Nottingham Forest 4–2 Arsenal: Teenager exceptional as team selection bites Arsene Wenger
Nottingham Forest produced the shock of the FA Cup third-round weekend as the Championship outfit stunned 13-time winners and current holders Arsenal at the City Ground on Sunday evening.
Heading into the tie without a manager after the recent sacking of Mark Warburton, Forest went ahead early-on through defender Eric Lichaj only for Arsenal to immediately respond from a set-piece of their own when Per Mertesacker reacted quickest to prod the ball home with a deft finish.
The hosts managed to get their noses in front once again before the break, with Lichaj this time producing a sumptuous half-volley into the top corner to leave David Ospina rooted to the ground.
Things got even better for the Championship side in the second-half too when Ben Brereton tucked home from the spot following a clumsy foul from Rob Holding, although Danny Welbeck pounced fastest on a mistake from goalkeeper Jordan Smith to set up a tense final ten minutes.
But, in the games biggest moment of controversy, Mathieu Debuchy was deemed to have hauled down Armand Traore inside the area to give Forest the chance to seal it before Kieran Dowell’s resulting penalty was allowed to stand by referee Jon Moss despite claims the ball was hit twice.
Joe Worrall was then shown a straight red card for Forest after a rash challenge but it mattered not as the Championship side held out for a remarkable and thrilling win over the 2017 FA Cup winners.
Magnificent Forest stun holders Arsenal
What a match, what a result for manager-less Nottingham Forest.
The Championship side have been without a man in charge since Mark Warburton was sacked late last month but caretaker boss Gary Brazil worked wonders on Sunday afternoon as his youthful, energetic Forest side had too much for an Arsenal team that have won the FA Cup more than anyone else in the competition’s history.
From the first whistle you could tell that the hosts were going to give it a go against their more esteemed opponents, putting in fierce challenges and pushing numbers forward when on the attack.
And they were led by a core of players under the age of 23 – five of which came from the Club’s academy under Brazil himself – who put their heart and soul into 90 minutes of breath-taking action.
Their 18-year-old striker Ben Brereton was the stand-out figure, leading the line superbly and running rings around Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding all afternoon with his pace and his ability to hold the ball up on the half-way line, but it was an exceptional team effort from across the park.
It’s been a long time since Forest were amongst the Premier League’s – and Europe’s – elite, and whilst those glory days are still a long way off considering the Club’s 14th place position in the Championship there’s a group of young players coming through that offer a huge amount of hope.
Arsenal lose their safety blanket
But whilst the hosts were superb across the park, Arsenal were woeful.
For a side that have won three of the last four editions of the competition, most recently beating Chelsea in last year’s final, they were largely outplayed and outthought by a more determined side.
The big worry for the Gunners now though is that, other than the immediate embarrassment of their defeat, Wenger has lost his safety blanket of the FA Cup that has been his salvation for the past few years.
There’s no disputing that Arsenal’s Premier League credentials have dropped off in recent times and it’s fair to say that if they hadn’t won the FA Cup last year it would most likely have signalled the end of the Frenchman’s long tenure in charge at the Emirates.
This time around there’s no chance of using that ‘get out of jail’ card, and the prospects of earning any silverware in the Europa League appear a tough task heading into the knock-out stages considering that the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid and Napoli have all dropped down from the Champions League.
With the Gunners five points off Liverpool with 16 games left of the season the pressure is well and truly on for Wenger now, and failure to finish in the top-four could prove to be the final nail in his coffin.
Wenger’s team selection comes back to haunt him
A big part of the post-match post-mortem of Arsenal’s display will revolve around Wenger’s team selection on the day, deciding to leave his big guns out of the squad completely for the match.
Neither Alexandre Lacazette, Mesut Ozil nor Alexis Sanchez were anywhere to be seen and his decision to not even put his star players on the bench is one that ultimately came back to haunt him.
Instead Wenger opted for a mix of youth and experience, mixing the likes of Per Mertesacker, Rob Holding, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck with up-and-coming youngsters like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Chris Willock, and whilst a weakened side has worked for him time and time again in the FA Cup on the day it was a combination that served up very little.
To put it simply the more experienced players didn’t show up at all, with both Mertesacker and Holding particularly coming in for criticism for the way they were bullied by Nottingham Forest’s 18-year-old striker Ben Brereton.
They were abject across the park, with Walcott, Welbeck and Alex Iwobi creating next-to-nothing against a Championship defence, and they had nobody to turn to with their bench full of youngsters.
It was a harrowing afternoon for Wenger – who tasted third-round defeat for the first time since taking over from Arsenal in October 1996 – and it can’t even be said that it was a reserve team beaten by Forest considering the starting eleven shared 633 Premier League caps between them.
It’s now critical that they put Sunday behind them as fast as possible and look for a rousing response against Chelsea in their Carabao Cup semi-final first-leg, otherwise their whole season could start to unravel all-too familiarly in the new year.