Premier League: Luton Town 3 Arsenal 4
It was a performance of two faces by Arsenal on a night when they absolutely needed to win; dropping points at relegation-threatened Luton is not a part of a championship portfolio.
Arsenal were dangerous going forward, with Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka their main men. Jesus was prominent in the creation of goals one and three while he scored the second himself. Saka, meanwhile, on the occasion of his 200th Arsenal appearance, set up the opener for Gabriel Martinelli and had a role to play in the two that followed. Both players shimmered with menace throughout.
It was a night that threatened to be remembered for Arsenal’s defensive softness and the man in the firing line was the goalkeeper, David Raya, Amazon Prime becoming the latest broadcaster to show the obligatory cutaways to Aaron Ramsdale on the substitutes’ bench. Luton were excellent and they boasted the best player on the pitch – the midfielder, Ross Barkley. More on him later. But if Raya was beaten far too easily by Elijah Adebayo on a corner for 2-2, he wanted the ground to swallow him up when Barkley drilled a low shot past him for 3-2. Raya went down horribly slowly.
And yet Arsenal’s attacking prowess would see them edge home at the very death – 23 seconds after the six additional minutes had been played. It was Martin Ødegaard who whipped over the cross as Arsenal recycled a move with astonishing patience and there was Declan Rice to flick his header into the far corner. Arsenal’s celebrations were wild. Raya’s relief ran in a similar vein.
Arsenal had not been here since St Stephen’s Day 1991 when they slipped to a 1-0 defeat, Mick Harford’s late goal giving David Pleat’s Hatters a famous result against George Graham’s reigning champions.
It is fair to say that the stadium has not changed too much since then – there remains an unreconstructed feel to it all, an old-school edge, which was evident when Alan Shearer, here as a TV pundit, walked in front of the Kenilworth Road stand before kick-off and was jeered. Thierry Henry fared rather better and was emboldened to pose for a few photos.
Arsenal had to master the occasion as well as opponents who felt they were building something on their own turf after the draw with Liverpool and the win over Crystal Palace. Luton were physical, the early stages defined by their refusal to pull out of any challenge; the desire sometimes to leave a little on their opponents. A succession of Arsenal players felt markers across their lower limbs. The home crowd felt that the visitors were extremely soft. Or something like that.
Luton had to remain tight, to give Arsenal no encouragement. Which is exactly what they did not do when they gave up the opening goal. Amari’i Bell’s backpass was loose, sending Thomas Kaminski scampering to his left to avoid conceding the corner.
The goalkeeper banged the ball out into the advertising boards for a throw but Gabriel Jesus was quickly to it and he immediately got Saka in behind Alfie Doughty. Saka’s run was typically smart and so was the cut-back after the burst. Martinelli’s first-time finish was angled into the far corner.
Luton absorbed the setback. In Barkley, they had a playmaker of poise and personality; an early Cruyff-turn was a highlight. He wanted to run with the ball, to beat his men, to get his team moving. But it was from a corner that Luton got back into it. When they won it, the decibel levels in the stands rose sharply. When Mpanzu powered it home, we had lift-off. Martinelli’s marking was weak.
Back came Arsenal. Jesus and Martinelli worked Kaminski from tight angles; Saka jinked inside and unfurled a curler for the far corner, which the goalkeeper did very well to finger-tip away.
Arsenal were bringing the guile and they deserved their goal before half-time, which again stemmed from a move up the right. Ben White played a give-and-go with Saka; what a lovely return pass it was and how White put it on a plate for Jesus, the cross perfectly floated. Jesus’s unchecked leap was majestic. He could not miss with the header and he enjoyed shushing the Luton fans.
Barkley looked like he was playing with his own ball, at times. His technical quality shone brightly and it was a lovely pass that he pinged into Andros Townsend after the restart, the winger’s shot then deflecting for a corner. Again, Luton brought the desire and aggression on it. Arsenal could not cope. This time, Raya was at fault. The goalkeeper was caught behind the ball and he was simply beaten for power by Adebayo, who pushed away Declan Rice and timed his run and leap.
Barkley’s evening would get even better; Raya’s would deteriorate. Barkley had surged from halfway, carrying up the inside left, revelling in every caress of the ball when he cut across to Townsend and got it back on the left hand side of the area. A step-over, a swerve to the outside, a low blast. Raya went down so slowly and he felt the ball swoosh underneath him.
Back came Arsenal for 3-3. The equaliser was all about the physical presence of Jesus, who reached a high punt forward by Saka and held off Teden Mengi before picking out Kai Havertz, whose finish was true.
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