We’re into yet another F.A. Cup final and no amount of doomsday rhetoric from the commentators could change that. It was only 2 minutes into the game and they’d already felt the need to remind us that the last 7 games against City had ended in defeat but conveniently neglected to mention the last time we lost an F.A. Cup tie to them was in 1904. For reference, the U.A.E. gained independence in 1971 and City became relevant in 2008.
It’s one thing to go and beat the recently crowned champions on a day where Liverpool weren’t quite at the races, but to beat City by two clear goals with a clean sheet is something else entirely.
It wasn’t just a clean sheet either. They had a single shot on target. In 98 minutes. From a team that’s scored 137 goals this season.
Wednesday’s game helped to demystify the importance of possession (if the Spurs game didn’t already, I’m loathed to admit) but that’s not to say the City game was just another case of riding our luck and parking the bus. The first goal alone reeked of Pep and was hardly reminiscent of the kind of sterility and boredom you’re subjected to when you side with the devil (Mourinho being the antichrist to attractive football).
I wouldn’t normally do this but to only name a few individuals would be a disservice to the rest, so I’ve done a starting XI breakdown.
Martinez N/A – only 1 shot on target from City. Quiet day between the sticks.
Bellerín 8/10 – nothing showy or worrying.
Mustafi 7/10 – caught on the ball in the first half, almost gave a penalty away in the second but still a crucial piece of the puzzle.
Luiz 10/10 – his best performance in the red and white.
Tierney 10/10 – beginning to see what he can really do. Defensively sound and perfectly weighted pass for Aubameyang. Not the first time he’s put people through and a good sign of things to come.
Xhaka 10/10 – always alert to danger, integral to our shape and fought for every ball.
Ceballos 9/10 – defensively sound, got through a lot of work with his midfield partner and continues to grow under Arteta. I think I’m in the “let’s buy him” camp now.
AMN 9.5/10 – his lack of final product on his weak foot doesn’t detract from the job he did on Mahrez coupled with so many headed clearances, I lost count.
Pépé 9/10 – instrumental in both goals, an Özil-esque floated, in-swinger and a good run into space with a clever turn to lay up Tierney for the second. We’ve been crying out for end product and Pépé keeps delivering.
Lacazette 9/10 – seems to have finally found himself again. Always open to receive, quick to turn and release and defensively dogged.
Aubameyang 9.5/10– missed a sitter. The other finishes were alright, I guess.
Okay, some of those were in jest. For starters, the one save Martinez did have to make was crucial and although the commentators once again conveniently glossed over and downplayed it, you so often see shots like this sneak in. It was low and between bodies and even more surprisingly for a man of his size, Martinez got down quickly with a strong hand. It’s not until you watch other supposedly “top” goalkeepers like one David de Gea that you realise what you have.
Going back to where it all began though, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I, along with every other permanently-clenched fan probably feared the worst after seeing those opening 15 minutes. We were off the pace, City were dominant and Mustafi things were happening. Even without a crowd, I was expecting some jitters given the occasion and I’m sure the first game of the restart was still fresh in the memory for some of the guilty (rehabilitating) suspects out there.
Luckily (poor choice of words – being organised is entirely by design, so thank you Mikel), there were plenty of heads out there that were switched on and we were able to weather the storm. This was thanks in part to the following kinds of contributions:
|Passing Accuracy (%)||69||75||88||64||93||79|
|Aerial Duels Attempted/Won||4/4||3/2||1/0||1/0||–||–|
And that’s not to say others didn’t pull their weight either. These kinds of contributions were across the board and it’s what we’ve been missing for so long. The personnel might not quite be there yet; I don’t think anyone is under the illusion that this is a sound approach in every game against top teams, but it’s an indication of what Arteta is able to do with a group of players in terms of organisation and commitment.
The two resident pariahs in Özil and Guendouzi once again left out entirely were a stark contrast to Ainsley, who hasn’t been without controversy over the last few years. While there have been plenty of murmurings about how often he thinks he should be playing and where he should be played, there’s never been a question about his commitment, which is why he still features. I do wonder if the scenes at the final whistle meant something that would contradict these rumours of an exit; Luiz having a real heart to heart and Arteta lifting him off the ground weren’t afforded to other players (as far as I know).
While his stock may have risen in the eyes of potential suitors, I can’t help but think other clubs would be tempted to deploy him in a similar manner such is his adaptability at playing on either wing. More to the point, if you’re good enough to keep a player like Mahrez quiet for most of the game, you’ve got some quality. We don’t know what the likes of Luiz, Arteta and Co. are saying to him behind the scenes but I really hope this isn’t a crossroads in his career which he’ll look back on with regret.
Tangent over, storm weathered. Luiz suddenly puts Aubameyang through with only Ederson to beat. His favourite place to be. What does he do? He smashes it straight at him. My heart sank, my nethers reclenched and I wondered if we’d get another opportunity like that.
What transpired two minutes later wasn’t an opportunity like that, but I’ll take what we were served up instead. The 17 passes were nice and all that, but it was the final pass that mattered and Pépé delivered. The finish is something else though.. it’s not the first time we’ve seen him do something along those lines but as the unmentionable former captain said at half time, I have no idea why he’s taking that on his right foot. The audacity to even attempt something like that, let alone pull it off – especially after just missing such a golden opportunity – is what makes him one of the absolute best in the business. We’ve seen glimpses of that kind of offensive cohesion under Arteta but that was the culmination.
City might have come out fighting in the second half and I still couldn’t help but marvel at Kevin De Bruyne’s ability to find players in space but save a Sterling effort that skewed inches wide, even he couldn’t unlock the door. I must admit finding it strange how insistent they were on firing balls endlessly into the box because they don’t really have a Dzeko type anymore but we dealt with everything in a mostly chaos/hysteria-free kind of way (except for about 3-4 scrambles in the box where the ball could have gone literally anywhere).
Time then began to pass geologically. The City pressure was agonising and when you see “last 5 minutes possession” graphics come up with 90% and it’s not next to something red, you clench a little bit more. A man familiar with 90-victories* thankfully got fed up and took things into his own hands, though. After feeding Pépé down the left flank in what I thought was just a bit of pressure-relief, I suddenly found myself watching Aubameyang bearing down on goal with City collectively in his wake. No mistakes this time, through Ederson’s legs and cue collective sigh of relief. The one-two didn’t even process in teal-time because I genuinely didn’t see an opportunity but Tierney had other ideas and it was a fantastic and decisive pick-out.
Things changed after the second and that collective belief seemed to really rally them through the final stages. The substitutions all had one thong in mind; fresh legs, more work. Joe Willock was the most useful in this sense and did well to stretch City and give the starters some respite, while the rest all played their part.
*referring to Celtic’s win over Barcelona with 11% of possession across 90 minutes in 2012.
I’m still trying to understand how we came away with a clean sheet, never mind two goals but that happened and now we have a cup final and a route to Europe. All things considered, in this stupid, crazy season, you’d take that.
As is always the case with cup competitions, form goes out the window, and as we beat City, United were easily dispatched by Chelsea today after some horrendous goalkeeping. It’s shaping up to be a perfect repeat of our road to glory in 2017 but a lot’s changed since then. While not affiliated with the team at the time, I hope Arteta appreciates the pain and embarrassment of Baku.
Featured image courtesy of Poorly Drawn Arsenal