Saka stunner proves vital as Arsenal survive late Forest scare

Arsenal began their season with a 2-1 victory over Nottingham Forest, who set up a tense finish despite stunning goals from Eddie Nketiah and Bukayo Saka.

The Gunners fans were made to wait to see their team get in the groove – with kick-off at the Emirates Stadium delayed by half an hour due to turnstile issues – but a couple of slick strikes put them in control by half-time.

Gabriel Martinelli’s stunning turn and flick allowed Nketiah to put a deflected effort past Matt Turner – making his Forest debut after joining from Arsenal in midweek – mid-way through the first half, before Saka’s stunning effort into the top corner doubled the lead six minutes later.

Arsenal were cruising towards victory, with new £105m midfielder Declan Rice hitting the post and Forest providing little at the top end of the pitch. But Taiwo Awoniyi’s goal back with seven minutes left caused a nervy end to matters at the Emirates.

Morgan Gibbs-White then curled what would have been an instant leveller over the bar but Arsenal held on for an opening weekend win.

Arsenal's Eddie Nketiah makes it 1-0
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Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah makes it 1-0

How Gunners set off in style then held on

Arsenal fans flocked to the Emirates in their droves but had to wait for their league opener as kick-off was delayed by half an hour due to turnstile issues, which led to half the crowd being stuck outside at the original 12.30pm start time.

Player ratings

Arsenal: Ramsdale (7); Partey (7), Saliba (8), White (7), Timber (6); Rice (7), Odegaard (7), Havertz (7); Saka (9), Nketiah (8), Martinelli (7)

Subs: Tomiyasu (6), Trossard (7), Gabriel (n/a)

Nottingham Forest: Turner (7); Aurier (5), McKenna (6), Worrall (6), Boly (6), Aina (5); Mangala (6), Yates (7), Danilo (6); Gibbs-White (6), Johnson (5)

Subs: Williams (6), Awoniyi (7), Elanga (7), Kouyate (n/a), Wood (n/a)

Player of the match:Bukayo Saka

Eventually the match got under way and despite an attacking line-up put out by Mikel Arteta, it was Forest with the first major chance of the afternoon.

A long ball forward seemed harmless to the Arsenal defence but Brennan Johnson sped through for a one-on-one against Aaron Ramsdale. The Forest forward had time to set himself, but could only fire over.

That was Forest’s only chance of the opening period with Arsenal holding 86 per cent of the first-half possession from then. The Gunners had to be patient, with Kai Havertz and Saka seeing shots blocked before the opener came in stunning fashion.

Bukayo Saka and Ola Aina in action at the Emirates Stadium
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Bukayo Saka and Ola Aina in action at the Emirates Stadium

Martinelli picked up a cleared corner and drove down the left, producing a ‘Maradona’ turn to get between two Forest defenders and feed Nketiah, who cut inside himself and blasted past Turner.

Then, all of a sudden, it was two and this goal was even better. Again, a cleared corner saw Saka pick up the ball and cut inside. The England winger arrowed a shot into the top corner above Turner’s flailing arm.

Arsenal probed again with Nketiah seeing a near post shot fly wide, while £105m signing Declan Rice stung Turner’s palms with a long drive, with the half-time whistle coming at the wrong time for the dominant hosts.

The Gunners came out in a more laid-back manner and were happy to hold onto the ball. Their first blot of the afternoon came when £38m signing Jurrien Timber limped off after pulling a muscle in the opening minutes of the second period.

Arsenal's Jurrien Timber (centre) reacts to an injury
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Arsenal’s Jurrien Timber (centre) reacts to an injury

They did create some chances as Rice’s deflected strike came off two bodies before striking the post with Turner getting a crucial touch.

What the Gunners didn’t see coming was a Forest fightback. Former Manchester United winger Anthony Elanga burst down the left on the counter attack and crossed for Awoniyi, who breezed past Ben White to slam home.

From 2-0 on 83 minutes nearly became 2-2 on 85 as Gibbs-White let fly when a loose ball broke to him from distance and it flew just over Ramsdale’s crossbar.

Forest put more pressure on with free-kicks but it was Arsenal who created chances on the break. A last-ditch challenge from a one-on-one denied Havertz a debut goal, while Martin Odegaard curled just over in the last kick of the game.

Arteta: We need to be more ruthless | Nketiah a role model

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Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was full of praise for striker Eddie Nketiah after his impressive performance against Nottingham Forest.

After the game, Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta asked his side to be more ruthless after a nervy finish from his side.

Asked about the last few minutes, he said: “Welcome to the Premier League!

“We were super dominant, there was no question that we deserved to win the game. But when you are 2-0 up, and you have some chances to kill the game, we didn’t. And then we gave a sloppy one away from having a corner, then straight away in two passes concede a goal.

Mikel Arteta called on his team to be more ruthless
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Mikel Arteta called on his team to be more ruthless

“When that happens, it’s game on, every team has quality to create issues. The reality is we didn’t concede much, but when you are running the clock down, it’s a dangerous thing to do in this league.

“It’s going to be very difficult to dominate for 100 minutes, but it’s why we allow them to get a ripple of the game. We didn’t concede anything but the moment changes on that goal. Then you have to be so good at dealing in that situation. We have to be more ruthless, critical and pushy.

“We knew the pitch it would be dry, it was really hot. And it was going to be slow. And everything would be a low block like a Christmas tree. And it would benefit the opponent.”

Arteta also praised striker Nketiah for being a “role model” in responding from the setback of not being picked for the Community Shield final at Wembley.

“I’m delighted for him because he’s a role model,” Arteta said. “A player who was so disappointed, after the injury from Gabi, not to play a final, he came on and changed the game. That’s No 1.

“The second is the way he trained this week, he was telling me: ‘Gaffer, if I don’t play – you are blind.’

“A lot of players come and say why I’m not playing. You have to try to say these are the reasons why I deserve to play. This is exactly what he did and then he goes on the pitch. A very good example for everybody.”

Cooper: Not good enough in duels

Steve Cooper questioned his side's competitiveness in the duels
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Steve Cooper questioned his side’s competitiveness in the duels

Meanwhile, Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper admitted his frustration at not seeing his team compete well enough in the first half which saw them go 2-0 down.

“I was frustrated with the first half,” he said. “We came to Arsenal who are a good team, more than a good team, strengthened from last year. A really good team at home and lots of our team are getting up to speed.

“At half-time I questioned us to back ourselves in the duels. They dominated and had territory, we didn’t compete strong enough and didn’t show enough quality on the turnovers.

“We had the real chance in open play in the first half through Brennan and although they’re brilliant finishes, you look at it from our point of view and we could have done so much better. And from all the territory and play they had, they didn’t have that many chances.”

Analysis: Arsenal have more about them but issues remain

Arsenal beat Nottingham Forest but have they moved on from last year?
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Arsenal beat Nottingham Forest but have they moved on from last year?

Sky Sports’ Sam Blitz at the Emirates Stadium:

Mikel Arteta put out a message when he named Gabriel Magalhaes – one of his most used Arsenal players from last season – on the bench in his Premier League opener: I have more options.

The Brazilian defender started every single game for Arsenal last season but this time he was dropped for tactical reasons. Not because there was a better player instead of him, but because Arteta had a different game plan.

Last season, Arsenal were brilliant in taking Manchester City nearly all the way but there was a predictability about their team.

GRAPHIC
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GRAPHIC


You knew who the back four would be, that Thomas Partey was going to be alongside Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka in midfield – and that Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli would occupy the flanks.

Against Nottingham Forest on Saturday, Arteta made just one change to his line-up but the whole team changed.

Gabriel went out, Partey went from midfield to defence, Kai Havertz went from the attack to midfield and in came Eddie Nketiah. Such a switch was almost impossible a year ago. Arsenal allowed themselves to play an attacking line-up which penned Forest in – the result being a 2-0 half-time lead and the game almost done.

Now, Arsenal are in a position where no one knows who out of Ben White, Jurrien Timber, Takehiro Tomiyasu or even Partey will play at right-back. Will Gabriel return next week? Will Declan Rice be a defensive midfielder next to Havertz, or an attacking one next to Partey or Jorginho? Leandro Trossard can play four positions, where would he fit in?

Read Sam Blitz’s full feature here

What’s next?

Arsenal face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park next Monday, live on Monday Night Football.

Meanwhile, Forest host newly promoted Sheffield United on Friday 18 August, kick-off 7.45pm.

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