The philosophy of Arsenal Football Club over the last 25 years has always been on the development of youth. Giving the up and coming players a chance to prove their worth, express themselves, and get the job done on the pitch. Mikel Arteta banked on that tonight in the FA Cup, and it paid dividends come the final whistle.
Hailing from Hale End
Facing Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium for the second time in his short managerial reign with the Gunners, Arteta fielded a lineup with a healthy mix of experience and the stars of tomorrow, with academy graduates Joe Willock, Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah all featuring in the first XI. Sokratis recovered from illness in time to partner Shkodran Mustafi in defence, a timely return with David Luiz suspended following his red card at Stamford Bridge.
It took all of five minutes for the young Englishmen to show what they are all about. A terrific turn and charging run from Willock found Gabriel Martinelli, who fed Saka in to power a thunderous finish past a hapless Mark Travers. The 18-year-old has taken to his left-back role incredibly well, but that ruthless finish is a perfect example of why a career as an out-and-out winger would bring the best out of Saka. In the absence of our traditional left-backs however, he is seemingly a perfect fit with his stamina, intelligent runs and desire to win the ball back.
Willock, another Hale End original who was oozing confidence in the first half, gave a magnificent account of himself in that advanced midfield role. He was unlucky not to add to Arsenal’s lead after another sharp turn and confident run, but he could trust his fellow graduates to give the Gunners that all-important two-goal cushion.
Saka, in acres of space, had plenty of time to pick out Nketiah for a clinical first-time finish. While all Arsenal fans are rightly delighted for him, you have to wonder what a goal for Alex Lacazette in that situation would have done for his confidence. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why he was recalled from his loan spell with Leeds early, and Gooners will be watching his development with keen eyes over the rest of the season.
In complete contrast, Bournemouth offered little to nothing for the opening exchanges. It was all too easy for Mustafi to ping passes forward, or for Willock and Matteo Guendouzi to press and win the ball back in midfield. When the line-ups were released, the Xhaka-Guendouzi midfield did worry me as we saw how that panned out against Leeds, but the Cherries’ total lack of attacking intent made it all too easy for Arteta’s side in that first 45.
Same old Arsenal?
But in an all-too familiar pattern to so many games this season, a dominant first half was met by a polar opposite second. Eddie Howe’s side began to threaten while Arsenal sat back and didn’t display the attacking dominance the first half saw. Injuries have begun to plague Arteta during this extremely busy Winter period, and one can only imagine his anguish when he witnessed the stretcher being brought out for Mustafi after an awkward fall on his ankle. If there was ever a perfect time to tie up this Pablo Mari deal, it’s now.
It’s fair to say that the physios for both teams should be receiving double pay from tonight’s game. As the game became more scrappy during the second period, plenty of players were hitting the deck or coming off badly from aerial duels. But the brief embrace between Sokratis and Steve Cook after a clash of heads shows the strong levels of respect between two centre-halfs who just had to risk it for the ball, and eight minutes of injury time came as a surprise to no one.
It was now or never for Eddie Howe and Bournemouth, who sent on Sam Surridge as a last throw of the dice. Two goals in eight minutes against this Arsenal defence isn’t the most impossible feat in football, and the 21-year-old made his mark only five minutes after being brought on. A hopeful ball into the box from Simon Francis fell straight to Surridge, who rounded Emi Martinez and set up an incredibly tense finale.
After all the domination of the first half, not even this fragile Arsenal side could throw this one away… but had Lewis Cook’s last-gasp effort not sailed over the crossbar, they might have done just that. Nevertheless, Arteta rewarded the travelling fans with a victory on the road and a passage into the fifth round against Portsmouth.
There are clearly still some issues to be ironed out, but tonight belonged to the academy graduates who won the game for Gooners in that first 30 minutes. Focus now turns to Turf Moor and Burnley, but not before the Arsenal faithful will be eagerly awaiting some positive news from the transfer market.