Any thought of Arsenal defending their FA Cup victory from last season was smashed on Sunday in the Gunners’ first match of the competition. Arsene Wenger had never lost this early in the FA Cup in his entire tenure with Arsenal, but on Sunday his team crashed out 4-2 in a well-earned defeat to Nottingham Forest. The Gunners lacked sharpness early on, and they continue to be plagued by the same defensive woes that have threatened to derail their season in the hunt for Premier League Top 4. With the loss, the Gunners will now look ahead to the Carabao Cup Semi-Final against Chelsea on Wednesday at Stamford Bridge, while Nottingham Forest moves on, happy to beat the club that adopted their own red shirt colour back in 1886.
Hats Off To Forest
There was plenty about Arsenal’s performance that deserves questioning, but it should not be diminished how well Nottingham Forest played. This is a club, once one of England’s very best, that is languishing in the lower half of the Championship and just fired their manager, Mark Warburton, just one game prior, but they sure didn’t look it. Forest looked inspired and energised by their home fans, playing a surprisingly aggressive press when Arsenal tried to build out from the back. They peppered David Ospina at times, and looked like the better team for at least a quarter of the match.
18 year old Ben Brereton gave the back line fits with his activity and surprisingly capable all around play as a centre forward, while former Gunner Armand Traore drew a vital penalty just as Arsenal were threatening to tie the score. American defender Eric Lichaj scored both of Forest’s goals from open play, including a brilliant volley that loped into the top corner while a helpless Ospina watched it fly in. It was certainly not a match that Arsenal should have lost, but the result was fair given the way both teams played.
Rob’s Rough Day
It is pretty safe to say that Sunday was not one of the finest afternoons of young Rob Holding’s career. Like most of his teammates seem to be these days, Holding was visibly frustrated with some of the referee decisions, and it seemed to affect his concentration. After getting called for multiple fouls for bundling a few players in succession trying to receive the ball, Holding then made a good play to gain possession inside the Arsenal penalty area, but was most unlucky when, after taking a touch, he went to clear the ball, only to find it had been touched away by an opponent and instead tripped him up for a penalty. The play was more bad luck than bad play, but it ended up being vital in Nottingham Forest’s 4-2 victory.
Fans might already be turning on Rob Holding, but it is important to remember how young he still is. Holding won’t turn 23 until September, and it is obvious that Arsene Wenger views him and Calum Chambers as the future of the Arsenal defence. All of the ingredients are there; he has good enough pace for a centre back, he is comfortable on the ball, is good at stepping up to stop attacks from either side of a defensive 3, and he definitely has the fight and size necessary for a Premier League defender. In fact, Holding appears to have grown more since arriving, to the point where he stands taller than Olivier Giroud in the latest team photo taken for the holidays. Fans may already.l be starting to lose faith in the young England u23, but it is worth remembering that defenders peak later than attackers do, and at 22 there is still plenty of time for him to realise his significant potential.
Per Mertesacker has had a long and great career, but the end could not come soon enough for the lumbering defender. Never blessed with pace at any point in his career, Mertesacker is positively glacial in his final season. He used to make up for his lack of pace with his intelligence and anticipation, not to mention his massive reach and leverage for aerial duals. However, he is now at the point where the opponent, a Championship team no less, is pinpointing him as the weakness to attack. He was absolutely shredded on Sunday, with an 18 year old striker dragging him out of position seemingly at will. When he altered his approach, trying to play more aggressive and anticipate the ball coming his way, Forest’s attackers left him for dead. Mertesacker will undoubtedly be a great asset to keep around the club after he hangs his boots up, but for the time being, his place in the side should go to Calum Chambers (as it likely would have against Nottingham Forest if the young Englishman wasn’t deputising for the injured Laurent Koscielny)
Failing the Audition
Sometimes during the January transfer window it is smart to play a player that might be angling for a move away. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to show interested teams that he is worth the gamble, a player might even play some of the best football of his season in January. We’ve seen it with others around the league, and perhaps even with Alexis Sanchez, who magically rediscovered his scoring touch just as January arrived and the window opened. Theo Walcott is apparently not one of those players.
Walcott will always be remembered more for the things he was expected to accomplish in an Arsenal shirt than the things he was actually able to do with the club, for many a convenient metaphor for the second decade of Arsene Wenger’s tenure. A devilishly fast winger in his prime, Walcott also proved to be pretty handy, if inconsistent, in front of goal too. However, whether it was injuries, effort or even overhype that did him in, Walcott will probably never be remembered as a success for the club. He has been a good soldier under Wenger for many seasons, but it may now be time to finally move on with Southampton and likely others admitting interest in his services. He will need to improve his performances in the interim, because the way he played against Nottingham Forest might not even make the grade at Southampton. It has been quite an uninspiring end for the once highly promising talent.
Is it possible for Arsenal to play without any controversy surrounding the referee anymore? Arsene Wenger will once again find himself facing questions from the media, trying to bait him into an overreaction following a farcical few minutes as the match was drawing to a close. Having been inconsistent with his fouls all match, Jon Moss waved away a clear penalty shout from Danny Welbeck, which could have tied the game, only to award another penalty to Nottingham Forest on a tackle where Mathieu Debuchy got a good portion of the ball. The real controversy came when the spot kick was taken, in which Kieran Dowell slipped, double hitting the shot. In previous matches, a double kicked penalty has been whistled and called a goal kick, but after a brief conversation with his linesman, Moss decided to stick with his gut and erroneously give the goal.
After the match, Wenger wisely refrained from questioning the referee, as he has found that it only leads to punishment. The fact is, the players have a right to feel demoralised by the way these calls have gone so consistently against them this season, and the FA really must put officiating in Britain under review. The bias is becoming even more obvious, and as Mark Clattenburg’s book has admitted, refs do let their personal feelings affect their job. That no English referee was wanted by the World Cup should tell the FA and fans everything they need to know about how they are viewed outside of the country, and it is high time there was oversight and accountability with the PGMOL.