Arsenal’s young Gunners can save their season with another FA Cup triumph
Arsenal currently sit 10th in the Premier League. It is an unfamiliar position for the north London club, who usually find themselves challenging for a spot in the top four at this stage of proceedings. Indeed, it has to be said that the Gunners’ European exploits have become somewhat diluted in recent seasons, having failed to qualify for the Champions League since the end of the 2015-16 campaign.
This is the third consecutive season that Arsenal find themselves playing in the Europa League, with that again looking likely to be the best case scenario when this season draws to its conclusion in May. After a far from impressive campaign this time around, the top four now looks out of reach for Arsenal. The Gunners have won just six league games so far, drawing twelve - more than any other side in this season’s top-flight.
Chelsea, who lie 4th as it stands, perch ten points ahead of Mikel Arteta’s side, while the likes of Wolves, Sheffield United and, most bizarrely, a Southampton side who were threatened by relegation just months ago, all also sit above them as February approaches. Obtaining another top five finish and thus earning qualification into Europe’s second-rate knockout competition next summer is still within the realms of possibility, however. It may not exactly be glamorous but, as the old phrase goes: it’s better than a kick in the teeth.
Manchester United currently occupy fifth but are hanging there by a wilting thread. Tottenham and Wolves are both level on points with the Red Devils in sixth and seventh respectively; the pair are eagerly awaiting another slip-up from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s underperforming side so they can swoop in and leapfrog them. Meanwhile, eighth-placed Sheffield United trail United by a solitary point, and Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton are only three points below the top five in ninth. Then there is Arsenal, a point behind Saints in 10th and four behind United who sit five spaces above them after 24 games.
Although the Gunners currently reside in the top half of the Premier League, the division is so tight this season that they stand there on goal difference alone and could easily slip to as low as 14th, should results work against them this weekend and they fail to beat Burnley in their clash at Turf Moor, which is a distinct possibility given the Clarets’ home form this term. There is no doubt that Arsenal are a different side under new manager Mikel Arteta, with their recent performances on the pitch slowly starting to pay dividends in the league table.
However, with the top four seemingly out of reach - barring a monumental slip-up from Chelsea and an unthinkable level of consistency shown by a famously inconsistent Arsenal side from now until the end of the campaign - the one thing that can revive the Gunners’ season is winning either the FA Cup or Europa League. Last season, the north Londoners made it to the final of the latter but were well beaten by English rivals Chelsea, and with the likes of Inter Milan, Roma, Sevilla and Manchester United all still left in the competition, achieving such a feat this time around will prove far from easy.
This leaves the FA Cup, a competition in which Arsenal are specialists in having won it more than any other team in English football history (13 times), their most likely chance of silverware and success this season. Having squeezed past Championship table-toppers Leeds in the third round at the start of the month, a more routine-style victory against Bournemouth on Monday evening followed. An extremely young looking Arsenal team which featured the likes of Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Gabriel Martinelli and Buyako Saka saw the visiting Gunners obtain a 2-1 win on the south coast, with Bournemouth’s 94th minute consolation goal, courtesy of Sam Surridge, perhaps making the tie look closer than it actually was.
The win would have raised few eyebrows considering Bournemouth’s treacherous recent form and the fact that Arsenal are a side on the up, but the fact that two of the club’s most promising starlets - Saka and Nketiah - played such a big part in it is what would have pleased manager Mikel Arteta and the club’s travelling support the most. The two youngsters, who have a combined age of just 38, were emphatic at the Vitality Stadium and showed exactly why they are currently being trusted with increased first-team responsibilities.
Nketiah was recently recalled from his loan spell at Leeds United due to a lack of playing time at Elland Road, which now appears to have been the correct decision taken by his parent club. Regular minutes in the Premier League will no doubt come at a premium for the England Under-21 international, but with Arsenal’s continued participation in both the Europa League and FA Cup considered, there is no doubt that he will be presented with ample chances to further prove himself at the Emirates. With performances like the one he showed on Monday night, that will soon become a certainty rather than a likely possibility.
Winger Buyuko Saka has regularly filled in a left-back for Arsenal in the Premier League due to the injury to Sead Kolasinac, and has impressed with his versatile performances in an unfamiliar position. The 18-year-old scored a beautiful opening goal within the first five minutes against Bournemouth and is pivotal for the Gunners in their quest for FA Cup glory this time out. In the last round against Leeds, another of Arsenal’s promising young talents, Reiss Nelson, scored the match-winner, while players such as Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and the previously-mentioned Gabriel Martinelli have all been key figures for the north London club throughout the early part of 2020.
While most of England’s biggest clubs are now completely disregarding the FA Cup by fielding blatantly weakened sides, Arsenal continue to show it the respect it deserves. There is no doubting that Mikel Arteta is also guilty of resting some of his key players against Leeds and Bournemouth (Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hasn’t featured once in the FA Cup this season and Alexandre Lacazette did not make it off the bench on Monday), but the difference is, Arsenal’s young guns also make up a lot of their strongest ‘league team’. This, ultimately, is what can give them the edge and potentially steer them to FA Cup glory once more this season.
As Jurgen Klopp refuses to even manage his Liverpool side for their fourth round replay against Shrewsbury Town next month, the Gunners’ crop of future starlets continue to impress in this prestigious competition which deserves much more respect than it is currently receiving. Arsenal may not be heading for the top four again this season, but that is not to say that they cannot save their season by winning the one competition they know how to. Next up, it’s a trip to Fratton Park to take on 2007-08 winners Portsmouth in the fifth round.