Martin Ødegaard fires Arsenal back to top of table with victory over Luton

Mikel Arteta had parked the bus to secure what he hopes will prove a priceless point in Arsenal’s Premier League title quest at Manchester City on Sunday. Here he tinkered extensively with the engine to fire another result to keep things ticking over.

Arsenal will need Liverpool to stall at some point if they are to realise their dream of a first championship title in 20 years; Jürgen Klopp’s team play next at home against Sheffield United on Thursday night. In the meantime, all Arsenal can do is look after what they can control.

Following the stress of the 0-0 draw against City, this was an easier ride, Arsenal moving back above ­Liverpool to the top of the table, Arteta able to enjoy the impact of some of his lesser used players.

The manager made a season‑high five changes to his starting XI, opportunity knocking the loudest for Thomas Partey, Emile Smith Rowe and Reiss Nelson. Arteta had rested some of his big guns. It was the first time all season that Declan Rice was not in the starting XI for a league game; he got on as a substitute, as did Gabriel Martinelli. Bukayo Saka was rested entirely.

It was Smith Rowe who helped to make the difference. He sparked the move for Martin Ødegaard’s opening goal and it was his pull-back that led to the own goal from Daiki Hashioka just before half-time that effectively ended the contest. Smith Rowe was given a standing ovation when Arteta withdrew him towards the end.

It was hard to look past Arteta’s selection in terms of the key themes of the evening. If his Luton counterpart, Rob Edwards, had called it “the biggest challenge” he had ever faced, as he contended with a biting injury crisis – he missed 11 players and filled the bench with four teenagers – then Arteta’s glass was full to brimming, only Jurrien Timber unavailable. Arteta had talked on Monday about the importance of the depth of his squad as the matches came thick and fast. This was why.

Luton did everything right in the first half of the first half. They were compact and committed in their 5-4-1 system, Arsenal showing little in an attacking sense. Which only made the first concession on 24 minutes harder for Luton to take. The creation was down to some old-fashioned hustle by Smith Rowe, who robbed Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu 10 yards into the Luton half.

Ødegaard celebrates scoring the opener for Arsenal in their victory. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP

When Smith Rowe fed Ødegaard, Luton were stretched and how nicely the Arsenal captain worked the transition, giving to Kai Havertz, going left and getting the ball back, the ­shooting opportunity now there. Ødegaard cut across it with the outside of his left boot; Thomas ­Kaminski was powerless.

Luton made Arsenal work in the first half, Smith Rowe and Nelson winning applause for tracking back to regain possession. The visitors tried to play, mainly through Ross Barkley. But it was Arsenal who had the deeper gears and they changed up into them to take a two-goal lead into the interval.

Edwards was not impressed when Arsenal played on after William Saliba had lunged into Hashioka; the ­Japanese defender, starting only his second Premier League game, could not get back to his feet. Ødegaard worked the ball to Smith Rowe, who was denied by Kaminski, with Teden Mengi making a vital block to deny Nelson on the rebound.

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Hashioka suffered further at the end of the half. By then, Havertz had worked Kaminski after a wonderful piece of Ben White skill in the buildup and Alfie Doughty had got an important foot in on Partey inside the area. Doughty had got himself into trouble on an Arsenal corner before retrieving the situation.

Luton were unhinged when Leandro Trossard released Smith Rowe along the byline and he cut back for Nelson, who had been tracked by Hashioka. Nelson could not apply the finishing touch; the cross was too strong for him. Unfortunately for Hashioka, he did.

Luton’s season has been defined by their never-say-die spirit. Edwards says he always wants his team to score the last goal, for them to fight until the end and, as usual, they did so. The only problem was their lack of cutting edge in the final third. When they got that far, usually with no men ahead of the ball, it was as if they did not know what to do next. The belief, as well as the options, was not there. Luton usually score. They had done so in each of their previous 18 league games. Not here.

Arsenal were comfortable. So, too, were their supporters, who definitely did not live this game like the one at City on Sunday. The second half passed largely without incident, the biggest thing being Havertz’s yellow card for a lamentable dive. Takehiro Tomiyasu, on as a substitute, bent a shot wide and another replacement, Eddie Nketiah, extended Kaminski at the near post. In between times, Gabriel Magalhães blocked a shot from Hashioka and that was that.

The Guardian