Arsenal’s 3-2 victory over Bournemouth may be the greatest battle won by a Nelson since Trafalgar.
Yet it began with a terrifying realisation. Sixty thousand fans were simultaneously stunned to silence within ten seconds, all kicking themselves and thinking: “How could we have been so stupid? How could we let ourselves hope, trust, expect? Of course, the first heady whiff of arrogance would end with us conceding the second-fastest goal in Premier League history to a side who have only won once this calendar year.”
After over a decade of disappointment for the Gunners, it’s hard to criticise their lack of faith. They remember when only Birmingham stood between them and their first trophy in six years. They remember Wojciech Szczesny staring to the heavens as the late Cheick Tiote overturned a 4-0 lead.
They remember every drab defeat in Stoke, every hammering by a rival to derail their title bid, even falling apart at St James’ Park last May to leave their Champions League hopes and dignity somewhere up the M1.
This was a club that did collapse. Falling apart, infighting and blind headlessness under pressure had become the Arsenal way.
Granit Xhaka’s absence from the starting XI against Bournemouth marked the first time Arsenal have lined up without a player who featured under Arsene Wenger since January 1986. Of course, Wenger crafted the modern Gunners, so ubiquitous a figure that my generation grew up overwhelmingly believing Arsenal was named after their iconic leader.
Yet the later years, the often-named “banter era”, left scars no occasional FA Cup could heal.
But Reiss Nelson’s last-minute thunderbolt, bringing the Gunners ahead from 2-0 down, may have managed it.
That goal, that moment, was an exorcism of Wengerian demons in so many ways, a purge of Unai Emery’s grim memory. The Emirates produced a noise quite unlike anything I had ever heard; a guttural, almost primordial roar from deep within the club’s soul.
Martin Odegaard’s legs failed him altogether. William Saliba’s instinct was to fly-kick the corner flag. Mikel Arteta ran and ran with no idea or care where he was going.
Overwhelming relief met cataclysmic joy – they had not been wrong to hope, they could still trust, they were one step closer to turning expectation into reality.
And it meant all the more that it was Nelson who managed it, the academy graduate seemingly condemned by bad legs and bad luck to a career in the shadows. It has been a long time since Arsenal could rely on true squad depth, that they could turn to Emile Smith-Rowe and Nelson rather than Sebastian Squillaci or Yaya Sanogo or Marouane Chamakh.
As well as having the capability to improve the side from the bench, Arteta used it with aplomb. Ben White came on at half-time for the frail Takehiro Tomiyasu, while Nelson assisted the second and scored the third in his 28 minutes on the pitch.
It was not the first late win Arsenal have enjoyed this year – between the 3-2 win over Man Utd and the 4-2 at Aston Villa they have experienced their fair share of late drama. But this was different – it touched more nerves, pricked more insecurities, tested the trust more than those matches.
They conceded two goals to a side which had not scored twice in the league since the World Cup. They conceded a set-piece and fell foul to a slow start. They even appeared as though they were trying to walk it in at points, that great cliché of Wenger’s later years.
What Saturday’s game proved was that they’re no longer that Arsenal, they’re this Arsenal; relentless, rapacious, desperate to win, the tactical embodiment of Arteta’s romantic intensity.
There was no Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Martinelli on the scoresheet, Odegaard failed to pick more locks than a bad burglar and their defensive resilience resembled sugar paper. But they did it anyway. They found goals from defenders and defensive midfielders, from substitutes and squad players.
Arteta called Nelson’s winner “probably the loudest and most emotional moment we have lived together.” If Arsenal win this year’s Premier League, it will be shown on every highlights reel and greatest goals compilation of the season’s montage.
Although the Emirates faithful may disagree, that moment’s significance is not dependant on whether a title follows at the end of this season. It should always be remembered for banishing the last vestige of the Wenger hangover, of the Arsenal who fell behind and stayed there.
When many look back on this tie in five, 10, 15 years, that it came against a Bournemouth side who appear as destined for relegation as the Gunners are for the title may cloud the memory. Yet it needed to come on a day even away fans did not expect their side to trouble the hosts, one of those unassuming days when arrogance can pervade the mind.
Arsenal are allowed to be confident now. It is well earned and well deserved. Twelve battles now stand between Arteta’s side and a first Premier League since 2004. They will know they can win every one.