Arsenal’s alternatives find resilience and results needed in title fight
In the end, they had enough. In the end, Arsenal battered down the Bournemouth door a third time and sealed another comeback win.
This time, though, rather than having to come from a goal down twice - like against Aston Villa - or even having to come from a goal down and then score again after being pegged back themselves - such as against Man United - Arsenal had to fight back from being two goals down.
For a period, it looked a hard-earned and potentially important point. Two dropped, sure, but also a three-point gap reopened to Man City and defeat avoided, despite victory also being missed out on. Such is the stage of the Premier League season, where every scoreline and 90-minute outing can somehow feel like a missed opportunity and a vital show of resilience, all at the same time.`
But then came Reiss Nelson, creator of the equaliser and then scorer of the winner, a 20-minute cameo worth three points and, quite possibly, a more regular place in the team as a result.
Because while all that matters is the points on the board, Arsenal and Mikel Arteta can no longer rely on a very familiar-looking lineup which has carried them two-thirds of the way through the campaign; injuries are starting to hit, especially at the top end of the pitch, and the second string performers are about to get more chances to showcase their own quality.
On Saturday afternoon, it was all about Nelson.
The winger has been marginalised all term, just one Premier League start and barely more than an hour of game time all season long up until this outing off the bench. Even across the cups, just five further appearances paint the picture of a player who has been at best fifth in line for one of the wide forward roles.
But just as injuries to Gabriel Jesus and Eddie Nketiah saw Leandro Trossard handed a starting spot up front, the Belgian going off early in this fixture saw a potential opening for Nelson to be called upon. He still wasn’t Arteta’s first port of call, though.
Emile Smith Rowe has actually played fewer minutes than Nelson this season, with injury problems and groin surgery leaving him watching on too, but he got the nod midway through the first half after January signing Trossard departed. Half-fit, not sharp and struggling to find spaces against a deep defence, Smith Rowe toiled for the equivalent of around half a game before being subbed himself.
Nelson, handed his first minutes on the pitch since 12 November, took about 60 seconds to provide an equaliser.
A burst into space down the left and a measured, clipped cross to the far post saw Ben White get enough contact on the ball to force it over the line, despite Neto’s best efforts. Twice more in the following 25 minutes, including the allotted injury time, Nelson again threatened to find the way through, twisting and turning through challenges and providing deliveries to attack.
But it took a 97th-minute, half-cleared corner to find its way to him for the eventual winner: a thunderous, hail-Mary type of strike with his left boot which almost took the net off, and certainly raised the roof.
Bedlam, pandemonium, five points clear at the top.
There will be a measured look from Arteta and his coaching staff later, of course, once the euphoria wears off. Arsenal needed to score three to win, but it really could have been five: Bournemouth spurned a two-on-none situation in the first half and should have added another sucker punch on the counter.
And, they are relegation candidates: could this same Arsenal side find a route to victory, from behind or otherwise, against mid-table teams? Those fighting in the top-six? What about when playing twice a week, as the Europa League prepares to go again? Sporting CP await in midweek, then it’s in-form Fulham - with Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea and Newcastle all to face too in the space of a month further down the line.
Then there remain questions of the others who can be termed non-regulars.
While Nelson shone and Smith Rowe can be given a pass for a lack of fitness, Fabio Vieira struggled to influence play. Takehiro Tomiyasu was roasted on the counter more than once and subbed at the break. And with Trossard now out injured, Gabriel Martinelli is likely to start as the No9 if Nketiah doesn’t recover for upcoming games - the Brazilian is an excellent player, but untested regularly in a central role.
These are all questions and problems to solve at a later date, in future matches.
Arsenal and Arteta will take the confidence and congratulations after this impressive comeback win, more for the fortitude and determination to find a way through than for plaudits over style.
But perhaps the biggest lesson to take is over which fringe players are ready to step up at the busiest and most stressful time of the season, and which need to up their levels if they are to contribute - and if Arsenal are to compete as the campaign goes to the wire and absences continue to hit.