New Arsenal thrill and frustrate like the old one during needlessly edgy opening win

Ian Watson
Mikel Arteta congratulates Kai Havertz after Arsenal's win over Forest.
Mikel Arteta pushed hard to sign Havertz from Chelsea in the summer.

Arsenal dominated and offered flashes of brilliance in their opener against Nottingham Forest before old failings made for a more fraught finish than it ought to have been…

New season, new signings, same old Arsenal.

The Gunners got their title campaign off to a winning start against Nottingham Forest at the Emirates, the setting for some moments of breathtaking quality amid an utterly dominant performance. At least before Mikel Arteta’s men slipped back into some bad habits that saw them fall short last season.

On the opening day of the most-anticipated season in years, a half-hour delay caused by malfunctioning turnstiles failed to harsh the buzz inside the Emirates. The atmosphere at Arsenal has been long derided, but last term the Gunners brought the noise, perhaps the manifestation of nervous anticipation more than anything else. Upon kick-off, it was loud once more, but more with expectation than hope. Might the biggest spend in Europe this summer buy the home fans an easier ride? Apparently not.

Forest had a glorious opportunity to get the hosts fretting yet again after a cagey opening 10 minutes. With a back five spread no further than the width of their box, Steve Cooper’s men kept it tight and forged the one glorious opportunity they hoped for. Rio Ferdinand and Joe Cole gave Brennan Johnson far too much credit by suggesting that his one-on-one with Aaron Ramsdale came too early in the game. Johnson may not have had much of a pre-season to speak of, but rustiness was no excuse for a wretched finish that saw the ball drift high and wide of the home goal.

Some early parity was as good as it got for Forest until a late rally. Having seen Johnson sprint through a huge gap between his centre-backs to reach a simple headed ball forward, Arteta switched to a back three, with Thomas Partey moving from the right-back berth to a more familiar environment in central midfield. Partey had spent most of the early period drifting diagonally infield, but shuffling the remainder of the defence closer together shut the door on Johnson. And with Forest’s wing-backs showing no attacking intent whatsoever, there was no obligation on Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Martinelli to unduly concern themselves with added defensive responsibility.

Not that they minded. On separate occasions in the first half, Arsenal’s flying wingers hurtled back to recover possession as Forest were presented with counter-attacking opportunities they seemed unwilling and unable to capitalise upon. And with the graft, came the guile.

Arsenal had 84 per cent of the first-half possession but the reward for their dominance was a consequence of jaw-dropping moments – two flashes of genius from Arteta’s wide boys.

Martinelli offered the first, restarting an attack by drawing two defenders to the inside left channel before Maradona-spinning and splitting the befuddled pair. Did he mean it? Absolutely. Using the heel rather than the studs deemed it to be a pass rather than an extension of his dribble. Eddie Nketiah was the grateful recipient and the starting centre-forward was even more thankful for five unchallenged touches in the Forest box before the ball, inevitably, nestled in Matt Turner’s net via a slight deflection.

Eddie Nketiah celebrates scoring the opener

Forest’s hustle seemed to fade after the opener and Arsenal’s second soon followed. Saka’s first goal of the season was brilliant, but Forest were culpable once more.

Johnson gave away possession in Forest’s left-back area, from where Saka started his dribble parallel with the box. The turnover presumably caught the visitors’ backline on the hop because, aside from Saka’s mere presence, there ought to have been no reason for undue alarm. Saka should have been travelling into heavy traffic but Forest’s disarray presented a clear sight and shooting line – albeit a curved one – towards the far corner. Saka saw and seized upon it exquisitely, with Turner’s dive nothing more than a futile, token gesture.

From there on in, it should have been a matter of ‘how many?’ for Arsenal. Arteta spoke towards the end of last season, when profligacy was threatening their title hopes, of a lack of ruthlessness and the message has since been repeated. We have to assume it was again at half-time – but it fell on deaf ears. Arsenal were too content to cruise through the second half – for as long as they were allowed by Forest.

Perhaps grateful not to be on the end of a shoeing, Cooper made three substitutions, if only to be seen to be doing something rather than nothing. Taiwo Awoniyi and Antony Elanga were the first and third changes, and inside two minutes of the debutant making his entrance, the pair powered forward after defending an Arsenal corner. With the Gunners retreating more wearily than Forest’s sudden freshness demanded, Elanga entered the box to tee-up Awoniyi. And yet again, Arsenal were dragged into another battle that should have been long-since won.

With added time, it made for a final 15 minutes far more tense than necessary. Even then, when Arsenal had opportunities on the break, there was a lack of killer instinct. The Gunners give the impression they always believe more chances will come and, more often than not, they might be right. But that should not excuse the breeziness that so infuriates Arteta and keeps the Emirates on tenterhooks for nigh-on 100 minutes.

Improved and emboldened they may be, but this new Arsenal promise to thrill and frustrate just like the old one.