Mikel Arteta could feel his nightmares at the City Ground float away. He had been here twice previously as the Arsenal manager, losing on both occasions and with degrees of ignominy. There was the FA Cup exit in 2022, after which he ranted in the dressing room about the attitude of his players (footage courtesy of Amazon Prime). And then the Premier League defeat at the end of last season, which officially ended his team’s title challenge.
Arteta needed something to keep the spark about Arsenal’s challenge for the trophy he so covets. And for the opening 45 minutes, when his players passed and passed but seemed curiously reluctant to shoot, it was possible to fear that more frustration could be incoming.
Arsenal tore the notion apart, showing that patience was a virtue, landing quickfire blows after the hour which proved sufficient – despite Nuno Espírito Santo’s Nottingham Forest fighting until the last. The Portuguese manager has coached his side to victories over Newcastle and Manchester United so far in his brief tenure. Arsenal were a step too far.
It seemed so peaceful as Arsenal arrived at this celebrated confluence of sporting activity, the scullers enjoying the evening sun and the millpond Trent, the august cricket ground standing proudly with its echoes of Larwood and Voce. It seemed so straightforward over the road at the City Ground for 88 minutes, Arsenal keeping their patience and breaking down Nottingham Forest through the outstanding Gabriel Jesus and the hard-working Bukayo Saka.
But nothing is always that peaceful for Arsenal, or quiet at the City Ground, and Arsenal have suffered here before. They lost their previous three visits, once in the Premier League last season, shredding their title ambitions, and twice in the FA Cup. Forest finally became as assertive as their fans, although the question remained: why did they wait so long to go for it properly? It felt like they held back until all looked lost, trailing 2-0 after 72 minutes, before raising their game and their sights.
The Premier League title race was finally lost by Mikel Arteta’s players at the City Ground last May and although that 20-year wait for the big one remains an epic quest, Arsenal have placed themselves in the lead pack as the hard run-in begins.
They are in second place for 24 hours at least, before Manchester City host Burnley and Liverpool play Chelsea at Anfield on Wednesday night. Liverpool come to the Emirates on Sunday, and the tighter it gets, the less scope there is for an error.
Comfortable at two goals up, a beautifully robust late finish from the substitute Taiwo Awoniyi suddenly put this game in doubt again for Arsenal. Arteta’s players deserved to win the game but that alone is not always guaranteed to be enough. Come the final five minutes of time added on, suddenly Forest were back in this game and the City Ground had its voice back.
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.
There were times, until Gabriel Jesus punctured Nottingham Forest’s resistance midway through the second-half, when Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta must have felt tempted to utilise the mobile trailer parked outside the City Ground offering passers-by free blood pressure checks.
A further goal from Bukayo Saka made sure of the victory his side required to move within two points of Premier League leaders Liverpool and cement their grip on second place.
But the result could not disguise Arsenal’s need for a commanding centre-forward as they made much harder work of prising Forest apart than should really have been the case given that they spent much of the night playing keep ball around their opponents’ box.
It was telling that, for all of Arsenal’s elaborate work and intricate exchanges, that the breakthroughs they engineered came via a throw-in and a mistake by the hosts, who saw substitute Taiwo Awoniyi give them hope of snatching a draw with a late consolation on his return from injury.
This was a game Arsenal really had to win. With Manchester City threatening to run hot through the second half of the season and Liverpool hoping to take emotional energy from the final months of the Jurgen Klopp era, this really would have been a terrible night on which to concede any kind of advantage.
Liverpool, the leaders, play on Wednesday night then visit the Emirates on Sunday. The wrong combination of results and Arsenal could have been 11 points behind.
And at half-time all of that and more seemed possible. Arsenal had presented that lame, tame version of themselves in the opening 45 minutes that we do know a little too well, despite all the improvement made under coach Mikel Arteta. All possession but no punch. All territory but no real threat.
So some patience was needed and some calmness. There was no need to panic but occasionally, as they sense the start of a title race for real, some teams tend to do that.
Arsenal made it back-to-back Premier League victories as they beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 to move to within two points of leaders Liverpool at the top of the table.
Mikel Arteta’s side struggled to break down a resolute Forest defence, but found the breakthrough in the 65th minute when Gabriel Jesus’ low shot found the bottom corner.
Seven minutes later, the Gunners doubled their advantage as Bukayo Saka finished off a fine counter-attacking move to spark delirium amongst the 3,000 travelling faithful.
Forest pulled one back late on through substitute Taiwo Awoniyi, but it proved to be just a consolation as Arsenal held out for a vital three points in their Premier League title bid. Here are five talking points from The City Ground.