Arsenal returned to the summit – and overcame recent jitters – with victory over Nottingham Forest. And Benjamin White deserves his flowers.
Less than a month out from a World Cup, the laborious temptation is to view everything through an England lens. Form, injuries, the whereabouts of Gareth Southgate – for a matter of weeks when a major tournament is on the horizon, the entire nation becomes a Three Lions-obsessed cabal of Henry Winters, laser-focused on which overlooked player deserves to be On The Plane or whose fitness the country should be ‘sweating over’.
The outlook on Bukayo Saka will become clearer in due course. There were two surprises with his apparent ankle injury: that a rough challenge did not directly precede him being rendered prone and needing to be substituted; and that it was Reiss Nelson who replaced him.
Saka was roughed up early on by Renan Lodi and Nottingham Forest hardly let up from there. The treatment the Arsenal winger regularly receives from the opposition – generally not punished effectively enough by the officials – makes this sort of outcome likely. Coupled with how much Mikel Arteta relies on and thus uses him, it was almost inevitable that Saka would break down eventually. The only variable was ever how long he would be sidelined for.
On the basis of this Forest fire, his absence will be more detrimental to country than club. Nelson stepped into unfamiliar shoes for his first Premier League appearance since last season’s opening day defeat to Brentford and he summed up the difference in playing for a team with and without confidence by scoring twice and assisting another.
The transformation Arsenal have undergone since that humbling experience in west London 14 months ago has been well-documented. That makes it no less impressive in how they have turned the cliche of a soft, weak, pretty but beatable team on its head to become the last obstacle to Manchester City’s final boss.
It was after that Brentford defeat when Jamie Carragher thanked the Gods that Liverpool had steered clear of a centre-half Gary Neville felt had been “nudged around” too easily by the promoted side. From Benjamin White’s baptism of fire, an ice-cold elite defender has emerged.
While it was once impossible to mention White’s name without making a derogatory comparison with Raphael Varane and contemporaries signed for similarly substantial fees, the 25-year-old has developed into a bastion of consistent brilliance. Some players in this Arsenal squad have displayed loftier ceilings this season but none have proven to have higher floors.
It is rare that the performance is more important than the result, especially at this end of the table, but after Arsenal’s creeping malaise in terms of recent displays it was imperative to lift the standards again. White reset them with his block on Jesse Lingard’s shot at 1-0 in the first half. After comparable actions in similar circumstances against Aston Villa and Fulham, he provided the foundations for another important win.
Even when his impact is less obvious, as with the bursting overlapping run offered to Saka to distract the Forest defence and allow Gabriel Martinelli to head a low front-post cross past Dean Henderson for the opener, it remains entirely tangible.
White has matured phenomenally as a player, embracing the shift out to the right-hand side to accommodate William Saliba. His awareness, anticipation, control, progression and versatility makes him the perfect player for Arteta. And his post-match interview tetchiness makes him as fun and refreshing to watch off the pitch as on it.
The visitors threatened a handful of times after Martinelli’s header but Nelson’s two well-taken goals put the game beyond doubt before Thomas Partey’s trademark – a side-footer into the top corner from outside the area – and Martin Odegaard’s fine strike added a swaggering emphasis.
By the end, White had moved to the centre late in the second half after Saliba was substituted for Kieran Tierney. It was a welcome return to the position in which he first caught the eye as much as it was a reminder to England that he really ought to be on the way to Qatar.
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