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Arteta trusts attack to keep Arsenal in Premier League title race

Arteta trusts attack to keep Arsenal in Premier League title race


NOTTINGHAM — Tuesday’s 2-1 win at Nottingham Forest underlined the fine margins Arsenal will live and die by in this Premier League title race. The Gunners are almost certain to end the January transfer window without the attacking addition many called for at its outset, a judgement call informed heavily by financial constraints but also a belief that Arsenal’s existing options can get them over the line.

A year ago, Arsenal pursued cheaper alternatives when priced out of their leading targets but this time, with Brentford‘s Ivan Toney and WolvesPedro Neto deemed out of reach, manager Mikel Arteta has chosen to entrust his forwards with the task of overhauling Liverpool and Manchester City at the top of the table.

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Another reason informing that decision is the risk of an imperfect addition upsetting the existing cohesion. Arsenal’s attacking patterns are well established and for long periods here they probed with a familiar methodology, monopolising possession to the extent they had 81% possession in the first half. Yet, that dominance did not translate to a single shot on target, the most dangerous moment coming two minutes before the interval when Murillo fortuitously deflected Bukayo Saka‘s close-range effort wide of goalkeeper Matt Turner‘s right-hand post.

After thrashing Crystal Palace 5-0 last time out, they were threatening to fall back into a troubling cycle which contributed to a run of one win in seven games either side of Christmas which triggered calls to bolster the squad. But Arteta’s faith in his squad and his style were eventually rewarded.

Gabriel Jesus took advantage of Forest’s momentarily lapse in concentration to spin in behind from Oleksandr Zinchenko‘s 65th-minute throw-in to finish past Turner from a tight angle. Seven minutes later, Gonzalo Montiel gifted Arsenal the ball and they broke at pace, Saka collecting Jesus’ smart pass to fire in a second. That both goals came from a throw-in and a counter-attack rather than the kind of meticulously crafted avenue they had pursued all evening showcases the adaptability they will need in the months ahead.

“We had to be patient, we didn’t allow them to run and we were able to generate chances in various ways which is pleasing,” said Arteta. “I think we showed a lot of maturity to control the game the way we had to.”

The City Ground evoked memories of where a title race can be won and lost even before kick-off. This was the venue where Arsenal were mathematically defeated in last season’s battle with City and their return to the Midlands had players particularly charged for the occasion.

“What happened last year was still in our tummy,” said Arteta. “We wanted to put it right. I could feel that they were talking about it.

“Coming to that dressing room really reminds you. Our brains and bodies are really intelligent and when they come to the same situation they are really active. They were really invested and they were really talking about it with each other. I thought the team was really good.”

It did not prevent a late wobble however as Taiwo Awoniyi continued his remarkable record against Arsenal — three goals in three games now — with an 89th-minute strike showcasing his strength and poise in the box. Awoniyi was a half-time replacement for Chris Wood, whose lack of pace enabled Arsenal to push so high up the pitch that Forest were hemmed in not just their own half but almost their own defensive third for long periods.

The Nigeria forward, making his first club appearance since Nov. 12, changed the home side’s attack dynamic and almost snatched an undeserved point in stoppage time.

Emile Smith Rowe was handed his second league start of the season to help maximise the pockets of space Arsenal could find but it was Jesus who should have broken the deadlock, firing a 57th-minute shot against the post from six yards out when it seemed easier to score. Jesus’ link-up play was excellent and ending the night with a goal and an assist was a reward for his perseverance, even if it was difficult to escape the lingering feeling that his profligacy could have been punished by a side with more quality and intent than Forest mustered.

Ultimately, Arteta feels differently, enthused further by Jesus’ character to overcome fluid in his knee to play 78 minutes here. “Gabi started to win the game two days ago,” said Arteta. “He had an issue with his knee and everyone was trying to protect him and saying don’t go outside. But he was saying [matchday] -2, [matchday] -1, I want to be there I want to help the team to win the game. When you have that mentality, good things are going to happen. I’m really pleased with him.”

The character Arteta craves manifested in another way, or so he claimed afterward when the Spaniard was forced to intervene in a disagreement between Zinchenko and Ben White at full time, apparently upset at the concession of a goal that endangered three points that long appeared safe.

“I love it,” he said. “They are demanding more from each other. They are not happy with the way they conceded and they are just trying to resolve it. It got a bit heated. But that means that it’s enough. Playing the way we played the result has to be bigger and the clean sheet has to be there.”

The disagreement was perhaps a further acknowledgment of the tightrope walk a title race can be.


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