Sometimes it’s just good to start at the end and work backwards, which is what I think I’ll do today, because last night as Declan Rice’s 97th minute header hit the back of Luton’s net, I let out a high pitch scream that woke the Management and the cat up from their slumbers in the lounge. Such was the pitch and tone I made, I reckon that half the dogs in the neighbourhood, as well as some car alarms, also probably went off.
This season so far has been a little more about control and a little less about emotional and those harum-scarum moments and more about Arsenal being controlled; defensively the best team in the league, offensively we have perhaps played with the old-fashioned Wenger ‘handbrake off’. But last night the tight grip on control was loosened and the handbrake had very much been pushed to the floor, because what we got was one heck of a game of football. And when you end up winning it in the fashion we did, you can properly look back and appreciate when a great feast of festive football has been served up.
As expected Arteta did undertake just a little bit of rotation with Kiwior coming in for Zinchenko, White for the injured Tomiyasu (who unfortunately Arteta confirmed after the game last night that his calf strain was worse than they’d hoped and he’ll now be out for a while 🙁 ), with Havertz coming in at left eight for Trossard. Other than that it was as you were and as the game started to settle in to its expected pattern of Arsenal having all the ball and probing, my words from yesterday were echoing in my head, as I remembered mentioning that I thought we probably needed to score in the first 30 minutes to make the game a little more open.
Well score inside 30 we did – on 20 minutes with Gabriel Martinelli after some impressive and quick thinking from the throw in from Jesus and Saka – then an open game we sort of did too, as the score line eventually reflected!
The only problem was that we let our initial lead last only five minutes, as it was Martinelli’s poor marking that allowed Osho a free header to plant it beyond Raya, who could do nothing about the decent header to draw Luton level. We’ll speak about what Raya could have done with the other goals in a minute, because it wasn’t a great night for the Spaniard, but before that, we managed to bring ourselves back in front with another excellently worked goal on our right hand side. The relationship between White and Saka is, as we all know, a very good one, so when White tapped the ball back to Saka and then began his drive out wide on the overlap, you just knew he’d get there and then it was just the question on whether he could deliver. That’s the one thing Tomiyasu has improved on of late, but it is something White has always been really good at and his clipped ball for Gabriel Jesus to head in was naughty stuff indeed.
So we go in winning at halftime and after the disappointing corner to concede and I was thinking we’d get the resolute Arsenal defending we’ve seen all season so far. Unfortunately that was not the case though and whilst Raya should rightly take some of the flak for the remaining two goals we conceded last night, I think Rice will be disappointed with how he was outjumped by Adebayo. Having said that, Raya didn’t cover himself in glory at all, as he flapped at the cross and neither collected it properly, nor stayed on his line to allow Rice to compete and he could then mop up. It was poor goalkeeping any way you look at it. But unfortunately for Raya it was to get worse just eight minutes later. Ross Barkley had an alright game last night, but one step over and a drilled low shot straight at an opposition keeper isn’t exactly the sort of finish that I think he would have expected to go in. Raya got caught between trying to get down low to save it and using his feet and he did neither and we found ourselves 3-2 down with Luton’s fourth attempt on target. And I’m afraid questions are once again having to be raised about Raya. Arteta would not be drawn on it, but this isn’t the big upgrade many have been suggesting that I’m seeing from my eyes. Raya is clearly the preferred choice and it’ll stay that way, but at what point does Mikel say “do you know what? Let’s give Aaron a go”? I’m not even sure he can do it now if he wanted to, because it will probably smash Raya’s confidence if he’s dropped away to Villa, so we have to just hope the Spaniard picks up his form. We can’t afford more mistakes like that as we aren’t always going to get out of jail with last minute winners.
But before that was even something to contemplate, we had to get back on level terms, so step forward man in form Kai Havertz to bag his third goal in four games and save his ‘keeper’s blushes along with Rice. The good thing about his goal too was that it came so soon after we’d gone behind; I feel like had we spent 10 or 15 minutes behind then Luton would have dropped deeper and deeper in to a low block, with us having to pick a very tough lock, so to have us score so quickly have us 30 minutes plus stoppage time to find a winner. Let’s give some props to Havertz for his goal too; it was a similar one to the one he scored against Lens – a late arriving run in to the box – and he made it look so easy as he stroked the ball past the Luton ‘keeper. Suddenly he looks like a player reborn and yesterday his all-round game was good too I thought. He’s clicking with his teammates and he’s getting those all-important goals too. I’ll take another 10 of those before the season is out, Kai my man!
The game then settled in to an attack versus defence and although our late winner sent everyone in to raptures and had Alan Shearer begrudgingly giving praise for yet another last-gasp goal for the Gunners, let’s not pretend that this was a close game in anything other than the score line. Yes, I know that is the most important stat, but to those other fans and pundits that might want to throw in a ‘lucky Arsenal’ tag, I would simply say that a team having 67% possession, 23 attempts on goal, xG of 2.4 to Luton’s 0.5 goals, 748 touches to Luton’s 454, as well as 37 clearances from Luton to our 17, whatever way you look at it Arsenal were dominant and deserved this victory.
And so we march on. We’re now five points clear at the top, although this will inevitably be reduced to two after Liverpool beat manager-less Sheffield United tonight, with the team looking like they are starting to find their scoring boots with more regularity. We’re once again spreading the goals across the team and much like in recent weeks, we had four separate scorers last night. It’s a good sign and ultimately it was a hard-fought three points against a very physical (and often the other side of the law) Luton.
We march on.
Catch you all tomorrow.