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.