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19/20 Match Reports

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea: FA Cup Final – 1/08/2020

The number fourteen holds a particular significance at Arsenal over the next week or so. Heading into Sunday’s FA Cup final, Arsenal had the chance to secure their fourteenth FA Cup and in doing so, would likely see the future of captain and number fourteen Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang resolved. 

The FA Cup has long been a mainstay of the Arsenal trophy cabinet. As the competition’s most successful team and a former manager as the most successful manager in the competition, it’s safe to say that Arsenal’s relationship with the FA Cup is a meaningful one for the club from N5.

The cup holds a particular significance for head-coach Mikel Arteta as well. Having lifted the trophy twice as a player for Arsenal, the Spaniard had the possibility of becoming the first person to win the FA Cup as a player and as a coach for Arsenal, since George Graham in 1993. 

With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why Arteta set up the way he did, with only one change to the Arsenal side, Joe Willock dropped to the bench for the more experienced and tactically flexible Ainsley Maitland-Niles. 

Sunday’s FA Cup final had the same ring to it as it did in 2017, when Arsenal beat Chelsea. Arsenal were again the underdogs, a disappointing campaign that was mercifully coming to an end and Chelsea who had over performed and looked to be adding something shiny to their own impressive trophy cabinet. 

As two former central midfield number eights and former captains led their teams onto the pitch, it was odd to see no fans either side of Emiliano Martínez and Willy Caballero. 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scores the game’s decisive goal.

The match began with a couple of chances for both sides. Arsenal with the first as Maitland-Niles got the better of César Azpilicueta and crossed an enticing ball in for Aubameyang, who couldn’t guide his header as he would have liked. Chelsea threatened next, with Granit Xhaka having his pocket-picked by the superb Mason Mount who bared down on goal and decided to let one fly from distance rather than playing through former-Gunner Olivier Giroud, which forced an impressive, if somewhat Hollywood save from Martínez. 

It was Chelsea’s turn to attack again, with Jorginho’s pass slicing through Arsenal’s almost non-existent midfield to find Christian Pulisic, who found Mount out wide, his pass was able to find Giroud, who’s delicate flick (something Arsenal fans will be all too familiar with) found Pulisic and the American was able to bounce the ball over the onrushing Martínez to give Chelsea the lead. 

Arsenal’s links to Atlético Madrid midfielder Thomas Partey look all the more justified as Chelsea glided through Arsenal’s midfield of Dani Ceballos and Xhaka like they weren’t even there, putting Arsenal’s already fairly shaky defences comprising of Rob Holding, hero of the 2017 final, the dependable Kieran Tierney and former Chelsea defender David Luiz under more pressure. 

Arsenal seemed to come out of their shell a bit after conceding. They knew they needed to attack and did just that. A lovely passing move was rounded off by a superb shot from Nicolas Pépé, who rattled the back of the net in what would have surely been a contender for one of the greatest FA Cup final goals, had the linesman’s flag not been raised. Arsenal were threatening and for Chelsea, the warning signs were ever present. 

A few minutes later, Kieran Tierney managed to release Aubameyang down the left-hand side, a tactic that has been Arsenal’s go-to attacking plan all season, with the Gabon forward getting the better of Azpilicueta before driving into the penalty area and forcing the Spanish defender to foul, which resulted in Anthony Taylor promptly pointing to the spot. 

Aubameyang’s record from penalties is good, but not amazing, Arsenal fans will remember only too well his penalty misses against Manchester City in his first season and against Tottenham Hotspur the season after. An 80% success rate from the spot is nothing to be sniffed at, but Aubameyang’s technique has always created something of a heart-in-the-mouth moment for Arsenal fans, but all fears were erased as the captain smashed home the equaliser, sending goalkeeper Caballero the wrong way. 

From that point on, it’s fair to say that the equaliser had knocked the stuffing out of Chelsea and Arsenal began to dominate the game. Though fewer chances were created, Arsenal were quick to nullify Chelsea’s real attacking threat, Pulisic enjoyed less creative freedom and Mount was unable to pull the strings as he had in the opening twenty minutes.

The second-half heralded in new life for Chelsea who started well, Pulisic broke well from the halfway line with Arsenal’s defence too slow to catch the speedy American who bore down on goal and fluffed his lines. Replays shows that the American had pulled his hamstring whilst running and was unable to guide his effort goal wards before falling to the ground clutching his thigh.

Things seem to be going from bad to worse for Lampard and his side as Pulisic was the second Chelsea casualty after Azpilicueta had had to be replaced in the first half for the same injury.

From there, Chelsea committed men forward, which allowed Arsenal to break, with Héctor Bellerín springing forward, carrying the ball perhaps a little too far, which resulted in a collision with Andreas Christensen; Anthony Taylor allowed play to continue, which led Pépé to play the ball to Arsenal’s talismanic captain, who turned defender Kurt Zouma with an impressive bit of skill only to then dink the ball with his weaker left foot past an out coming Caballero to double both his and Arsenal’s tally. 

Aubameyang’s finish was a marvel in of itself, in a post-match interview, Aubameyang told BT Sport that he knew Zouma and that Zouma would expect him to go onto his right foot, which led Aubameyang to score with his left, wrong-footing Chelsea’s French defender. 

From there, Arteta knew that Arsenal needed to do what they had done against both Liverpool in the Premier League and Manchester City in the semi-finals, weather the storm and his team was helped by a bizarre red card decision for Mateo Kovačić, which saw the Croatian midfielder sent off for a second bookable offence, after once again bringing down Granit Xhaka. It’s perhaps a testament to how bad the decision was that even the most ardent Arsenal supporters conceded that the decision was beyond harsh. 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates with his trademark front-flip celebration.

As the final-whistle came, celebrations erupted from the Arsenal bench as Arteta ran onto the field to celebrate with his players. The achievement was no small feat, the win prolonged Arsenal’s record of being the most successful team in the competition and also made them the first team to ever win an FA Cup behind closed doors. 

Owing to the restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual post-match pleasantries of the runners up receiving their medals before the winners climb the hallowed steps to hold the trophy aloft had to be dispensed with. Chelsea would receive their medals off the field and Arsenal would lift the trophy on the field, a feat that was nearly ruined when Aubameyang comically failed to remove the trophy from its plinth and promptly dropped the world’s oldest sporting trophy. 

The final means more to Arsenal than just simple silverware however. It adds a pretty hefty amount of glitter onto what has been an astoundingly poor season from the North London side in the wake of Unai Emery’s departure, but most importantly of all, it guarantees Arsenal European football next season, with the FA Cup providing an automatic buy-in to the Europa League with the added bonus that Tottenham Hotspur, who finished sixth in the league now have to participate in a season extending qualifying period to make the group stages, it also means that Wolverhampton Wanderers need to win the Europa League to qualify for any European football next season as Arsenal replaced them as the third English team in the Europa League. 

For Mikel Arteta, it’s an impressive end to a stressful first eight months in the job. Arteta has had to contend with want away players, diva behaviour, a global pandemic, limited financial resources and injuries galore all while having the added pressure of this being his very first management role. 

But the former Arsenal captain has more than shown his steel and proven what he can do. He has convinced Granit Xhaka, who looked all-but gone in January that his future remained in North London and he’ll be hoping that Sunday’s FA Cup triumph will convince Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to remain at Arsenal as well. 

If Arteta can convince Aubameyang to stay, then Arsenal have a real chance of putting a dent in top four next season and will be able to entice more players to join them and before any transfers can be concluded, Arsenal need to have the former Borussia Dortmund striker tied down to a new deal, because if Sunday has taught us anything, fourteen seems to be the magic number for Arsenal. 

Arsenal team:

26.) Emiliano Martínez
16.) Rob Holding
  3.) Kieran Tierney (Kolašinac 90+13’)
23.) David Luiz (Sokratis 88’)
  2.) Héctor Bellerín
  8.) Dani Ceballos
34.) Granit Xhaka
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
19.) Nicolas Pépé
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
  9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Nketiah 82’)

Arsenal subs:

33.) Matt Macey
  5.) Sokratis Papastathopoulos
11.) Lucas Torreira
24.) Reiss Nelson
28.) Joe Willock
30.) Eddie Nketiah
31.) Sead Kolašinac
57.) Matthew Smith
77.) Bukayo Saka

Chelsea team:

13.) Willy Cabellero
28.) César Azpilicueta (Christensen 35’)
15.) Kurt Zouma
  2.) Antonio Rüdiger (Hudson-Odoi 78’)
24.) Reece James
  5.) Jorginho
17.) Mateo Kovačić (S/O 73’)
  3.) Marcos Alonso
19.) Mason Mount (Barkley 78’)
18.) Olivier Giroud (Abraham 78’)
22.) Christian Pulisic (Pedro 49’)

Chelsea subs:

  1.) Kepa Arrizabalaga
  4.) Andreas Christensen
  7.) N’Golo Kanté
  8.) Ross Barkley
  9.) Tammy Abraham
11.) Pedro
20.) Callum Hudson-Odoi
29.) Fikayo Tomori
33.) Emerson Palmeri

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19/20 Match Reports

Arsenal 3-2 Watford: Premier League – 26/07/2020

As the Premier League finally came forward for its final curtain call, there was a sense of optimism around the Emirates Stadium. Following a disappointing 1-0 loss away to Aston Villa, Arsenal were hoping that there would be a renewed sense of vigour that had only been aided by the club’s new kit launch, with the club hoping for a case of new kit, new team, rather than new kit, same problems. 

Mikel Arteta made five changes to the lineup that lost to Aston Villa, with Cédric Soares, Sead Kolašinac, Lucas Torreira, Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah all dropping to the bench in favour of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Kieran Tierney, Granit Xhaka, Joe Willock and Nicolas Pépé respectively.

Mikel Arteta may have skilfully dodged a few questions in his pre-match interview and press conferences regarding Arsenal’s old adversary Troy Deeney, who famously questioned Arsenal’s “lack of cojones” when it really mattered, which led to Watford’s 2-1 over Arsenal in 2017, but there was no doubt that Arsenal would relish the chance to pile on the misery for Deeney and co.

With that in mind, things couldn’t have gone better for Arsenal in the opening few minutes after Alexandre Lacazette was fouled in the penalty area by defender Craig Dawson, which led to an agonisingly long VAR check. 

The rather unnecessarily long check ruled that a penalty should be given (much to referee Mike Dean’s surprise and chagrin), which was promptly dispatched by the Golden Boot chasing Arsenal captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. 

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates for Arsenal.

Despite Arsenal’s lead, it seems the same problems that have dogged the Gunners’ rather hapless campaign all season began to show again with Watford testing the Arsenal defence over and over again, none more than Ismaïla Sarr who danced his way through a siege of Arsenal defenders only to just fail to get the final ball right. 

Somewhat against the run of play, Arsenal tore up the field and Nicolas Pépé’s cross reached Aubameyang, who saw the angle wasn’t open before begrudgingly playing the ball back for Kieran Tierney, who’s somewhat tame effort still found its way in the back of the net, to double Arsenal’s lead. 

Tierney’s somewhat muted celebrations may have been a sign of the team’s overall performance all season, not good enough and that same sentiment seemed to be echoed by Mikel Arteta who, during the regulated drink’s break, was seen to be screaming this players. Arteta seemed to identify what everyone had suspected, that despite being 2-0 up, the performance was not up to scratch. 

Nine minutes later, Arsenal grabbed a third. Terrible defending from Watford allowed Aubameyang to trap Tierney’s long throw before scoring with an acrobatic overhead kick. Arsenal were firmly in control by this point. 

But as has been the case with Arsenal all season, the prophecy of Arsenal’s defence being a collective human hand grenade with a propensity for pulling its own pin, was once again fulfilled. The insistence on playing out from the back that famously caused the Gunners to come unstuck against Watford earlier in the season was once again prevalent here as Rob Holding’s misplaced pass gifted possession back to the away side who broke into the penalty area, only for the covering David Luiz to bring down former Gunner Danny Welbeck for the game’s second penalty. 

Its with a drop of poetic irony that the aforementioned Deeney, who missed his last penalty against Arsenal, mimicked Aubameyang’s spot-kick and gave Watford an avenue back into the game. 

While fans on social media were quick to lambast David Luiz for giving away his fifth penalty of the league season, its unfair to lay the blame entirely at the Brazilian defender’s feet, as Holding’s ball out had not done the defence any favours at all. 

The second half signalled what Arsenal had always been fearing. A team willing to die on the field to avoid relegation and with a goal scored just before half-time was always going to come out all guns blazing and that’s precisely what Watford did and the visitors were duly rewarded.

After a series of saves from the impressive Emiliano Martínez, Watford’s doggedness was rewarded. Sarr pulling away from Arsenal’s defenders to square the ball for Welbeck to score against his former club, was exactly what the doctor had ordered for Watford.

Questions, once again, were to be asked of Arsenal’s hapless defensive pairing of Holding and David Luiz. David Luiz failed to track Welbeck’s run and Holding did little to keep tabs on his former teammate either. 

Danny Welbeck comes back to haunt his former team.

With thirty minutes or so left on the clock, Arsenal were hungry for a fourth, however, the lack of creativity on the field, once again exacerbated by the continued exile of Mesut Özil, didn’t help Arsenal’s fortunes. However, Eddie Nketiah, on for Alexandre Lacazette, managed to force an error in midfield and was through on goal, baring down on Ben Foster. Nketiah got as close as he could before inevitably squaring it for Aubameyang, who was only a goal behind Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy. But the youngster’s pass wasn’t good enough and it was all Aubameyang could do to force an impressive save from Foster. Time was running out for the Gabon forward to grab the Golden Boot from Vardy’s hands. 

At the other end, the old problems persisted as Welbeck found himself unmarked in the box again and saw his backheeled effort acrobatically kept out by Martínez. 

Arsenal were glad to see the final whistle, but it was an unfortunate day for Watford. Results elsewhere meant that Watford were not in control of their own destiny anyway, but it served a bitter blow to Arsenal’s training ground neighbours that they were unable to come away with a point or possibly more. 

For Arsenal, who head into Saturday’s FA Cup final against Chelsea, it was exactly the kind of pre-final jitters that they could do without. 

Hapless defending, an astonishing lack of creativity, a questionable over reliance on tactics ill-suited to those playing them and distinct look of fatigue befell yet another poor performance from Arteta’s side.

Its not the first time that Arsenal have won a match in the Premier League this season looking much the worse side, however, its probably a good thing to get a poor performance out of the way before the aforementioned cup final, but Arsenal will want to make sure that the pre-final jitters are out fo the way as another former goalscoring adversary in Olivier Giroud will be licking his lips with glee at the thought of coming up against David Luiz who seemed on another planet on Sunday.

With the transfer window now opened and Arsenal’s budgetary fate still not fully decided in the world’s first post-COVID-19 transfer window, Arsenal fans will be watching Saturday’s final with bated breath, as Chelsea once again stand in the way of Arsenal’s European dreams, the question is, do Arsenal have it in them to payback their bitter rivals for the scoreline in Baku last season in the Europa League final?

Arsenal’s attention turns to the final now and Arteta will be hoping for a significantly better showing in terms of performance, but in terms of the potential outcome, the alternatives were considerably worse. 

Arsenal Team:

26.) Emiliano Martínez
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
16.) Rob Holding
23.) David Luiz
  3.) Kieran Tierney
  8.) Dani Ceballos (Torreira 72’)
34.) Granit Xhaka
28.) Joe Willock (Kolašinac 57’)
19.) Nicolas Pépé (Nelson 72’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
  9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Nketiah 57’)

Arsenal subs:

33.) Matt Macey
  5.) Sokratis Papastathopoulos
11.) Lucas Torreira
17.) Cédric Soares
24.) Reiss Nelson
30.) Eddie Nketiah
31.) Sead Kolašinac
57.) Matthew Smith
77.) Bukayo Saka

Watford Team:

26.) Ben Foster
21.) Kiko Femenía (Mariappa 45+2’)
27.) Christian Kabasele
  4.) Craig Dawson
11.) Adam Masina
19.) Will Hughes (Chalobah 81’)
16.) Abdoulaye Doucouré (Cleverley 81’)
23.) Ismaïla Sarr
37.) Roberto Pereyra (João Pedro 88’)
10.) Danny Welbeck
  9.) Troy Deeney (c)

Watford subs:

  1.) Heurelho da Silva Gomes
  6.) Adrian Mariappa
  8.) Tom Cleverley
14.) Nathaniel Chalobah
15.) Craig Cathcart
17.) João Pedro
18.) Andre Gray
20.) Domingos Quina
33.) Ignacio Pussetto

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19/20 Match Reports

Aston Villa 1-0 Arsenal: Premier League – 21/07/2020

Heading into Tuesday’s Premier League tie with Aston Villa, spirits were sky-high for Arsenal. Off the back of a 2-1 defeat of Liverpool in the Premier League and a 2-0 win over Manchester City in the FA Cup, it seemed as though Arsenal would make short work of an Aston Villa side that was languishing in 19th place.

Arsenal made a few changes to the team that beat Manchester City, with Sead Kolašinac and Rob Holding coming in for Kieran Tierney and the injured Shkodran Mustafi respectively. Héctor Bellerín was replaced by Cédric Soares, Granit Xhaka was dropped to the bench in favour of Lucas Torreira, Eddie Nketiah started ahead of Nicolas Pépé and Bukayo Saka started ahead of Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

Arsenal started confidently, stroking the ball from side-to-side and began trying to make inroads to the low-block of Aston Villa. Despite this, Arsenal seemed unable to penetrate through Villa’s lines and a series of should’ve-known-better fouls from the likes of Lucas Torreira and Alexandre Lacazette, meant that Arsenal struggled to keep the play going.

Eventually, Arsenal conceded a corner, which was headed on by Tyrone Mings and was smashed home by Trézéguet to give Aston Villa an unexpected lead.

Poor defending on the Arsenal corner and slow reactions to keep the resultant effort out led to an all-too-familiar result for Mikel Arteta’s side.

At half-time, Arteta noticed the need for change. Lucas Torreira’s booking likely placed his head firmly on the chopping block at half-time, but Arsenal needed someone with an ability to pass the ball well and to compliment Dani Ceballos.

The change helped Arsenal’s sense of tactical fluidity, but the fact remained that Arsenal simply didn’t have the required personnel on the field to take advantage of the gaps in the Aston Villa defence.

Eventually, Arteta decided to make further changes, but the changes looked a little bizarre, even from a squad management perspective. David Luiz was replaced by Pépé and Saka was replaced by Tierney. It was an odd series of changes to make, given that Eddie Nketiah, back in the side after his red card against Leicester City three games prior, was struggling on the right-wing and Saka had looked to be one of Arsenal’s few bright sparks.

These changes too brought about little difference to Arsenal’s fortunes, until Nketiah latched onto a corner from Pépé, which struck the post and bounced into goalkeeper Pepe Reina’s arms. This chance was perhaps a sign that it just wasn’t to be Arsenal’s night.

Trézéguet celebrates putting Aston Villa in front.

Villa’s subs, however, seemed to fair better and mesmeric midfielder Jack Grealish was able to release Keinan Davis, who ran the ball into the penalty area and aimed a shot into the far corner, only for it to drift millimetres away from the far-post. A let-off for Arsenal.

Eventually, Arteta replaced Cédric, who’s crosses had failed to find a single teammate all game, with Joe Willock, but this too proved fruitless.

Villa held on for a while longer and eventually welcomed in the final whistle with three points that lifted them out of the relegation zone and firmly put them in control of their own destiny going into their final game of the season against West Ham United.

It was a sorry display from Arsenal and an unexpected one given their previous two results, but it summed up the issues rampant in the Arsenal squad and the enormity of the task that faces Mikel Arteta.

A lack of creativity in the side was an issue under Unai Emery, but it became painfully obvious last night how glaring the issues in the midfield are. The stats make for nightmare fuel as well, with Ceballos, Mattéo Guendouzi, Xhaka, Mesut Özil and Willock all registering just one big chance in the league, all bar Ceballos have one league goal and all have only two assists in the league, except for Willock who has one.

It’s an unacceptable and near-unprecedented lack of creativity for a club that has often been criticised for flare over function over the years.

It’s this reason that makes the continued exile of Mesut Özil all the more striking. Özil was regularly frozen out for reasons unknown under Unai Emery, but soon found his way back into the team under Arteta, but after the resumption of the league, Özil is conspicuous only by his absence. Arsenal’s striking lack of creativity seems to be intrinsically linked to the German playmaker’s continued omission, as was the case under Emery.

Özil’s absence was initially explained away as the German having recently become a father and wanting to spend time with his wife and newborn, however, when the same situation happened with Nicolas Pépé, the Ivorian was back almost immediately. Özil was then reported to have been out with a back injury, something the playmaker struggled with under Emery as well, however, with each passing week, the German’s continued exile from the starting eleven is beginning to show just how much Özil brings to the team and the team’s continued lack of depth in creative areas.

Alexandre Lacazette sees another chance go begging.

The other is a striking lack of quality depth in certain positions. An injury to Reiss Nelson meant that Eddie Nketiah had to fill in for a tired Nicolas Pépé, but a lack of depth for a left-footed centre-back has lead to Bosnian Sead Kolašinac having to fill in for Pablo Marí, which has revealed problems of its own. It begs the question as to why Kieran Tierney, who regularly plays as a left-footed centre-back for Scotland, is not entrusted to the position, while Kolašinac is moved out wide.

The other rather glaring mismatch in quality depth is at right-back, with Héctor Bellerín being replaced by new boy Cédric Soares, who seemed remarkably ill-suited to Arsenal’s gameplan last night. The Portuguese defender attempted eleven crosses and failed to reach a teammate once and his substitution in the 79th minute is unlikely to have annoyed any Arsenal fan outside of those that would have preferred it happen sooner.

Arsenal’s dominance of possession seems to add credence to the aforementioned issues as well. With a dominant 69% possession of the ball, Arsenal seemed unable to cope with Aston Villa’s low-block. Arsenal’s tactic seemed to be to draw Villa out, however, with a one-goal cushion Villa had no need to come out and Arsenal had no Plan B, resulting in a lot of sideways passing and half-attempted crosses.

Mikel Arteta spoke about the need for investment in the team and last night seemed to prove that the Spaniard was right and needs backing int he forthcoming transfer window, but for now, he has to turn his attentions to Watford for the final league game of the season and then to the FA Cup final against Chelsea.

Arsenal Team:

26.) Emiliano Martínez
16.) Rob Holding
23.) David Luiz (Pépé 60′)
31.) Sead Kolašinac
17.) Cédric Soares (Willock 79′)
8.) Dani Ceballos
11.) Lucas Torreira (Xhaka 45′)
77.) Bukayo Saka (Tierney 60′)
30.) Eddie Nketiah
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette

Arsenal subs:

33.) Matt Macey
2.) Héctor Bellerín
3.) Kieran Tierney
5.) Sokratis Papastathopoulos
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
19.) Nicolas Pépé
28.) Joe Willock
34.) Granit Xhaka
57.) Matthew Smith

Aston Villa Team:

29.) Pepe Reina
27.) Ahmed El Mohamady (Guilbert 25′)
15.) Ezri Konsa
40.) Tyrone Mings
18.) Matt Targett
7.) John McGinn (Lansbury 93′)
6.) Douglas Luiz
14.) Conor Hourihane (Nakamba 73′)
17.) Trézéguet
20.) Mbwana Samatta (Davis 72′)
10.) Jack Grealish (c)

Aston Villa subs:

25.) Orjan Nyland
8.) Henri Lansbury
11.) Marvelous Nakamba
21.) Anwar El Ghazi
23.) Jota
24.) Frédéric Guilbert
30.) Kortney Hause
36.) Indiana Vassilev
39.) Keinan Davis

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19/20 Match Reports

Arsenal 2-0 Manchester City: FA Cup – 18/07/2020

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.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang celebrates giving the Gunners the lead with Alexandre Lacazette, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Granit Xhaka.

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.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang doubles Arsenal’s lead.

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.

Arsenal Team:

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′)

Arsenal subs:
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:

31.) Ederson
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
16.) Rodri
25.) Fernandinho
20.) Bernardo Silva
47.) Phil Foden

Categories
19/20 Match Reports

Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool: Premier League – 15/07/2020

As last night’s Premier League game approached, it’s fair to say that Arsenal’s form since the restart has been something of a mixed bag.

After a disastrous opening two games away to Manchester City and Brighton & Hove Albion, Arsenal soon turned their form around with impressive wins over Southampton, Sheffield United in the FA Cup, Norwich and Wolves, before slumping to a draw at home to Leicester City and a humiliating North London Derby defeat away to Tottenham Hotspur.

Coming up against the current champions Liverpool, you’d be forgiven for a somewhat puzzled look as Head-Coach Mikel Arteta named a team that was far from his best eleven.

Héctor Bellerín, Sead Kolašinac, Shkodran Mustafi, Dani Ceballos and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang were all dropped, with Arsenal’s head coach keep a furtive eye on his side’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City on Saturday.

For Liverpool, it was business as usual, but for the injured Jordan Henderson, Jürgen Klopp’s team very much picked itself, with Liverpool’s formidable front three of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah no doubt licking their lips with glee at the thought of coming up against a backline of David Luiz, Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney.

It wasn’t totally unexpected what we saw.

Liverpool asserted their dominance over the home side, much the same as they have against almost every other team this season. Good areas of possession and their ruthlessly efficient gegenpress technique was forcing Arsenal into a series of mistakes. Granit Xhaka was caught wanting in midfield more than once, Rob Holding struggled to remain composure in his passing and Emiliano Martínez, who has been exceptional in the absence of Bernd Leno, was spared his blushes as his attempted clearance was blocked by Roberto Firmino and grazed the post. The warning signs were there.

Soon enough though, the holes at the back for Arsenal were starting to become exposed. Andy Robertson winning a header against new boy Cédric Soares led to some nice build-up play between Georginio Wijnaldum and Firmino and led to Robertson tearing past Rob Holding to square the ball for Sadio Mané to slot home the opener. You couldn’t say it hadn’t been coming and Arsenal’s already remarkably difficult task had just got a lot harder.

Alexandre Lacazette draws Arsenal level.

If there is anything that Mikel Arteta can be commended for so far in his tenure with Arsenal, is his instance that his players remain focused and don’t let their heads drop. Such a scenario under Arsène Wenger or even Unai Emery would have likely opened the floodgates for more attacks and likely more goals, but Arsenal kept at it and soon, their own pressing game gave Liverpool a taste of their own medicine as Virgil van Dijk was put under pressure by the onrushing Reiss Nelson, which forced the £75m defender to sell his goalkeeper short on the passback and the loose ball was pounced upon by Arsenal’s captain for the evening Alexandre Lacazette, who rounded Alisson and slotted home the equaliser from a tough angle.

It’s a testament to Arteta and his philosophy that Arsenal kept at it and they got their just rewards. Arsenal are starting to see the added benefits of pressuring the goalkeeper, as was shown by Eddie Nketiah’s goal at Southampton and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s first against Norwich, now Lacazette can add himself to the list. As Mikel Arteta said in his post-match interview: “If you press, you’ll force mistakes”.

With a few minutes to go to half-time, it seemed as if both sides would likely take the result in at the break. Liverpool would have plenty to build off and would be able to shrug off their earlier mistake and it would be a chance for Arteta to do some damage control and likely sure things up for a rather hopeful point, but after Robertson threw the ball back to Alisson from a throw-in, Reiss Nelson once again pressed high and forced the keeper into an error.

The Brazilian’s pass to Robertson was intercepted by the tenacious Lacazette whose touch took him out wide, dragging both Robertson and van Dijk out of position and leaving Nelson free in the middle. The ball in was good, as was Nelson’s first touch and soon enough, Arsenal had their second and Reiss Nelson had his first-ever league goal for Arsenal.

Mercifully for Arsenal, half-time was ushered in soon afterwards.

While the half-time scoreline wasn’t totally expected, one thing that was, was Liverpool’s intention on taking their frustrations out on a very nervous Arsenal defence and, sure enough, the backline was welcome to an onslaught of possession from Liverpool.

Arteta changed things around, switching in Aubameyang, Dani Ceballos and Joe Willock in the hopes of stemming the tide, but Liverpool still marched forward and still, they couldn’t find a way through. A wonderful ball forward from van Dijk to Trent Alexander-Arnold meant the right-back could finally bomb forward, the England international pulled it back and Mohamed Salah danced his way through two tackles before prompting an acrobatic save from Martínez to keep Arsenal ahead, the look from Salah of “What else could I have done there” showed how impressive the Argentine has been since stepping in for Bernd Leno.

Arsenal players celebrate.

Liverpool changed a few things up themselves, with former-Arsenal forward Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain being switched out for January signing Takumi Minamino. Minamino began to wreak havoc of his own and came achingly close to equalising for Liverpool with his shot fizzing just wide of Martínez’s post.

With the introduction of Aubameyang, Ceballos and Willock, Arsenal had struck an odd shape. Willock seemed to be drifting out wide, Aubameyang on the left, Nicolas Pépé through the middle and Ceballos dropping into midfield in case of a counter-attack and for the most part, no such avenue presented itself, until Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolašinac combined well to release Aubameyang who skimmed a ball across the penalty area, only for Willock to slice his effort wide in the dying embers of the match.

However, the most impressive side of Arsenal’s defence would not reveal itself until Liverpool took a short corner in the last few seconds. Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner was given to Robertson, who cut it back for Alexander-Arnold, who saw the angle open up for him and decided to have a go, though his shot was charged down by Willock it was still heading goalwards before Martínez acrobatically managed to tip the shot onto the post.

When Paul Tierney mercifully brought an end to Liverpool’s onslaught, there was a definite feeling of relief that echoed around the mostly empty Emirates Stadium. Mikel Arteta and his coaching staff knew all too well that the performance did not justify the result and that the Football Gods had been unmistakably cruel on Liverpool and surprisingly kind to Arsenal.

Despite their possession and their attempts on goal, Jürgen Klopp graciously admitted in his post-match press interview that Arsenal deserved their victory, saying “You can’t lose focus in the Premier League” with his team’s two rare errors leading to Liverpool’s downfall. Despite his team’s victory, Mikel Arteta wasn’t in the buoyant mood one might have expected with the Spaniard saying “The gap between the two teams today is enormous. We can not improve it in two months, but the accountability, the fight is now equal and I am very proud of that. The rest will take some time.” When pressed over his team’s potential finances heading into the extended transfer window in two weeks, Arteta simply responded “I don’t know” and it’s clear to see that his job looks even harder than when he started in December.

Arsenal Team:

26.) Emiliano Martínez
23.) David Luiz
16.) Rob Holding
3.) Kieran Tierney
17.) Cédric Soares (Maitland-Niles 76′)
11.) Lucas Torreira (Ceballos 57′)
34.) Granit Xhaka
77.) Bukayo Saka (Kolašinac 85′)
24.) Reiss Nelson
19.) Nicolas Pépé (Aubameyang 57′)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Willock 57′)

Subs:

33.) Matt Macey
2.) Héctor Bellerín
5.) Sokratis Papastathopoulous
8.) Dani Ceballos
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
20.) Shkodran Mustafi
28.) Joe Willock
31.) Sead Kolašinac

Liverpool Team:

1.) Alisson Becker
66.) Trent Alexander-Arnold
4.) Virgil van Dijk
12.) Joe Gomez
26.) Andrew Robertson
3.) Fabinho
15.) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Keïta 61′)
5.) Georginio Wijnaldum (Shaqiri 83′)
11.) Mohamed Salah (Origi 83′)
9.) Roberto Firmino (Minamino 61′)
10.) Sadio Mané

Subs:

13.) Adrián
6.) Dejan Lovren
8.) Naby Keïta
18.) Takumi Minamino
23.) Xherdan Shaqiri
27.) Divock Origi
48.) Curtis Jones
67.) Harvey Elliott
76.) Neco Williams