in the way that we had to, but in the last three, four minutes, we conceded a goal – and then you have to suffer in this league.
I suspect that it’s a win that, for some fans anyway, might raise more questions than answers. Forest’s approach made it really tough for us, but inevitably that causes tensions to rise, not least because we know there’s so little margin for error. In the end though, our centre-forward stepped up and made the difference with a goal and an assist, and while I absolutely think we could do some things better, we have to give credit where it’s due. This is the league of fine margins, of tight wins, and despite Forest’s best efforts to stop us last night, we had enough to take all three points.
If there was a simple and easy way to break down teams who play the way Forest – and others – have played against us this season, no team would play like that. I think our set-piece delivery wasn’t as good as it was against Palace, and we could have done things a bit more quickly – especially in the first half an hour – but ultimately you have to be a bit patient to find your way through and we did that. There was only one team that deserved points from this game, and we took all of them. Job done, now let’s move on to the next one, which is likely going to be even more difficult than last night.
As for the incident at the end when Ben White and Zinchenko got into an argument over the goal we let in, Arteta put a positive spin on it, saying:
I love it! I love it because they demand each other more and they are not happy the way they concede that goal and they are just trying to resolve it. It was a bit heated, but I love that the players are pushing each other and demanding excellence. And today we conceded a goal that is not at the level that we want.
Anyone who has played understands how things like that happen, it’s just heat of the moment stuff, and I have no issue with players holding each other to account in that way. It’s classic storm in a teacup stuff though, and if it sharpens the minds just a tiny bit ahead of our next game, it’s all fine.
Right, let’s leave it there. We are recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning, 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 mid-morning. Until then.