Wow. Wow. Wow.
First, let me apologize that this is coming late, I had some persona life, out-of-town commitments that meant I couldn’t write something up for you, but wanted to make sure I got you my thoughts on that nervy, but well-earned semifinal win over Manchester City.
Arsenal opened up the day of surprises, with a bit of a surprise in the line up:
Arsenal XI: Martinez; Mustafi, Luiz, Tierney; Bellerin, Ceballos, Xhaka, Maitland-Niles; Pepe, Lacazette, Aubameyang
No Bukayo Saka, Mustafi back in for Holding, but the clear surprise was the selection of Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Where would he play? What formation would we be in to account for this player that is usually on the right side? Why him over Saka? All questions Arteta knew he would likely face if this went wrong. It didn’t and Maitland-Niles was fantastic.
Arsenal came out in their 3-4-3 shape, a consistent shape as of recently, with Mustafi, Luiz, and Tierney in their backline and Bellerin and Maitland-Niles as wingbacks – right and left respectively. In the middle, Xhaka and Ceballos would be given the task of shutting down one of the best midfields in the world, and Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Pepe would lead the line knowing there would be a need for efficiency.
It was clear Arteta had a plan. A way he wanted to play, spaces he wanted to shut down, and players he wanted held accountable. It was visible in the first minutes as Maitland-Niles and Tierney worked to close down Mahrez and deny access in the corner between them. With the ball, Arsenal were determined to play smart, but try to move the ball around the back. It didn’t start well.
In the first 10 minutes, Ceballos got caught on the ball leading to a dangerous early opportunity and that could have been a punch to the stomach and Mustafi moments later was caught dawdling with the ball in the box. For anyone on the Arsenal side that had nerves about this game, this only served to enhance them tenfold.
With 10 minutes gone, and the possession 80-20% in City’s favor, it was nervy moments, but Arsenal had managed the opening storm that City are known for and began to find a bit more composure. Not enough to swing the overall possession, but that was always going to be the case. One of the major first clicks in the game was how the team performed without the ball when City had it in their own defensive third or midfield. Arsenal’s press looked decent, something Arteta wants to bring to the side, and Arsenal were looking to force mistakes.
In the 17th minute, Luiz stepped into the midfield, won the ball out of the air and immediately split the lines with an impressive pass to Aubameyang through on goal. One on one with the keeper, 18 yards out, Aubameyang wound up a shot with power and smacked it right at Ederson. It was exactly where you want your star striker to be with the ball, but the result had Arsenal fans groaning a bit – worried it was an early chance they would come to regret at the finish.
But just two minutes later, Arsenal managed to string together an incredible 18-pass movement, starting from their own box, winding across the backline, into the midfield, back into the backline from right to left. They went up the left line and then into Lacazette’s feet who turned to find Bellerin streaking down the right. Bellerin drove at the backline leaving a layoff for Pepe who played an absolute peach of a ball to the back post that was only outshone by the finish itself. Just moments after missing a clear chance, Aubameyang took the half-chance from Pepe with the outside of his right foot, on the half volley and put it across the keeper, inside the right post and in. 1-0 Arsenal.
While Arsenal were still left clawing tooth and nail to defend, there was a sense of confidence in the air. We will pick out a few individuals later, but in reality, the whole squad was out making tackles, making life difficult, causing problems, and refusing the give up an inch of grass without harassment.
A third moment of panic from Arsenal’s backline came when Bellerin felt the pressure with limited options at the back and played it across Arsenal’s box right to a City attacker who laid it off for de Bruyne to wind up and absolutely smash a laced shot. It was the type of shot that would have caused panic for Emi if not for Xhaka coming up with a massive block, putting his body on the line. Earlier this year, Xhaka took some criticism from fans for ducking and turning away from two shots, but none of that was on display here. Fearless defending from Arsenal’s central leader.
In all reality, the second half was very much the same. City had a lot of the ball, Arsenal defended with incredible heart and diligence, and slowly began to really frustrate City attackers, especially in the wings where Mahrez couldn’t get any traction and was subbed early. On top of diligent defending, Arsenal managed to do it without giving away set pieces – a huge thorn in their side this year.
The press was present and showed signs of causing problems for City, but there were a few moments of panic. One of the biggest, came in the 63rd minute when Ceballos spun and attempted to lay a ball off for Xhaka only to leave it short. With that, the break was on and de Bruyne ended up the the ball on the left side of the box almost one-on-one against Bellerin. He slotted a ball into the box where Sterling put it just wide, letting all of Arsenal breathe a sigh of relief.
The moment every Arsenal fan was praying for came when Pepe came across the the right side of the field trying to start an Arsenal break, but was held up. With his back to goal, he lulled City defenders a bit and laid it off to Tierney who played a spectacular one-touch curler over the defensive line and into the path of Aubameyang who was through once more. From there, Aubameyang wasn’t going to miss again and tucked home his second to make things a bit more comfortable.
The job wasn’t done with Arsenal needing to defend for another 20 minutes, but putting themselves up 2-0 really frustrated the City side that couldn’t break down Arsenal’s defensive block. From there it was a matter of staying organized and clearing their lines. There were certainly a few cracks from City and moments of scrambled defense, but Arsenal’s gameplan had come together in perfection.
Arsenal won 2-0, moved on the very familiar FA Cup final, where they will play Chelsea, and will have a chance to qualify for the Europa League and give Arteta a first-season piece of silverware. Here are a few thoughts on the game.
1. Arteta has put all doubt away and the club needs to back him
This week was slated by many to likely be one of the worst weeks of Arsenal’s season. It had already begun with a loss to Tottenham and was set to continue with a matchup against Liverpool and then Manchester City. Both teams that Arsenal have struggled to come close to beating.
Instead, Arsenal went out with a gameplan that adjusted to the players they had and got the job done – not once, but twice. The gulf-sized gap between the teams was still evident, and it is truly massive. These results don’t change that, in fact they enhance them. But for Arteta to set up a gameplan that frustrates not only the champions of the Premier League, but also the second place side that just walked through Arsenal a few weeks ago shows exactly what kind of potential Arteta has as a manager.
It wasn’t pretty. It was gritty, fearless, passionate defending that only works with 11 players buying into the task for every second of every minute throughout the game and it’s a credit to Arteta for instilling that confidence.
On top of that, Arteta has shown a keen ability to adjust the lineup from one game to the next, with a high level of success in a very short time. The resilience to take the injury blows Arsenal suffered in their first return to action, to analyze the relatively gaping holes in their squad, and switch to the 3-4-3, bending it to his vision and churning out a style of play that fits the game. We have seen them dominate offensively against Norwich and have seen stout defending off the ball against Wolverhampton, Liverpool and City. The only disappointment came against Tottenham who managed to shut down an Arsenal side that did create a fair few chances they couldn’t stick away.
Arteta’s work is far from done. His growth as a manager is not complete. I think many would agree that there is room for growth in his usage of substitutes and mid-game adjustment to tilt games in Arsenal’s favor. However, these results, the trip to finals Arsenal now have, the Europa League actually obtainable – all done in a fashion that shows exactly what Arsenal have on their hands. Like a star striker or creative midfielder that you build your team around, the club must make real strides to support Arteta. What we saw against City may not be a sustainable way to play, but Arteta’s ability to set up his squad to get results is. Supply him with the talent he needs, give him options off the bench, and really see what he can bring to the club before he decides the lack of support means he needs to walk away.
2. An organized and rigid spine
Arsenal have routinely struggled this year when it comes to their play down the spine of the team. Whether you look at the central defense, the central midfielders, or even the play of our strikers – there have been issues. It’s an aspect that has resulted in a switch to playing more down the wings and channels while mixing in a bit of Dani Ceballos passing, of late. You would be hard pressed to find a single Arsenal supporter content with the production and results coming from our central positions, who don’t want Arsenal to bolster with added talent during the transfer window.
Yesterday, Xhaka and David Luiz were outstanding. So was the rest of the backline and Ceballos, Mustafi, Tierney, and Bellerin were solid themselves, but the way Luiz played at the back and the commanding presence Xhaka had in organizing the team from the center dictates they get a call out.
Luiz ended the game with 1 chance created, 1 key pass, the most duels won (6), 11 clearances, 1 foul won, only 1 foul conceded, 4 aerial duels won, 4 interceptions, and 2 recoveries. Xhaka had 2 duels won, 5 clearances, won 2 fouls, only conceded 1 foul, had 1 interception, 6 recoveries, and make multiple major blocks after Arsenal turnovers in the back. On top of that, the communication and organizing these two were doing was incredible.
When you compare this game with a solid performance from Luiz, who clearly is more comfortable in a back three, and the commanding presence of Xhaka versus a few weeks ago where Xhaka went down hurt early and Luiz was terrible, you can see what these two bring to this side.
Again, the whole backline deserves so much credit for their work. Maitland-Niles and Tierney for shutting down the left side for 90 minutes, Mustafi who had the most tackles in the game (3) along with 5 duels won, 8 clearances, 1 interception, 3 recoveries, Maitland-Niles who stepped up in a major way after a long period of time without a start. Truly all of these players deserve their own articles, but the clear command down the spine of Xhaka and Luiz yesterday somehow stood out above the rest. It takes that kind of leadership and performance to get results in big games against good teams and they deserve it.
3. A big game with a big performance from Captain Auba
Throughout the season, there are only a few games a person couldn’t point to Arsenal’s captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a game changing player for Arsenal, but with some scrutiny that is very “Henry-esque”, Arsenal’s current number 14 has been accused of not showing up in big games.
With a golden opportunity missed early in the game, there was plenty of reason for his critics to feel as though the evening was lining up to add to their belief that he wasn’t all he wasn’t all he was cracked up to be – despite the shared Golden Boot last year, 20+ goals this year, and scoring efficiency he boasts. I guess that is not enough to entertain some…
Well two minutes after his chance left people hanging, he made and even better play, capped off with an even better finish that would make any striker proud. On top of that, he would add a game-sealing second and send his team onto the finals. But under Arteta, the performances from Aubameyang aren’t just in the attack, its on both ends.
Aubameyang ended the game with 2 goals, 3 shots on target, 1 interception and a whopping 7 recoveries that shine light on the scrappy, harassing play on the defensive end to scoop up loose balls. So he didn’t add tackles or clearances or some other defensive stats. He has in the past and having your star forward and captain willing to track back 50 yards to help on the defensive end is exactly the type of leading by example you want on the field. If you think others don’t take note and replicate, you aren’t watching.
Pepe is a prime example of a player that started the season doing little to no defensive work and tracking. Now, under Arteta and with Aubameyang leading the way, he can be seen getting involved in both thirds of the pitch.
This involvement keeps him attached to the play and involved, rather than running the risk of having hin, or Pepe for that matter, disappear. On the season, Aubameyang has been involved in 26 Arsenal goals, Pepe 17, and Saka & Lacazette tied with 16. It may not quite be as high or dispersed as we would like, especially with the steep drop off after Martinelli’s 13 to Nelson and Willock’s 6 but if the captain can show up in the big game when it counts, get 2, and Arsenal advance past a team like City he deserves a shout.
If there is one thing that should be taken away from this win, it is that it was truly a complete team win. From Arteta’s gameplan to the entire team’s defensive rate, to the 18-pass team movement for the first goal – everyone earned this win. And we will get a chance to play in a final for their troubles.
Yes it was pragmatic. Yes, some called it ugly. No, its not the style of play we will get from Arteta if he is properly backed, so back where you came from all you “Arteta is basically Emery” people. He’s not. But if playing like this is what it takes to get results in games against teams vastly better than us, it is good to know Arsenal can pull it off.
Enjoy the win. Off to the finals! Another FA Cup in our future? Only Chelsea stand in the way. In the meantime, there is still a slim chance in the league to capture top 7, but Arsenal will need all 6 remaining points and a fair amount of help.