LONDON -- The summer signing who nobody questioned bailed out the one most people did. Just when it appeared as though Mikel Arteta would face another inquisition over his goalkeeper choices, Declan Rice popped up with a priceless header beyond added time to earn Arsenal a stunning 4-3 win at Luton Town on Tuesday night.
The game had threatened to be defined by two David Raya mistakes allowing a spirited Luton to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead on an evening when the Gunners' resolve was tested to the limit. Raya increasingly appears to labour under the weight of scrutiny which accompanied his surprise loan move from Brentford, usurping Aaron Ramsdale to become the Gunners' number one despite the latter doing little to warrant such brutal treatment.
Arteta simply feels Raya is an upgrade, not just in possession but in his all-round ability but he faltered badly here to the extent it could easily have cost Arsenal two precious points in the Premier League title race. And yet, Rice rewrote the script. A £105 million acquisition from West Ham, the 24-year-old found a brilliant glancing header from Martin Odegaard's sublime cross in the seventh minute of six additional minutes to snatch a priceless victory which takes Arteta's side, for 24 hours at least, five points clear at the top of the table.
"This is the incredible thing about football, emotions and what you live together with a lot of people," said Arteta. "It was a special night. Credit to Luton, the atmosphere they created, how they were coached, how they made it difficult for us, but we found a way to win. The resilience, character, quality, and desire to win that the team showed was great.
"When you have to play every three days and you have to win every game, the demands are there. It's the way they go about it. How much they want it. We talked about half-time and the things we wanted them to do better and they are so willing. Sometimes it works better than others."
Rice was not signed for his goal threat but this match-winning moment can now join key interventions against Manchester United and Chelsea in securing points which already feel vital given the 96-100 target Arteta has set this group to win the title. The England midfielder and Douglas Luiz are the only two players with multiple league goals at least six minutes into second-half stoppage-time this season and this was Arsenal's latest game-winning goal away from home in Premier League history.
When asked if he would be part of two late-winners, Arteta says he is still expecting one more out of him. "Three! So there's one more to go. It's gonna happen," he said. "I don't know when. He had an incredible game again. The leadership, the quality that he's showing every week, every game it is getting better and better. And then in the opponent's box, he's got that ability and that smell to get put the ball in the back of the net."
It is a testament to his tireless engine. The physicality he brings to Arsenal should have enabled them to deal with Luton's set-piece threat much better than they managed at Kenilworth Road. After Gabriel Martinelli gave the visitors a 20th-minute lead, Gabriel Osho headed in Alfie Doughty's corner five minutes later. Gabriel Jesus restored Arsenal's lead with a well-worked goal on the stroke of half-time but they failed to learn their lesson.
Another Doughty delivery four minutes into the second half saw Raya flap hopelessly and Elijah Adebayo was left with a simple finish. Former Chelsea midfielder Ross Barkley, who drove Luton forward all evening, exchanged passes with Andros Townsend before firing a low shot that went through Raya far too easily.
Those close to the transfer have told ESPN that it is a formality that the £27 million option to sign Raya permanently will almost certainly be taken up at some point soon with Arteta steadfast in his conviction that Raya is an upgrade on Ramsdale, who had enhanced his reputation in playing all 38 games as Arsenal pushed City close to the Premier League title last term. Rice's goal could not mask the issue entirely but Arteta, unsurprisingly, would not be drawn on Raya's mistakes.
"We have to defend better the situations as a team," he said. "There are certain things leading to the goals. It's not about blaming. We have never done it and we won't do it now. It's about how the team reacts because it's going to happen. I love that response."
After Kai Havertz equalised on the hour mark - another step in the right direction for him after his slow start following a summer move from Chelsea - Arteta was booked in the euphoric celebrations that greeted Rice's header, a third yellow card of the season which means he will be banned from the touchline for Saturday's trip to Aston Villa. Takehiro Tomiyasu will also be missing -- potentially for some time -- after a scan confirmed he had suffered a calf injury which prompted his absence here.
They will begin at Villa with a clear lead at the top of the table after a night in which Arsenal's battling qualities eventually came to the fore. Rice is used to a more conventional type of leadership through touch-tackling, positional discipline, and hunger for the fight. Rice gave his beleaguered goalkeeper a bearhug at full-time and the pair left the Kenilworth Road pitch together, Raya safe in the knowledge his team-mate had shielded him from the full repercussions of a chastening experience.