During commentary on Saturday, BT’s Ian Darke made a shrewd observation about the body language of Arsenal’s players.
‘They look like they are celebrating a party every time they stop a City attack,’ said Darke.
The cruel among us could suggest it was because it was so unusual. Prior to this brilliant performance, Arsenal had lost seven times on the spin to Pep Guardiola’s team.
Arsenal’s victory over Manchester City in the FA Cup was a huge moment for the Spaniard
The Gunners boss’ tactics unlocked City as the Gunners put in a superb performance
But down on the Arsenal bench, the sense of common purpose was mirrored. They were all at it. Celebrating throw-ins and applauding as City’s relentless attacks crashed against a strangely resilient red and white wall.
So it’s time to be generous to Mikel Arteta’s much-maligned team. The cruelty can wait. This was a bespoke tactical performance, orchestrated by a clever, flowering coach — and carried out by a team who look as though they have finally started to listen.
Arsenal have some way to go before they return to the top of the English game, as Guardiola suggested they would last Friday. It is only eight days since defensive mistakes helped Tottenham win the north London derby.
It’s been a miserable season for Arsenal but there is now seemingly some positivity at the club
Nevertheless, this was a huge step in the right direction. It is a while since we have seen an Arsenal team display such doggedness and cohesion and, for Arteta, this felt like a pivotal night.
At Wembley, the Spaniard made big calls. Mesut Ozil was not in the squad of 20, although fit. The German, by far the highest-paid player at the club, has been given enough rope and he has hanged himself. There was also no place for the talented but undisciplined midfielder Matteo Guendouzi.
By leaving such talent at home, Arteta’s message to his squad was clear. So, too, were those contained in a tactical set-up designed to bolster his team’s weakness — the defence — and lend impetus to its clear strength — pace on the counter.
David Luiz was one of the men who shone, putting in a brilliant display following criticism
Arsenal’s three-man defence afforded the inconsistent David Luiz some protection and he was magnificent. That tactical tweak asked a lot of young Scot Kieran Tierney, moved from left back to the left of three.
Again, Arteta’s faith proved well-judged. Tierney, 23 but appearing more callow at times this season, also responded with the performance of his life.
Arsenal were lucky at times, just as they were in beating Liverpool in the Premier League last week. Arteta will know that his team cannot play like this every week and get away with it. They will have to find a way to command more of the ball.
But to beat this City team, everybody has to be a little bit fortunate. The big moments in games have to go your way and, here, they undoubtedly did.
Arteta picked the perfect team as he gave himself a shot at a first trophy as Gunners boss
Arteta picked a team that mixed resilience with the ability to puncture a City defence who can look porous and the manner in which Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang took his two goals was right out of that playbook.
Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe have great depths of talent and cost in the region of £180million between them. But Arteta, like Unai Emery before him, is usually reluctant to play all three forwards together. Only twice since lockdown had it previously happened.
Here, it represented another huge call. It transpired to be another crucial decision from a coach who learned so much from his years under Guardiola at City.
Whether this victory eventually helps bring Arsenal another FA Cup triumph remains to be seen.
But already it has done so much for Arteta. His players — even those who often seem so slow to learn and reluctant to change — will look at him differently after this. They will believe in him.
Arteta still faces a huge job to return Arsenal to the top and he needs summer signings
Just as importantly, this victory gives Arteta serious leverage with his board. The 38–year-old said last week he needs new players this summer. He followed up by stressing his words did not constitute an ultimatum, but he had already made his point.
He needs some money to spend and important days like this will help him get what he needs.
Threats to progress remain. Aubameyang — so beautifully confident on Saturday — has not signed a new contract yet. Take the Gabon striker out of this team and it is immediately 30 per cent weaker. Arteta also needs to find a reliable centre half.
However, this was a day to recognise a team operating in unison under the command of an innovative coach. It was deeply impressive and we have not said that about Arsenal for a while. The celebrations were hard-earned.
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