A cup tie such as this was a nice opportunity to shake our European hangover, and a chance for one individual in particular to have some much -needed R&R.
That man was Aubameyang and while there were some other “high profile” omissions such as Mesut Özil, Bernd Leno and Alexandre Lacazette, the healthy smattering of youth was exactly what I expected to see in such a tie.
Pompey are a team close to my heart because I was born barely 5 minutes away from Fratton Park and have seen a fair few games there over the years. The noise they made last night is the same as you get week in, week out – even in the depths of League Two, where they were still pulling crowds of 16,000+ on the regular (it only holds 21,000). It perhaps caught one or two off guard, and Pompey started with the kind of intensity you’d expect in any tie against lower league opposition, especially those with such a formidable home record this season, having only lost once at home all season until last night.
That’s not to say we were being played off the park – a recurring theme under Arteta is one of lethargy, particularly in the first half. It’s strange because his first few games were exemplified by our noticeable shift in workrate – right from the off – but there’s this creeping feeling of late. We dithered in possession, had little movement in the final third and were second to the ball for large swathes of the first half. This certainly wasn’t helped by some of the industrial challenges flying in that are perhaps more typical of the lower leagues (and generally less stringently punished). There was no change in this attitude towards such challenges last night because Mike Dean was in charge and there was no VAR to stop him, though it’s not like his ego ever allows his decision to be usurped anyway. He even took to making the rules up as he went along by booking Guendouzi for his deliciously pedantic, John Cleese-esque placing of the ball.
Lucas Torreira was on the receiving end of one such challenge and while it wasn’t inherently malicious or late, it was one of those scissoring challenges which can so often leave players in a heap. It did on this occasion as well, and while the subsequent reports allayed any fears of a really serious injury, he’s still likely to face some time out. He seems to be on the fringes of Arteta’s plans and it’s a shame to see because by all accounts, he’s had quite a cocktail of frustrations over the course of the season. He’s also a player who I still feel is not being used to his full potential, but that’s for another day.
I wouldn’t say we necessarily deserved the goal – or even expected it given the source – but it was strangely enjoyable. It’s always interesting when you see defenders get into shooting positions; some have it in their locker and some really do not. I always used to laugh at Kolo Touré because he had more than a few speculative efforts from range but he once hit the bar from about 35+ yards out and I stopped laughing at him after that. On this occasion, Sokratis was ready to coolly volley home a whipped cross from Nelson, who had put in some equally-fizzed deliveries prior. In typical Sokratis fashion, he was all very casual when it came to celebrating the goal but the kind of technical ability to dispatch such a cross is just one of the many differences between Premier League quality footballers and “the rest”.
It makes you wonder what course the game would have gone if not for that rare piece of first half quality, but it unlocked the door for a less pressured second half. Invariably, they began to play with the kind of exuberance you would have expected to see when you first saw the team sheet but there’s always a degree of trepidation in the aftermath of such a setback as last Thursday.
The final numbers perhaps exaggerated the level of our domination – 73% possession, 15 shots with 4 on target to Pompey’s 11 and 4 respectively – but they seemed deflated even at 1-0. The tie was killed off by Eddie’s second and the training ground match it was transformed into went some ways in explaining the statistical disparities. It was the result of more quality wingplay from Reiss Nelson, who – for lack of a better term – absolutely skinned Seddon at fullback and put in another fantastic delivery. Eddie was a touch fortunate but he’s always shown the capacity to be in the right places and he was rewarded. It hasn’t always paid off for him in recent weeks but this is another step in the right direction and gives Arteta something to seriously think about with his selection process in the coming weeks. Form is everything in my book, at least.
Being a former Spud, Jermaine Jenas elected to give David Luiz Man of The Match over Reiss Nelson, which I and many others were suitably bemused at but there we go. Considering he’s just come back from an injury, he looked sharp and hungry to impress, and he has the quality in the final third which we’ve often found ourselves wanting. Another selection dilemma for another day.
Speaking of which, we’re now due to face Man City away next Wednesday, following West Ham at home after our fixture list has been rearranged. With everything to play for in the league, and teams around us facing difficult fixtures, 4 points would be a good take-home but we’ll have to wait and see.