Arsenal’s history in the FA Cup is a proud and noble one. They are the record holders of the competition, and Arsène Wenger is the competition’s most successful manager, despite this, it’s not totally unreasonable to see why Arsenal might have come into Saturday’s game against the reigning champions Manchester City on the back foot.
Fresh off the back of their unpredicted victory over Liverpool on Wednesday, Arsenal made several changes to the lineup, with Shkodran Mustafi, Héctor Bellerín, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Dani Ceballos and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all returning to the Arsenal starting eleven.
All the drama of an FA Cup semi-final should be enough for most, but there was an unmistakable air of Master vs. Apprentice about Saturday’s game. Having already gotten the better of Arsenal since the resumption of the Premier League, Pep Guardiola would have no doubt been wary of his former Assistant Coach Mikel Arteta, now Arsenal’s head-coach, and just how much he knows about the team he won eight trophies with over an impressive three-and-a-half-year spell.
The game played out in much the same way as the Liverpool game for Arsenal, with the Gunners on the back foot for most of the game and relying on swift counter-attacks.
Manchester City’s David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne were pulling the strings for the most part, but City’s insistence on crossing the ball wherever possible led to some frustrating returns, with Gabriel Jesus unable to handle the aerial presence of Mustafi, David Luiz or Kieran Tierney.
Arsenal weren’t without their chances, however, a crafty interception from David Luiz allowed the Brazilian to feed captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was clean through on goal and who, perhaps expecting an offside call, hit a powerful, but somewhat tame shot at goalkeeper Ederson, a shot that looked costly at the time, would Arsenal be given that sort of guilt-edged chance again?
Arsenal have been criticised since the departure of Arsène Wenger for an insistence on playing out from the back, even when facing a ruthless pressing system. The team struggled with this tactic under Unai Emery and didn’t fare much better under interim coach Freddie Ljungberg, however, Arsenal ploughed on with the system and hairy moments began to manifest themselves, especially after a breakdown in communication between Mustafi and goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez. As Arsenal began to play out from the back once more, with the watchful De Bruyne, Sterling and Gabriel Jesus all lurking around, there would have no doubt been the usual upsurge of panic in the crowd as Jesus’ foot missed the pass out wide by a hair’s breadth, but alas, with no crowd to discourage them, Arsenal persevered and found themselves placing City on the back foot.
Alexandre Lacazette’s brilliant hold-up play allowed him to feed Bellerín, who passed the ball to Nicolas Pépé, the Ivorian took two touches to steady himself and one more to set himself up before whipping in an inch-perfect cross to the far post, which Aymeric Laporte and Eric García could only watch fly over their heads as Aubameyang atoned for his earlier miss with an impressive outside-of-the-boot finish, which tapped in off the post to give Arsenal an unexpected lead.
The floodgates opened as City began to smother Arsenal with possession, but Arsenal stood firm, every loose ball was pounced on by the current holders, but Arsenal defended with their lives, none more so than Granit Xhaka, who threw himself in front of Kevin De Bruyne’s effort to keep the score as is.
Despite City’s dominance, they were susceptible to counter-attacks, something Arteta would have no doubt been aware of, and Arsenal continued to push with some decent chances being provided, but the first-half drew to a close with a 1-0 score.
City emerged from the tunnel before Arsenal, no doubt having been read the riot act by Pep Guardiola and City started well, forcing issues down Arsenal’s wings, though City decided not to attack Bellerín, who had looked suspect in the first half, but decided to attack the side of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who did well to keep winger Riyad Mahrez quiet. But the Algerian was not going down without a fight, and after a quick cut inside, the former Leicester City winger forced a very impressive save down to his near post from Emiliano Martínez, who is making things harder and harder for Mikel Arteta about what to do when Bernd Leno returns from injury. Prior to that, City had tried one attempt down Bellerín’s side, with De Bruyne lining up Raheem Sterling, who’s placed effort had Martínez beaten, but skimmed past the post.
Once again trying down the side of Maitland-Niles, City were hungry for an equaliser and Arsenal of old would have maybe sensed one coming and made the job easier for City, but, once again, after De Bruyne laid off David Silva, City just couldn’t seem to find the back of the net.
There were half-hearted shouts for a penalty after Mustafi brought down Sterling in the penalty area, which was followed by an uncomfortably long VAR check, but it always looked unlikely and City didn’t seem to protest much outside of their number seven.
A rare break forward from Arsenal saw Kieran Tierney play the ball to Pépé who was trailed by former Tottenham winger Kyle Walker. If there was one player in the defence that Pépé was unlikely to beat in a foot race, its Walker, so the Ivorian quickly dispatched the ball back to Tierney who sprung the release of Aubameyang who took advantage of City’s inexplicably high-line and bared down on Ederson, a quick check to his right saw that Lacazette was covered by Benjamin Mendy, so the Gabon international had to go alone and promptly slotted the ball through the keeper’s legs, in a finish reminiscent of Thierry Henry at his very best.
It was an odd goal to concede for City. Usually so well drilled, it was odd to see Guardiola make such a basic error of defending with such a high-line against one of the fastest strikers in world football and someone with as keen an eye for goal as Aubameyang would only ever punish you from there.
It seemed as though the stuffing had been knocked out of City after that and despite some decent chances, most noticeably from Kevin De Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte, City never really looked likely to score after the second goal and as John Moss brought an end to proceedings, there was a feeling of utter deflation from Guardiola, who greeted Arteta warmly, before slinking down the tunnel.
To say the result was on the cards would be a gross overstatement, but Arsenal had every right to be confident coming into the game off the back of a 2-1 victory over Liverpool and it’s fair to say that City simply gave Arsenal far too much respect.
That’s not to say that Arsenal lucked the result though, far from it. Arteta knew that Arsenal’s midfield did not have the same qualities as Manchester City’s, so relying on counter-attacking football with the lighting-quick Aubameyang, the skilful and quick-footed Nicolas Pépé and with the brilliant hold-up play of Lacazette, Arsenal might stand a chance.
City like to build from deep, so it was no surprise to see Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka took turns marking İlkay Gündoğan out of the game, which stifled City’s creativity and meant that De Bruyne and David Silva were unable to pick the ball up as often and meant City’s attacking line was essentially feeding off scraps.
Guardiola’s unusual plot to cross the ball at every available moment seemed an odd one too. While Mustafi and David Luiz have come into a fair amount of criticism over the years for their somewhat laughable lapses in concentration, one thing that neither could ever really be questioned over is their ability to head the ball, which they showed off impressively. Crosses were cleared out by the Arsenal defence and even Kieran Tierney was better suited to heading the ball out, than the City line was to head it in.
Post-match was seen as a very jubilant time for Mikel Arteta and his side, but there is a feeling that though the Spaniard may have masterminded two rather excellent but unexpected results, there is a distinct feeling that Arsenal will be getting nowhere with these kinds of performances. Sure, the result may have favoured them on both occasions and its true that Arsenal look a lot happier and content under Arteta, but reinforcements are needed and they’re needed fast.
Arsenal’s young head-coach has impressed the seriousness of the task ahead of him and the club. There are non-negotiables that the Spaniard will not compromise, and it’s safe to say that, Mattéo Guendouzi aside, the Arsenal players seem to have bought into the Spaniard’s philosophies, but there is no substitute for quality or experience and Arsenal need both in abundance.
The prospect of no European football next season, Europa League or otherwise, would be catastrophic for Arteta’s transfer plans and winning the FA Cup gives Arsenal an automatic by-in to the competition as well as another bit of silverware for the trophy cabinet. Arsenal can still qualify for the Europa League via the Premier League, but results need to go their way and six points from the remaining two games is a must.
But Mikel Arteta can’t be focusing on the club’s transfer plans just yet, after all, he’s got a cup final to prepare for.
26.) Emiliano Martínez
3.) Kieran Tierney
20.) Shkodran Mustafi (Holding 87′)
23.) David Luiz
2.) Héctor Bellerín
8.) Dani Ceballos (Kolašinac 87′)
34.) Granit Xhaka
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Torreira 78′)
19.) Nicolas Pépé (Willock 72′)
33.) Matt Macey
5.) Sokratis Papastathopoulos
16.) Rob Holding
31.) Sead Kolašinac
57.) Matthew Smith
11.) Lucas Torreira
28.) Joe Willock
24.) Reiss Nelson
77.) Bukayo Saka
Manchester City Team:
2.) Kyle Walker
50.) Eric García
14.) Aymeric Laporte
22.) Benjamin Mendy
17.) Kevin De Bruyne
8.) İlkay Gündoğan (Rodri 66′)
26.) Riyad Mahrez (Foden 66′)
21.) David Silva (Fernandinho 66′)
7.) Raheem Sterling
9.) Gabriel Jesus
Manchester City Subs:
33.) Scott Carson
5.) John Stones
30.) Nicolas Otamendi
27.) João Cancelo
11.) Oleksandr Zinchenko
20.) Bernardo Silva
47.) Phil Foden