If this is at last to be Arsenal’s year, it will have been because of dramatic moments like this. Only bolstering their confidence is that this was just the latest. Declan Rice scored a 97th-minute header for the Premier League leaders to plunder a 4-3 win over a doughty Luton Town team who will feel they deserved more. They again gave the competition an awful lot to contemplate here. This was just the latest in a series of these chaotically entertaining games – many of them 4-3 – on which the Premier League has sold another multi-billion broadcast deal.
It was also the latest in a series of psychologically crucial late victories for Mikel Arteta’s side, whatever the importance in the table. This was the fifth time they had scored a game-changing goal after the 84th minute in just 15 league games this season. It was also the second time they had done it in three weeks. Arsenal, as against Brentford, won by a nose.
Luton Town more than made them work for it. Arsenal felt the pain, quite literally after some challenges, before they felt the joy.
There is obviously a vast gap in resources between Luton Town and most of the Premier League but they attempted to bridge that by relentlessly shutting down any space around Arsenal players. There were periods when Arteta’s side really struggled to play the ball out from the back. That was complemented by some industrial Luton challenges, but also compromised by comparatively lax defending.
It was like all focus had gone into the pressing, which is perhaps the point. Something had to give.
They will still be frustrated with some of the goals they actually gave up. With Luton successfully pinning Arsenal back, one break saw Osho completely hack at a back pass. Thomas Kaminski had to scramble to prevent a corner, only to give it to Gabriel Jesus. His quick thinking put Bukayo Saka through, who squared for Gabriel Martinelli to finish.
There would doubtless have been many who thought the game was finished at that point, but there is a resilience about Luton. That was personified by Osho, who almost immediately plundered an equaliser with a fine header.
Arteta should have been indignant with the way his team had conceded so easily from a set-piece, but it was a warning. It was to get even worse, especially as Arsenal went ahead a second time.
This was where there was a sense that the game could and should have been easier for Arsenal because there were spells when their attack linked together and Luton could do absolutely nothing about it. The Premier League leaders were too fast, Ben White skipping over a challenge to clip in a cross, and Jesus heading in.
The Brazilian enjoyed a brilliant individual game, which Arsenal needed.
Luton still weren’t accepting defeat though. They were going for much more.
They had clearly spotted more to get at with Arsenal. One potential issue was the set-piece. Another was David Raya’s ongoing uncertainty. Both came together on 49 minutes for Elijah Adebayo to head in from close range.
Luton were raucous. They were soon rampaging. There was just that feel in the cold air something might be on, as Andros Townsend picked the ball up on the edge of Raya’s box. He tried to create space for the long shot but that served to provide room for Ross Barkley. The playmaker showed great feet to exploit poor hands from Raya.
Luton, for the second time at home against one of the big teams this season, were ahead.
It could have been the makings of something great, but they were immediately undone by some inevitable weaknesses. The defence was just caught out by a punt, Jesus showing a deftness beyond any Luton player with a perfect touch that put Kai Havertz in on goal.
It was again so easy for Arsenal, which was such a contrast to how the game as a whole was so tough for them.
The game belatedly developed into one of those vintage title-race slogs, where the wealthier team start to build with more and more threat, as the lower side retreats but tries to stay standing – a match against the clock as much as the opposition.
Luton similarly went from closing down all the space around Arsenal in the other half to closing out all space around their box.
There were so many moments when Arsenal tried to play their way through only for the lack of space to see them just touch the ball out of play. Kaminski played his part by touching a Havertz header over.