Football Features

“George Graham would have been proud” of Arteta’s Arsenal and their defensive dominance in FA Cup win

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:31, 18 July 2020

In a topsy-turvy night of football, Arsenal upset Manchester City 2-0 to reach the FA Cup final.

The game was an absolute procession in terms of possession, momentum and thrust. Manchester City were far and away the more dominant side, controlling the game and leaving large spells of this semi-final looking like an attack v defence training session.

Yet in terms of threat, genuine chances, and indeed, you know, goals… it was Arsenal all the way. Mikel Arteta has imbued his Gunners with a phenomenal confidence in attack and, just as they did against Liverpool midweek, Arsenal stifled and stymied a superior opponent and slashed them to bits on the break.

And whilst the garlands will obviously go to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for his devastating double (which should have been a hat-trick, if we’re being honesty) that ultimately made the difference, Arsenal’s victory was built on a rock solid defensive performance that denied City the space they need for their attack to truly thrive.

It wasn’t just that Arsenal packed men behind the ball, their defenders played with a phenomenal spatial awareness. They knew when to push and press, when to retreat, when to move laterally and when to stay still. They knew where City’s passing lanes were and regularly stepped into them to cut balls out before they became a true danger.

They knew to funnel City wide, but not just leave them there, instead pushing them close to the by-line so that they’d be forced to hook back crosses and cut-backs that would be much easier to defend then for Arsenal’s defenders. They devoured the crosses and even the famously deadly City cutbacks.

David Luiz stood tall at the heart of the defence, constantly reading crosses and heading them clear and then throwing his body into the way of shots to stop them going on target. One particular block from Raheem Sterling in the second-half was genuinely special and almost certainly prevented a goal as it was one of the few occasions when City parted the red sea. Shkodran Mustafi offered able assistance until he got injured. Kieran Tierney was a revelation at left centre-back. Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos were instrumental in shutting down space in front of their defence. It was a night for Arsenal’s misfits to make good on their massive talent.

Speaking of misfits, it should be said that today Sterling was absurdly shot-shy at Wembley. With Sergio Aguero sideline, Sterling was his side’s chief attacker and he did end up with several great chances, and not once did he look like he would score.

But that, too, has to be credited to Arsenal’s defence for creating such a suffocating atmosphere that City snatched at all their chances. There was genuine anxiety about when the next one would come – Arsenal just kept on getting in the way, especially of the cutbacks. When a side is comfortable and settled, they don’t panic when they miss because they know more chances will come.

City had nowhere near that kind of serenity today because Arsenal were great at the back. From Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang dropping back into his own final third to help all the way back to Emiliano Martinez commanding his area like a titan. In a way it was a shame Aubameyang scored that second, as good as it was, because “1-0 to the Arsenal” would have been a fitting scoreline for this game; George Graham would have been proud.

And coming just a few days after they did the same thing to the champions of England Liverpool, this result must really give the Gunners faithful that no matter the missteps they have had, they are on the right track with Mikel Arteta at the helm.

Obviously there is a way to go, and consistency is a different kind of achievement next to beating big teams. And you can’t park the bus and pick teams off on the break every week – but the thing is even today there were signs that Arsenal will be able to expand under Arteta.

Yes, the grit in defence was amazing, but the confidence in defence to pass the ball was also evident. The first goal came at the end of a supreme 18-pass move that saw them shift the ball around the back amidst intense high pressing from City. Yet none of the defenders nor even the goalkeeper looked nervous and the ball worked its way out slowly, first from left to right and then up one side, switched to another and it all ended with Aubameyang’s awesome finish.

That is Arteta-ball, and more of it will come with time for sure, including many games where Arsenal take on the role City had today where they absolutely own the ball but can’t score. Arteta will need the fans’ support in games like that and they will need to remember games like this, and like the Liverpool game, where the Gunners raised their level so incredibly and with such versatility that you become acutely aware of just how special of a manager Mikel Arteta could be.

Buckle up, Arsenal fans, because this is just the beginning.

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