2023/24 – Chapter 2: the Forest and the trees

With a win over their rivals City and a Charity Shield under their belt, Arsenal went into opening day of the Premier League season full of hope and optimism. The skies were clear and blue, the opponent was one of the easiest we’d face all season, and despite an injury to our talismanic center forward, Arsenal had a strong starting lineup because the club had spent a huge amount of money this summer to get in three quality players who were all set to start this game and show off what they could do.

Before the first whistle could even toot, things got off to a shaky start to the Premier League season for Arsenal as opening day at Highbury II was delayed by 30 minutes because of a SNAFU with the new ticketing system. A swarm of Gooners milled about outside the stadium, snapping selfies and taking videos to share on social media with the tags “utter disaster” and other hyperbole*. The game was delayed for 30 minutes and worst of all*, those of us in the USA had to watch the NBC crew stand around inside St. James’ Park and give us their opinions on various topics while we waited.

But credit to the Arsenal staff, the stadium was full before kickoff and almost everyone had settled in and were singing.

And credit to the Arsenal coaching staff, Arsenal’s players were ready for the game as well. We were told that the players would need to keep their muscles warmed up and that’s true but it’s often overlooked that players also have precise diets and calorie intake and output is fairly minutely controlled. So, the staff not only had to keep the starting lineup warmed up but also had to provide them with calories to make sure that they had 100% energy throughout.

And Arsenal were ready! They weathered a bit of pressure from the Nottingham Forest players but soon settled into a pattern of play that we should come to expect this season: playing high up the pitch, moving their defenders around, probing for openings, pressing when they lose the ball, and reclaiming any clearances so that they can keep the pressure on.

This was the desired formula last season, even if we weren’t able to execute it perfectly every game. The new Arsenal players showed how they would add to this formula; Rice as the ball winning midfielder, collecting loose balls and recycling them, and killing off counters; Timber adding to the Arsenal attack with his ability to drive forward with ball at feet; and Havertz pressing high out of possession and crashing the box in possession to create overloads and space for his teammates.

These new players formed a base off which the two wide men, Martinelli and Saka, could operate. And they operated. Martinelli led the team in dribbles, and also led the team in Zidane turn backheel assists. There was probably a touch of luck to it – it took a deflection and wrong-footed poor Matt Turner – but Nketiah was the beneficiary of Martinelli’s craftsmanship and got Arsenal’s first goal of the 23/24 season. The second was “created” by Saliba and the only reason I mention this fact (Saliba got the assist) is to show how much Arsenal dominated Forest in that first half. There was no quarter given, players exchanged positions constantly, and everyone was given freedom to play as high up the pitch as possible, as illustrated by the fact that Saliba was on the corner of the box when he delivered the pass for Saka’s shooting star. Bukayo Saka is going to be a handful this season. Especially if he can keep pumping in goals from outside the box the way he does. Unlike Pepe, this threat only opens up the game for Saka, so that he can get to the endline and put in a dangerous cross.

But as good as the first half was, the second half was not good. I’m not saying it was a disaster* or the worst I’ve ever seen* but it was a second half in which I was largely bored. I know that sounds like a “me problem” but it’s actually a fairly accurate measure of when Arsenal have taken their foot off the gas. I get that Arteta likes to control games and has specific plans for different game states and that is all good and not a problem. The problem is that when we go into that more reserved game state – the one where we have a lead and aren’t taking as many chances – we often struggle to regain control of games.

Manchester City play this same way – where they take their foot off the gas after taking a lead – but they are usually able to take control back if the opponent starts to look dangerous. Arsenal, on the other hand, sometimes look shaky in these situations. We saw this happen against Liverpool toward the end of the season and while we all rightly said “yeah, but it’s Liverpool at Anfield” that wasn’t the first or only time where we’d either had a scare or had given up points from this problem. And so, that is something that we need to fix this season.

I think Arteta recognises this problem. Between the 45th minute and the 68th minute, Arsenal only had one shot (Tomiyasu). Arteta took Eddie off and added the much more dynamic Trossard, and Arsenal finished the final 30 minutes with 7 shots. Arteta did go full turtle for the final 10 minutes of the game, putting on Gabriel for Martinelli, but it didn’t really bite him in the end.

The only goal Forest scored probably shouldn’t have been allowed. Arsenal had a set piece and Havertz went to win the header but was himself headed in the face. He went down in the box clutching his face and the referee (that prick Michael Oliver) let play go on. Forest went down the other end and scored but in my opinion, play should have been stopped. Slow mo replay showed Havertz’ fully headed in the jaw so hard that his face rippled. Luckily for referee Oliver, he didn’t have a concussion. Oliver doubled down on his prickishness giving Ben White a yellow card for “time wasting” when the Arsenal man had a throw in in the Forest final third, while everyone was being marked. I guarantee that we will be the only club this season to get that yellow card.

It was a bit of a shame that we didn’t keep the clean sheet but we did get the win and it was interesting to watch Arteta implement the two tactical changes (using Rice as The Recycler and using Havertz in a flexible 8/9) many of us expected him to use this season on opening day.

Onward and upward from here.


P.S. I turned off the registration requirement for the moment because it is not working as intended and folks are having a hard time registering to comment. I’ll be looking into that this week.

*We live in the age of hyperbole. Folks reach for the most powerful adjectives they can think of to describe things these days and then add another one or even two adjectives on top because words like “disaster” which is already one of the most powerful word in the English language have been so overused to describe banal events that you have to add “utter” to it to elicit even a minor emotion. So, it is an “utter disaster” or “total shitshow” if fans have to wait 30 minutes because of a minor inconvenience. The way that the state of Florida handled the COVID pandemic was a disaster. Waiting outside the stadium for a few minutes while the turnstiles were quickly repaired was a minor inconvenience and actually seeing the stadium completely full, the pre-match ceremonies well attended to (including singing the Angel song), is a testament to the quality of the staff at the Arsenal. Please note how often that this same “reaching for the top shelf adjective” behavior is also applied to managers, coaches, and players. I’m not innocent in this! It is just an observation that this is the age we live in.


  1. Good summary here. Most important thing was to get the three points. We supporters have to appreciate the fact that this season will pose a different challenge. Namely, Arteta has to allocate minutes AND accumulate points in the first third of the season in order to have fresh legs for the final third. There will be ebbs and flows…and blood.

    Come on you Gunners!

  2. White’s card was a sign of the early implementation of new rules re time wasting. There’s going to be plenty more like that, until the players get it into their skulls that The FA, Premier League & Football League have taken the cue from the World Cup & current Women’s event, and are cracking down on all time lost during matches for whatever reason. You’d have expected our coaches would drilled the team on this issue, but White never could take a quick throw anyway. His pained expression, when Oliver waved the card, was a joy to witness.

    1. Yup, saw one just like it dished out to someone (James?) during the Chelski/Liverpool game today. While I’m in favor of cutting down on time wasting, a yellow card seems pretty harsh in these circumstances, especially if it leads to a red later in the game. And isn’t time wasting moot anyway now that they’re adding on every non-playing second at the end of normal time?

        1. Fair, I just mean I’m not sure why you’d enjoy our own player being a victim of this rule change. I hate time wasting when we’re not doing it, I admit I’m okay with us doing it (I’ve given in to being a biased fan). I’m just not quite sure why they need to penalize that AND add all the time on. I suppose it’s a double-stick approach, just doesn’t seem well thought-out.

          1. It’s been a problem with White ever since he’s been at the club. He just doesn’t seem able to get the ball back into play quickly at any time during the game, so it’s not generally time wasting. Perhaps it’s his team mates’ fault for not being in position to receive it, but the coach should have got this sorted, particularly now that the clubs have been informed that cards will be issued. And the pained look on his face (“what have I done now?”)…I really did find that so funny. I think that eventually the message will get through and all dead ball re-starts will be taken within the time limits and we’ll get more real time play, and less cards.

    2. Yeah, they gave one to a Liverpool player yesterday. Truly astounding stupidity. Neither of these players were trying to waste time, they just couldn’t find a player to throw to. I think the comms said maybe they should card the outfield players for not making a run!

  3. Yes, I was one of those ones not boycotting your last post. Thought I had registered correctly on WordPress, but couldn’t get it to let me post here.
    As far as yesterday goes, pretty pleased with the first half. Less so with the second. I wonder how much the Timber injury took the wind out of the sails. Hopefully it’s not too bad, as he’s been doing extremely well.
    It’s kind of a shame to have to use Trossard as an impact sub, as he’s so dangerous, but I’m also not sure where he starts if everyone is healthy. We need to make sure he gets the minutes.

  4. I also go sleepy during the second half (very early on the West Coast, plus half an hour of limbo before kickoff), but woke right back up after the NF goal. Speaking of adjectives and hyperboles, people additionally misuse “literally” on top of that.

  5. Curious to see Havertz’s individual stats. The media goons have been saying we played with 10 men, but I’m pretty sure he had at least 2 key passes, and I’m imagining Xhaka being in those positions and not being that silky on the ball.

    Recommend and good new stats apps? Statszone kind of died.

    1. fbref and whoscored are pretty good. sofascore is excellent.

      Havertz had 2 shots (0.1 xG) 2 key passes (0.2 xA). A few tackles and interceptions and pretty poor dribbles and progressive receptions numbers.

      He’s just going to be the guy that everyone hounds this season. I’ve come to accept it and learned to ignore it. I hated Xhaka and if Arteta can polish that turd into a player everyone loved then I have a ton of patience for Havertz who is an immensely better footballer.

      1. I’ve come to understand that if you want to convince people in life, it’s not about your numbers or your stats or your results, it’s about how you make them feel. Havertz makes people feel bad, because (a) mediocre performance at Chelsea, and (b) his body language isn’t exciting. So he’s going to have to work twice as hard and deliver twice as much to get as much love as anyone else. Hopefully Mikel can see through all that though.

  6. Whoever had Partey starting at RB with Gabriel on the bench first game, this is your week to buy a lottery ticket.

  7. It’s the three points it’ll always be the most important thing. Maybe just below the important thing of figuring out the registration issue, because I tried mightily and failed on each occasion.

    Our lacklustre 2nd half did not deny us the win. Chelsea and Sp*&s could only manage a point. Enjoying the season so far.

  8. Uhg. Reports that Timber has a serious knee injury, maybe ACL. Terrible news for him, as he had started so well. We’ve got pretty good depth, so not a huge issue, but between him and Jesus, not the way we wanted to start the season.

    And how is Chelsea escaping FFP rules? We’ve spent a lot, but it looks like nothing compared to what they have. Not sure how they can even think of bidding for Lavia at this point (you’d have to think now definitely too expensive for us).

    1. A hundred and fifteen mil for Caicedo? I don’t think there’s any rational explanation for what Chelsea is doing.

    2. Chelsea spread the transfer cost over his eight year contract, same way as they did with Mudryk. PL is cracking down on this to bring it in line with European countries who limit it to five years.

  9. Oh, and Saka’s sublime strike is a quintessential example of why, despite many, many issues regularly documented on 7 am and elsewhere, is still why I love this game. A beautiful goal from one of the truly beautiful young men in the game. Just saying.

  10. From the club website; “Everyone at the club will be focused on supporting Jurrien at this time.”

    That’s code for a bad injury. F&$k!!!

  11. Lavia to Chelsea. That’s… what? Their 227th midfield player? Not my club, that is a ridiculous state of affairs. They’re hoarding players like old folks hoard stuff in the attic.

    And while I accept that Arsenal have to offload players, how can FFP be cited asa reason why? And yeah, I know that long deals amortization help Chelsea, but still.

      1. Is that Viv Richards , Master Blaster, on your WordPress photo? I’m happy to say I met him here in Toronto many years ago.

  12. Gutted that Timber will potentially be out for months. Watched him for a couple of matches in pre-season and the Dutchman is a real modern day baller!

    Wonder if this will affect the fate of Tierney or Nuno for that matter.

    Nevertheless, it was indeed a curveball of a lineup from the gaffer who never fails to surprise us with his unique selection of players from time to time.

    Looking forward to seeing how we fare in the first London derby of the campaign!

    1. ACL confirmed for Timber. So basically should assume he’s gone for the season. Rotten luck for him and Arsenal as he was off to a great start.
      Does this change plans with Tierney? Feels like we’ve still got potential depth at LB with Zinch, Tomi and Kiwior all options.

      1. It’s not the left which is short of cover, it’s the RB and RCB just like last year.

        The solution may be to plug Partey in- which has been unconvincing so far. Or start giving chances to Brooke Norton- which is a gamble and he is more like a WB.

        From amazing cover and internal competition with Timber, Arsenal is now back to that situation where we are completely reliant on the fitness of Saliba, White and Tomi.

        1. Arseblog also pointed out that we potentially lose both Tomi and Partey to regional cups in the middle of the season. With Timber out, that would leave us in a risky situation.

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