Just 76 days since those turnstiles last clicked. Since those chants were last sung. Since those pies were last eaten. At last, the Premier League was back, with Nottingham Forest still in the mix.
For their first outing of the Premier League campaign, the Reds stuck to the back five that got them results at the back end of last season; with Matt Turner making his debut against the side left this week and an attacking partnership of Morgan Gibbs-White and Brennan Johnson. The hosts gave Premier League debuts to Jurriën Timber, Declan Rice and Kai Havertz as they looked to begin their title challenge in the best way.
A trip to Arsenal is never easy, especially when you’re Nottingham Forest. Despite winning three out of their last four home meetings, the Reds are without an away result against the Gunners since a 1-1 draw in 1995, without an away win since 1989 and have never won at the Emirates Stadium. With an XI boasting five different names from the side that beat Arsenal at home in May to secure survival, Forest once again looked to defy the odds.
The Emirates was bouncing from the off: two sets of supporters with plenty to cheer about – Arsenal looking to bring home their first title in 20 years, and Forest just for the fact they have a spot in this league. Despite aspirations of a more expansive style, Forest – for this game at least – would sit behind the ball and make it tough for the hosts to make ground on their goal.
After soaking up all the early pressure, the first chance of the game fell to Forest, and what a chance it was. Willy Boly headed forward and suddenly Brennan Johnson had the freedom of North London. He had lots of time to run onto the ball and make a good connection but as he latched onto the ball in the box, his effort sailed wildly high and over the advancing Aaron Ramsdale’s crossbar. Chances like that have to be taken in games like this, particularly if you’re Johnson.
The Gunners have threats from all over the pitch. Danger man Bukayo Saka looked a threat as ever, but equally as potent was Gabriel Martinelli on Arsenal’s left wing. The Brazilian was at the heart of the move that gave his side lead after 26 minutes, following a relatively quiet period of play.
Following a corner Forest failed to clear, Martinelli collected on the left and darted goalwards before spinning and clipping the ball through two Forest defenders and picking out Eddie Nketiah. The striker allowed the ball to come onto his right foot and darted infield before striking goalwards, a deflection off Joe Worrall giving Turner no chance despite getting close.
‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ rang around the Emirates and just minutes after the restart they made it two.
Once again Forest couldn’t clear a corner. It was Gibbs-White who had possession but tried to be clever instead of putting his foot through it – and surrendered the ball. Arsenal then worked it to Saka – in his favourite position just off the right wing – who did what he does best: cut inside and whip one into the top corner. The first time in the game he was allowed to do that – top players only need one chance to make their mark.
The two goals showed that chances at this level must be taken – how different the game would have been had Johnson had taken his chance we’ll never know.
Arsenal would be content with their lead and tried little to build on it as the half drew to a close – a distance strike from Rice, that was easy for Turner to gather, was the closest they came.
Just 16% of the ball in the half. And two goals down. The game could quite easily have slipped away from Forest at this point. They were only 1-0 down at half time in the fixture last year, so the aim would undoubtedly have been to settle and not concede early in the second before maybe trying a late push.
However, Forest’s efforts to keep Arsenal out in the second half were made easier by the fact that the Gunners seemed happy to sit on their 2-0 lead and keep it at that. A dangerous ploy when Forest had firepower on the bench such as Taiwo Awoniyi and Anthony Elanga.
Those pair were introduced in the latter stages and in an instant the game was more open and engrossing.
On 76 minutes, Rice had another long range attempt – this time seeing his brief ex-teammate Turner get down low to tip it round the post and deny him a Premier League debut Gunners goal. A couple of minutes later Willy Boly got up high to head a Gibbs-White corner towards goal but the header was too tame and easy for Ramsdale to collect.
Elanga himself was brought on with 10 minutes to play and – two minutes into his Forest debut – he made it one to remember. Following an Arsenal corner, the Swedish winger collected in midfield before rapidly rampaging down the left wing and getting ahead of his man. Racing alongside him in the middle was Awoniyi, who following Elanga’s cross, clinically smashed the ball into the net first time, bringing elation and somewhat surprise to the travelling Reds.
It was Awoniyi’s fifth goal in as many Premier League games, and Forest are just a completely different side with him on the pitch.
Suddenly it was game on. The hope was back. The spirit was back. And the nerves flooded in for home fans and players alike. This was replicated by Mikel Arteta who brought on an extra centre-back with four minutes to play – having largely been playing with just William Saliba at the back.
Seven gripping minutes of added time were in order and Arsenal thought they had the perfect change to settle it in the first of those.
Havertz was in on goal and looked open but a determined Serge Aurier made immense ground to get back and tackle the ball away just in the nick of time.
Forest did make Arsenal sweat with a few free kicks that ultimately resulted in nothing before Michael Oliver called time in the 99th minute. The defeat means it’s the first time in Forest history that they have lost on the opening day five years in a row…
A result that Arsenal would take and a performance that Forest fans could take heart from. While they never looked threatening until the subs came on, they certainly looked less easy to break down than they did for the majority of their away campaign last season. Plus the late flurry provided by Awoniyi and Elanga offers hope both for Forest’s two upcoming and slightly favourable home games and their three not so favourable away games. The Blades beckon though as Forest return to their fortress next Friday night with as much optimism you can take from a defeat.