It was a risky strategy starting a FA Cup Fifth Round away fixture at Portsmouth with six players under the age of 20 – not eased by the absence of Özil and Aubameyang in the squad. However, Arteta’s gamble paid off with this 2-0 victory, writes Jamie Bramson Grant.
Two cup defeats in the space of a week would have been highly damaging. It shows Arteta’s courage – and good sense – as the Europa league players would have still been carrying the defeat in their systems.
The hostile atmosphere of a lower league away ground was somewhat tempered by links between the clubs – Paul Merson, Kanu, Sol Campbell and Lassana Diarra – remember him, and Andy Cole have all played for Pompey. Tony Adams who managed Portsmouth for a short time, appeared at half-time to a warm welcome.
The old football cliché “a match of two halves” was certainly true for this fixture. In the first half Portsmouth were the dominant side, often causing problems for a shaky Arsenal defence, delivering constant dangerous crosses into the box. This was evident within three minutes when Seddon’s long looping cross into the box, was headed towards goal by Harrison and unconvincingly clawed away by Martinez.
Portsmouth’s strategy to push high up the pitch and pressure Arsenal’s defence was effective and as a result Arsenal often struggled to get the ball out of their own half.
Sixteen minutes into the game Torreira went down injured after a challenge in which Bolton won the ball fairly but hacked down the player in the process and was stretchered off. Although the player says he now feels fine, it remains to be seen whether there is bone or ligament damage.
In the first half, clear cut chances for Arsenal were few and far between. Twenty minutes into the match Sokratis delivered a wonderful diagonal cross field long ball to Martinelli, who beat his man, got to the byline and smartly cutback to Nketiah. But the cross was smothered by a resolute Pompey defence.
Soon afterwards, a quickly taken free kick by Portsmouth caught Arsenal’s defence sleeping. Seddon received the free kick in space on the left wing and delivered an effective cross which Evans, who was unmarked in the box, but he headed wide.
On 30 minutes, Nelson darted into the box to deliver a cross, which Martinelli could not direct on target as it was at an awkward height.
Near the end of the first half, Luiz, who was partly responsible for the goal that led to Arsenal’s unexpected departure from the Europa League last Thursday, drove at the Portsmouth defence on the edge of the area and delivered a nicely weighted disguised inside pass to Nketiah, who fired wide.
On the stroke of half time, during the second phase of a corner, Nelson held his position out wide, received the ball and under no pressure and delivered a brilliant low cross from the right hand side, which was expertly volleyed into the back of the net by Sokratis. It was a finish Aubameyang would have been proud of. Arsenal were undeservedly ahead.
As we have seen so many times this season, after Arteta’s half time team talk Arsenal came out looking like a different team. There was more intensity in their play, better movement, quicker passing and they were dominant in possession.
This proactive approach was rewarded early in the second half. Once again Nelson received the ball on the wing. He beat McCrorie for pace and then delivered a brilliant cross into the box for Nketiah to poke home. It was a scrappy finish which bounced off his body, but he showed great awareness to get in between the two centre backs and not give up on the chance. He now has three goals in his last six starts and it appears luck is on his side after he returned from his loan stint at Leeds in the January transfer window.
After Arsenal’s second Portsmouth struggled to get a foothold in the game with Arsenal comfortably passing the ball in the opponent’s half for the majority of the 45. It helped debutant Mari have a relatively solid start.
On 76, as we have seen so many times this season Saka drove at the opposition’s defence and cut inside from the left wing. He expertly dummied to take Williams out of the game and shot on target, but it was saved by Bass.
During a week in which Arsenal’s season could have easily fallen apart following Europa League defeat, Arsenal’s season remains alive – just.
Arsenal: Martinez, Luiz, Marí, Saka, Sokratis, Torreira (Substituted for Ceballos at 16), Guendouzi, Willock (Substituted for Xhaka at 87), Nelson (Substituted for Maitland-Niles at 90+1), Martinelli, Nketiah
Portsmouth: Bass, McCrorie, Bolton, Burgess, Seddon, Close, McGeehan, Williams, Evans (Substituted for Cannon at 74), Harness (Substituted for Curtis at 67), Harrison (Substituted for Marquis at 67)