Arsenal will contest the 2020 FA Cup final after defying the odds to beat Manchester City 2-0 at an empty Wembley Stadium.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did the damage for the Gunners with a terrific brace scored either side of the break but it was the way we defended that will have most pleased Mikel Arteta. City dominated the game from the off but as was the case on Wednesday against Liverpool, the Gunners masterfully coped with the waves of attack.
At the tail-end of a traumatic season, this was a truly brilliant performance and one that bodes well for the future. We now wait to find out who we’ll play in the final. Whether it’s Manchester United or Chelsea, we may well fancy our chances. Who would have thought?
Having rotated his squad for the Liverpool match on Wednesday, Mikel Arteta restored a number of his stalwarts to the starting lineup. Rob Holding, Reiss Nelson, Cedric Soares, Lucas Torreira and Bukayo Saka all made way. Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz, Dani Ceballos, Hector Bellerin and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came in. The surprise name on the teamsheet was Ainsley Maitland-Niles. With Kolasinac benched and Tierney part of a three-man backline, he was handed the left wing-back slot.
Would you believe it? Manchester City dominated possession from the off. Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass. I could go on. We did the opposite. As summed up by Shkodran Mustafi getting tackled inside his own six-yard box after dallying on a pass back to him from David Luiz.
It wasn’t hugely surprising. We know Pep’s side are masters with the ball at their feet, but it was somewhat worrying that we couldn’t get out of our half. It’s like we had a massive complex about keeping the ball for more than 5 seconds. We kept panicking and hacking towards space that nobody occupied.
To be clear, City didn’t create that much. Aside from a dangerous cross the Tierney cleared for a corner inside three minutes, we marshalled things pretty well.
Around the 15 minute mark, we woke up. It started with Lacazette rounding Ederson and putting the ball in the net after he’d been flagged offside. VAR backed up the decision, but the fact we’d done something positive seemed to flick a switch.
What happened over the next half an hour was genuinely quite impressive from Arsenal. It started with a very solid performance by the backline and really determined, energetic play, both on and off the ball, from Ceballos and Xhaka. Those two snapped into challenges and started to find passes between the lines that allowed us to break forward.
Luiz followed suit. On 16 minutes he won the ball in midfield, played a straight ball through the City defence to Aubameyang who found himself in space on the edge of the City box. You’d have backed him to curl it around Ederson but his effort went straight at the Brazilian. An annoying miss, but a promising development.
Our captain made amends two minutes later. At the back post, he improvised a finish to clip home off the post after Pepe had played a delicious cross from the right to the back post. The goal, his 24th of the season, capped a fascinatingly patient move that saw us work the ball from Martinez, through the backline and from left flank to right flank. Honestly, it was worthy of City and that’s probably the biggest compliment I can pay it. (1-0)
There were a couple of scares on the way to half time. A suicidal pass by Bellerin on 28 minutes ended up with Xhaka making a terrific block to deny a De Bruyne shot but by and large we looked like we were concentrating.
We might even have extended our lead. Aubameyang should have done better teeing up Pepe after Xhaka won the ball on the edge of the City box after a loose pass out by Ederson. The keeper also denied Mutafi after he made solid contact with an inswinging Xhaka corner. The Swiss really did have a storming 45 minutes. Credit to him.
City came at us immediately. Moving the ball quicker, they really worked our legs. Worryingly, unlike in the first half, they found space behind our defenders. Sterling had two efforts inside three minutes, first curling over and then dragging wide.
Mendy tried to catch out Martinez at the near post. He claimed it tidily. Mahrez from the other wing did the same with a low drive. The Argentine got down brilliantly with a strong hand to claim.
15 minutes of unbearable pressure was capped by a De Bruyne free-kick that caressed the outside netting as Martinez dived full stretch. To add to the tension, VAR spent an age checking whether Mustafi had felled Sterling, sliding in to tackle him in the box. He’d just got the ball. From the resulting corner, Sterling looked destined to score but didn’t.
It was starting to feel like Wednesday’s game with Liverpool. True back-to-the-walls stuff. Just before the drinks break, David Silva went tapped wide as De Bruyne fizzed in another dangerous cross.
To say, it seemed unlikely we’d score a second was an understatement. But, unbelievably, that’s what we did. Again it was our talismanic captain who did the damage. Pepe did brilliantly holding the ball up on the halfway line, he gave it back to Tierney who clipped it down the line. Our striker, played onside by Mendy, was free. He bound forward, took a couple of touches and passed between Ederson’s legs. (2-0)
Back came City. A brilliant block by Luiz denied Sterling who’d cut inside Mustafi. The high-fives that greeted every bit of defending were great to see. Could we keep it up for 15 more minutes? Torreira came on for Lacazette.
We made it to 80 minutes. Could we last for 10 more minutes? Laporte arrowed one that flew past the post.
We made it to 85 minutes. Could we last 5 more minutes? Holding came on for Mustafi, who went down holding his hamstring, and Kolasinac replaced Ceballos. Maitland-Niles went down with cramp after tenaciously denying De Bruyne any space.
We made it to 90 minutes. Up went seven minutes of stoppage time. It wasn’t pretty. We resorted to hacking the ball forward and didn’t even bother chasing after it. But it worked. It bloody worked!
Guardiola arms crossed on the touchline, looked bewildered. As the whistle went, he just about managed a congratulatory hug for Arteta.
The apprentice beat the master. We did it!