Arsenal answer Mikel Arteta’s Barcelona question to revive Premier League title challenge

If Mikel Arteta’s thoughts this week have been consumed by former European champions, he may have left both Barcelona and Nottingham Forest disappointed. In very different ways, though. The Arsenal manager has rebuffed Catalan reports he will decamp to Barcelona. He instead defeated Forest. On the ground where Arsenal’s title challenge officially ended last season – a 1-0 loss handing Manchester City the crown – they went second in the table. Having pledged his loyalty to Arsenal, Arteta may yet get his reward at the end of the season, and not merely with a new contract.

After Arsenal stuttered and stumbled over Christmas and new year, now they have back-to-back wins. After the Gunners’ goals dried up, their forwards have started scoring again. After a distinctly uneventful first half, Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka struck in the second to chop down Forest.

If class told, so did the sudden sense that Arsenal would not tolerate a stalemate; which, as they face Liverpool on Sunday, could have meant this year’s title tilt ground to a halt in the first week of February.

Instead, they have renewed vigour and Arteta got shows of support from Arsenal. He was serenaded by the fanbase. Emblematic players in his reign exerted an influence when required.

Arteta’s players delivered as the Gunners closed the gap on Liverpool (Action Images via Reuters)
Arteta’s players delivered as the Gunners closed the gap on Liverpool (Action Images via Reuters)

And Arteta seemed to exert an impact without making any changes. Arsenal were too slow and static before the break. They had more urgency and imagination thereafter. Jesus, Saka and the excellent Martin Odegaard were the three dominant players after the interval. The warning shot felt the game’s symbolic moment because it involved the three catalysts. After Saka found his captain with a backheel, Odegaard slipped in Jesus, who rifled a shot against the post.

The breakthrough came nine minutes later and, damningly for Forest, it felt a moment to applaud Arteta’s transfer dealings. If Arsenal’s finest bit of business last summer was signing Declan Rice, the second best was selling Matt Turner, who has looked a liability too often in his Forest career and who conceded in calamitous fashion in a reunion.

The American was nutmegged from an acute angle by Jesus; the Brazilian had reacted smartly to Oleksandr Zinchenko’s quick throw but the finish still prompted a moment of disbelief; he had scored from there?

Jesus squeezed a finish through the legs of former Arsenal keeper Matt Turner (Action Images via Reuters)
Jesus squeezed a finish through the legs of former Arsenal keeper Matt Turner (Action Images via Reuters)

He added an assist seven minutes later, though Odegaard was the other instigator. After Gonzalo Montiel’s pass was cut out, the Norwegian released Jesus, who picked out Saka and he angled his shot past Turner.

Thereafter, Arsenal were first rampant and then reliant on a rearguard action: Odegaard running the midfield, Leandro Trossard looking bright in his cameo, Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli given the final few minutes off to prepare for Liverpool’s league leaders.

For Arsenal, initial frustration turned to celebration. They had 81 per cent of possession before the interval and Odegaard whipped a shot on the turn over the bar but there was nothing to test Turner until the stroke of half-time; given his fallibility he later showed, that felt a mistake.

For Forest, the match was a temporary triumph; a success after 45 minutes, but not 90. The ends were supposed to justify the means, but they ended with a fifth defeat in six home league matches. They are waiting to see if a points deduction renders their position more perilous, but as it is, they are now barely ahead of Luton.

Forest had been at their best in Nuno Espirito Santo’s brief reign against their supposed superiors, beating Newcastle and Manchester United. This time, the gameplan was less progressive.

Taiwo Awoniyi pulled one back for Forest but it came too late (Reuters)
Taiwo Awoniyi pulled one back for Forest but it came too late (Reuters)

There was a passiveness to Forest: this was perhaps the most defensive team Nuno has picked to date and they camped behind the ball. A first half largely devoid of incident may have reinforced Nuno’s reputation as a dullard. But for 45 minutes, his side were immaculate defensively. They made some terrific blocks: Murillo, Danilo and Nicolas Dominguez were all among the obdurate. Murillo produced the best of the bunch to divert Saka’s goalbound effort wide.

Yet that blueprint relied on preserving parity. Arsenal stepped up the pace in the second half. Forest finished flattered by the final scoreline, and yet close to equalising.

They belatedly switched their focus to attack. Taiwo Awoniyi came on at the break for his first appearance since early November. The fit-again forward had little service until the last few minutes but then swiftly illustrated the difference he can make. He latched on to Gonzalo Montiel’s header, outmuscled William Saliba and scored his 11th goal in 17 top-flight games.

Then the Nigerian’s close-range volley was held by David Raya in injury time. Arteta has been criticised because of the goalkeeper he did sign in the summer. This time, the decisive moment stemmed from the one he sold.