An unexpected wave of optimism was in the air after last week’s demolition of Liverpool by Nottingham Forest, the next task being a trip to the Emirates to face high-flying Arsenal.
A single change was made from that memorable day, with Renan Lodi being preferred to Neco Williams on the left of Forest’s backline, as the league’s second-best attack faced its second-worst defence. After a midweek defeat in the Europa League, Mikel Arteta fielded his strongest XI including English wonderkid Bukayo Saka and Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus.
The famous clock that proudly towered over Highbury now looked over the Emirates, as Forest fans were seated in the famous ‘Clock End,’ in the first league meeting between the sides at the ground.
Just as the scene was being set, Arsenal grasped the lead to extinguish any early optimism gained by the travelling support. Gabriel Martinelli pressured Forest into losing possession deep on their right side and — in a flash — the hosts worked the ball wide to Saka on Arsenal’s right. Saka cut inside onto his left foot and flighted a cross straight onto Martinelli’s head, and the Brazilian made no mistake as he powered Arsenal into the lead after just five minutes.
A seemingly long day was in store for the Reds, debuting their patterned navy third strip. However, Arsenal had conceded in each of their last 10 home league games before today, a good time for Forest to try and extend that run by hunting for just their second away goal of the season.
When Jesus is on your side there is certainly an advantage to be gained, and Arsenal’s own messiah had his first chance two minutes after the goal. His side recycled a corner after Lingard lost out to Saka on Arsenal’s right, who in turn fed forward to Jesus. After turning away from Lodi, his left-footed attempt curled just wide of the far post.
Forest then had a rare flurry forward from the resulting goal kick, with a battling attack down their right-hand side culminating in Remo Freuler pouncing on a misplaced clearance and drilling an effort straight down the throat of Arsenal ‘keeper Aaron Ramsdale.
The match was taking a clear structure. Arsenal kept control of the ball and probed with the visitor’s defence, looking for gaps to work into while Forest hunted for counter-attacking chances. Although they weren’t helping themselves, as when in possession they were often too slow and resulted to long, searching balls for Taiwo Awoniyi and Jesse Lingard to chase, causing minimal threat to defensive duo William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães.
Granit Xhaka has re-cemented himself as a fan favourite at the Emirates, and he found space on the left channel after 20 minutes. The Swiss international saw Martinelli in space who drove goalwards and was denied only by a sliding goal line clearance from Lodi. Saka was alive to the rebound but hammered his effort over the bar. This would be Saka’s last moment of the game, as minutes later he was forced off through injury, replaced by Reiss Nelson.
A jubilant travelling crowd were treated to a breakaway chance just after half an hour, as they broke from midfield with Lingard but after dribbling to the edge of the box, his shot sailed frustratingly over the bar. Forest would be happy that despite Arsenal’s possession, they failed to make any more meaningful inroads on their goal and would go into the break just the one goal down.
Any hope gained from a resilient first 45 minutes was shattered by a devastating Arsenal storm early in the second half.
Reiss Nelson has seen his minutes limited in an Arsenal shirt this season, but he made a statement to manager Arteta by scoring two in three minutes. Firstly, he was able to round off an intricate Arsenal counter attack, started by Partey who released Xhaka racing towards goal. A wide-open Forest defence was cut through, as Jesus then offloaded to Nelson on the right wing. He ambled past Freuler and after Henderson kept out his initial effort, lashed home the rebound from very close range after 49 minutes.
Just three minutes later, the Gunners were up celebrating Nelson again. After Forest failed to keep the ball in the opposition’s half after kick-off, Arsenal broke quickly again but seemed to be penned in on the right wing. However, Jesus was able to get a yard of space and steer a cross to the near post where the substitute swept past Henderson elegantly. Nelson taking centre stage with his first goals of the season.
At 3-0 the Emirates seemed to wake up from hibernation and flex its vocal chords, finally challenging the taunts thrown at them by the ever-noisy travelling support. In turn, Steve Cooper introduced Emmanuel Dennis and Brennan Johnson in the hunt to keep his frontline fresh and switched on.
With nearly an hour on the clock, the hosts treated their audience to a fourth; this time Thomas Partey entered the party with a scorcher. Despite being on a hatrick, Nelson dispatched to Partey from the right wing, his pass the perfect weight for the Ghanaian to latch onto first time and delightfully arc into the top right corner. It was getting more and more pretty for the hosts and more and more ugly for Forest.
A minute later, Martin Ødegaard sprung upon a loose ball and fed through to Jesus one-on-one with Henderson. The Emirates was already celebrating but Dean Henderson had other ideas, turning the shot wide and frustrating Jesus as his hunt for a goal in the league entered its fourth game.
From here on, Arsenal had complete control of proceedings. Forest looked more threatening with Dennis and Johnson but Arsenal’s defence never panicked and never really looked like being breached. Dennis was sent through on goal after 66 minutes, but a recovering Saliba stepped across him and forced the Nigerian to cross, failing to pick out the Welshman at the far post.
Arsenal’s captain rounded off his team’s faultless display with a brilliant piece of skill. The Norwegian took the ball from Jesus and wriggled around challenges until he had space to release a forceful effort goalwards from the edge of the D, flying past Henderson before he had a chance to react.
The Emirates was beginning to empty as its fans knew their team would regain their position at the summit of the Premier League, as Forest would remain rooted to the foot of the table.
Some late ambles forward weren’t productive for Forest as the game would end 5-0, a game that Arsenal never looked like losing from the moment they scored in the fifth minute. While you cannot fault the effort on show, it was clear that Arteta’s troops were a step above and their league position comes by no surprise.
For Forest it’s about the reaction. They can’t afford for this result to take the wind out their sails as the last defeat of this magnitude did, but rather use the momentum gained from last weekend carry them through the next three games before the break for the World Cup.
Cooper said: “It was always going to be a really tough game regardless of how poor we were. To start the game as we did and go one-nil down is frustrating and we let them into our box too many times.
“We settled OK and calmed it down a bit towards half time and that was our approach at the break. We wanted to stay in that moment and wait for opportunities to threaten but the lack of competitive approach in the second half was really frustrating and a real step back on that part of our game.
“We’ve been much better at that since the Leicester game so it’s even more disappointing, and because of that the game was taken away from us after conceding the goals within such a short period of time.
“We’ve only got ourselves to blame, the situation that we’re in means the starting point has to be to compete and fight and I can’t think of many moments where we did that today. That has to be at the heart of our performances.
“We have to take it for what it is, take it personally and aim to do much better. We’ve got a week to prepare for Brentford but we’ll be talking through why today was what it was and we’ll face up to it.
“When you’re in a negative situation you have to stand up and compete and do whatever it takes to improve and we’ve got no choice but to do that.”