Arsenal's slew of late winners shows title challenge is for real
Find the biggest stories from across the soccer world by visiting our Top Soccer News section and subscribing to push notifications.
They say little should be read into the Community Shield, the traditional curtain-raiser to the English soccer season.
Maybe this year is an exception.
Back in early August, Arsenal scored an equalizer through Leandro Trossard in the 101st minute in regulation time and went on to beat Manchester City in a penalty shootout at Wembley Stadium.
Aside from winning a piece of silverware, it was hailed by Arsenal’s players as a statement victory — despite the uncompetitive nature of the fixture.
“The mental block is gone,” goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale said that day, a reference to his team stumbling late in last season’s Premier League title race and finishing behind City.
Well, maybe they are right.
And that’s not just because Arsenal woke up Wednesday to a five-point lead in the Premier League. It’s because of how the team has got there.
Scoring late goals — a trait demonstrating resilience and character — has become the norm for Arsenal. Dare it be said, it’s a sign of a champion team.
Just in the first 15 league games of this season, Arsenal has scored in the 96th and 101st minutes to beat Manchester United 3-1; in the 86th minute to beat Man City 1-0; in the 84th minute to draw 2-2 at Chelsea; in the 89th minute to beat Brentford 1-0; and, on Tuesday, in the seventh minute of stoppage time to win 4-3 at Luton.
That's nine points gained with goals scored from the 84th minute or later. Maybe that late rally in the Community Shield was a portent for how this season will go.
“We don’t want a draw, we want to win,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said. “That drive, that energy, that risk and emotion that we put in the pitch, you can sense it.”
The seeds of these comeback wins were sewn last season when Arteta’s teams produced a number of late recoveries in games to snatch crucial points in the title race.
The most memorable was Reiss Nelson’s winning goal against Bournemouth that sent Arsenal fans wild at Emirates Stadium. That was in the 97th minute and gave Arsenal a five-point lead in the league, just like Declan Rice did with his winner against Luton.
Arsenal again looks to be the team most likely to stop City winning the Premier League.
Last season, its title bid imploded in the final two months, weighed down by injuries to key players — William Saliba, in particular — and a naivety in dealing with holding off a fast-finishing juggernaut like City.
Could this season be different?
Arsenal has a few things going in its favor.
Rice, a club-record signing for $138 million in July, is an upgrade in central midfield and has already contributed crucial goals against United and Luton.
There's better strength in depth across the squad, in terms of numbers and experience.
Arteta's approach also appears to be different this season, going for more control than chaos — before the Luton game, anyway — to help the team better last the distance in a grueling campaign that also includes playing in the Champions League. In this respect, Arteta seems to be using the playbook of City manager Pep Guardiola from last season.
“Playing every three days and you have to win every game and every game, the demands are there,” Arteta said. “It’s the way they go about it, how much they want it.”
After the pain of the end of last season, Arsenal's players might want it even more.
There are questions marks about the wisdom of Arteta's decision to bring in goalkeeper David Raya and promote him above Ramsdale, last year's first-choice keeper. Raya was at fault for two goals against Luton and has looked shaky in other games, notably in the draw at Chelsea.
Whether Kai Havertz, another summer signing, is an upgrade on the departed Granit Xhaka is also up for debate. Playing Havertz as a central attacking midfielder might be making Arsenal more brittle, though he has come through with crucial goals against Brentford and Luton over the past two weeks.
“He’s getting better and better,” Arteta said of Havertz.
Arsenal's season may yet be derailed by injuries or going deep in the Champions League — in which the team has already qualified for the round of 16 — or another typically relentless finish to the campaign from City.
Yet it appears that, on a psychological level, the Gunners are in a good place to have another go at winning a first league title since 2004.
Digging deep to regularly score these late goals is proof of that.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer