It was an away day, at a loud Fratton Park, coming off a tough week, and you may be hard pressed to find a fan that didn’t have some tiny feeling there was a chance this week could get worse versus Portsmouth. On paper it should be an easy win. They are a League One team and, even with a heavily rotated side, Arsenal should have the quality to handle them without much a problem – but that’s the magic of the cup. You get the right atmosphere, a team looking to make a statement, and you aren’t on your game – you get the perfect storm for being beaten. Just ask Watford who continued to their struggling season by losing to Tranmere Rovers who are in 21st place in League one.
Needless to say, Arsenal needed a win and it was a big test for Mikel Arteta to get his team up and going after stumbling against Olympiacos. He hasn’t had to do it much as a manager leading his team to only one defeat in the new year and two total losses in his short reign. Even in the first loss, it was at a time that the positives in the performance outweighed the result and players weren’t left feeling too defeated. This was not the case after Olympiacos where the team was described in training the following day as “down, frustrated, and disappointed”.
A composed statement was needed, and it would need to come from a side filled with youth and nine changes from the Olympiacos game. Emi came in for Leno, Sokratis took up the Right Back role, and who Luiz wasn’t a change slid over to right side of center defense so that Pablo Mari could make his debut. A completely new midfield composed of Torreira, Guendouzi, and Willock supported an attacking three of Martinelli, Nketiah, and Reiss Nelson.
It wasn’t the prettiest game at times, although few Arsenal games have been flawless this year so that shouldn’t be a surprise. Two goals that bookended the end of the first half and start of the second led Arsenal to a more comfortable second half and 2-0 win. Goals from Sokratis on a spectacular volley and Nketiah were both provided by Reiss Nelson and took the wind out of Portsmouth’s sails, as well as, took referee Mike Dean out of the game after it seemed like he was bent on making his presence known by giving Guendouzi a yellow card for what is being described as ‘sarcasm’.
Despite slow stretches, Arsenal handled the boisterous crowd, took advantage of their chances, and got the job done with a very composed second half. It was a much-needed win and one that provided momentum that will hopefully continue forward against West Ham in the Premier League where Arsenal will need as many points as they can get. It was also a win that gives us a few things to think about and consider.
Reiss Nelson returns with a statement
Reiss Nelson returned to the starting lineup providing a much-needed injection of pace and purpose. Arsenal looked as though they were static in their possession without a lot of purpose until Reiss Nelson was on the ball. He brought a lot of positive intent and was able to use his pace to be the difference maker getting to the endline on multiple occasions.
On top of that, he had impressive stats to go along with it. Creating the most amount of chances in the game (5), getting an assist and nearly a second if Nketiah had put his first attempt away, 93% pass accuracy, 4 key passes, 12 crosses, and 1 big chance created.
While Pepe has been playing increasingly well himself, a performance like this suggests that Nelson could become a regular cup player, as well as, a difference maker off the bench. At times, Arsenal have lacked the ability to bring true difference makers into the game with their subs and Nelson may be able to offer that. Pepe has been on the receiving end of his fair share of scrutiny this year and one consistency in that criticism is his lack of purpose. He twists and turns and wows the crowd but at times lacks a purpose and can’t find a final ball instead of opting to keep his game simple. While that is something we know Arteta is working on with Pepe, Nelson proved he is capable of picking and choosing when to use his pace and dribbling skills as a way to beat people and provide an end product.
Arteta praised Nelson as “special” and will be left with decisions on how to use Nelson for the rest of the season. While I imagine the goal will still be to continue to give Pepe opportunities to grow and shine, Nelson put his best foot forward in making a statement that he should get some consideration as well.
Eddie scores again
To say that Arsenal have had questions and struggles around the central striker role all year would be an understatement. The central attacking role may be only second to the central defending role in terms of priorities for Arsenal to sort out this summer, but there are games this year to worry about first.
With Lacazette going through his extended poor form, Arteta seemingly unwilling to play Aubameyang down the center, and the team as a whole lacking some efficiency with their chances, Eddie Nketiah scoring a 2nd goal in as many games is a promising sight. Registering 3 shots, 1 goal, 3 of 4 successful dribbles, 2 created chances, 2 key passes, 6 duels won, 1 aerial duel won, and 2 tackles, there was a lot for Nketiah to be pleased about and a lot for fans to be excited for. Not only did he prove it was right to keep him once recalled from Leeds, he proved his capability of scoring goals in cup games and Premier League games offering Arteta a real option to consider for the future. Continuing to see him get opportunities to play in the Premier League may not be a surprise after his Everton display and given the rumors surrounding Lacazette’s future at Arsenal.
Pablo Mari is solid and silent in all the right ways
Newly loaned Pablo Mari was given his first start and the debutant proved to be solid in the backline. In a year filled with calamity at the back, him silently going about his business may be one of the highest praises he can receive. Although Portsmouth didn’t present the most danger Arsenal have had to deal with this year, he calmly handled everything thrown his way while showcasing some of the passing people have praised him for.
With 5 clearances, 3 blocked shots, 1/1 ground duels won, and 3/4 aerial duels won he consistently made the plays he was asked to make. He also offered 88% passing accuracy and 12/17 on long balls featuring the cross-field diagonal passes we have seen Mustafi and Luiz play as a part of Arteta’s attacking style, which highlights some of the thinking behind why Arsenal were interested in bringing him in.
At the very least it was a clean performance that suggests he is a stable defender and can assist the attack. It was a good opening game and one that likely will earn him more consideration as the season continues. Not that Luiz was poor, but Mari playing the left either means he will need to make way completely or slide to the uncomfortable right side of the center back pairing. The two seemed to work well together, but it is fair to question whether it would be repeatable against a Premier League team.
Torreira and Willock worry in opposite ways
Torreira’s performance was impossible to rate given he was chopped down and stretchered off the field after being on the receiving end of a very heavy tackle in the 14th minute. Immediately he could be seen pounding the turf and the medical staff signaled for a sub to get ready as soon as they got to Lucas. It was a worrying site for Arsenals fans that was made worse when footage was taken of Lucas leaving the stadium on crutches and in a boot.
If there is any positive to be taken from it, Arsenal said that Torreira is “okay” and rumors suggest it was a sprained ankle that he has been able to move. As we wait to hear what the diagnosis is, fans will hope it is not a long-term injury knowing that the defensive midfielder would be sorely missed if this caused him to be out the remainder of the year.
On the other end of the midfield, in the attacking role, judgement has been divided on how to assess the play of youngster, Joe Willock. On one hand, he is offering the ability to drive the ball forward to carry it into the final third, but he seems to lack the ability to pick out the incisive, final ball. With only 70% passing accuracy, 0/2 crossing, and 1 created chance in 87 minutes, he is receiving criticism given his role as the person that is supposed to be creating things for the attacking front. With Ozil being the topic of consistent controversy in his performances, Arsenal fans may be worried they don’t have any replacement options for him moving forward.
There were good things that Willock offered – dribbling, pace, attempts to speed up play – and he is a young inexperienced player, but it sparks questions around his ability to be someone that plays 30-40 times a year and offers value in helping get the job done playing that isolated role. There is no doubt there are things he offers that Ozil doesn’t – how he moves, makes runs in behind, and looks to shoot – but the inability to play that final ball to help unlock the defense will be held against him until he proves otherwise.
Arsenal got the job done, were comfortable in the second half, and bounced back from their loss to Olympiacos. They will look to build off of it against West Ham as the Premier League and FA Cup offer vital opportunities to salvage this season and get themselves back into a European competition. The Champions League appears like a stretch given the gap, but not impossible, while winning the FA Cup cold be the lifeline the Gunners need. West Ham next on Saturday.