Arsenal, the holders of the FA Cup, crashed out of the competition as a result of an embarrassing performance against Championship side Nottingham Forest. It’s the first time in around two decades that the Gunners left the cup this early.
Nottingham Forest made it their goal to not let Arsenal relax in the first half, and they accomplished that straight from the kick-off. Forest pressed Arsenal’s young attack and experienced defence straight away, and it took a few minutes for Arsenal to adjust and match the energy Forest played with early in the match.
The hosts’ 18-year-old forward Ben Brereton tore Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding to shreds from the beginning. Brereton never gave the favourites’ centre backs a moment’s rest as the former Stoke prospect beat them to every loose ball in the Arsenal end of the pitch. He capitalized early and threatened the Gunners’ goal a few times in the first 20 minutes. He latched onto a poor pass back from Mathieu Debuchy, but David Ospina saved his low, driven shot with relative ease, which started a short run of dominance from Forest.
Arsenal played a 4-3-3, using 18-year-old prodigy Reiss Nelson on the left side, Theo Walcott on the right, and Danny Welbeck in the centre. The left-sided combination of Nelson and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were the brightest parts of a lackluster first half from the Gunners. David Vaughan, the 34-year-old Welsh international, resembled N’Golo Kante with his work rate and ability to break down almost every single Arsenal attack.
After 15 minutes, things began to go in Forest’s direction. Zach Clough started a counter-attack in the 17th minute and had his shot blocked, but it landed at the feet of Matt Cash who forced a save from Ospina. From there, the hosts cut up the Arsenal defence until Kieran Dowell fired in a curved free-kick towards the Arsenal goal, which Eric Lichaj diverted past Ospina to make it 1-0 to the hosts after 20 minutes.
The Gunners came right back, with a combination from Maitland-Niles and Nelson on the corner of the box. Nelson was fouled by David Vaughan and won a free kick. Theo Walcott delivered the ball into the heart of the Forest penalty area, and Rob Holding headed it off the post, but Per Mertesacker was on hand to finish the job and get the match on level terms again just two minutes after the hosts opened the scoring.
Arsenal went on the front foot for the next 10 minutes after their goal. Maitland-Niles showed off his attacking prowess when he roamed through the centre of the park and spun between two Nottingham Forest defenders but lost the ball. After that, Clough made a poor clearance which Nelson recovered, and he found Alex Iwobi who put the ball over the net in the 30th minute.
Forest got a few more chances after that, and Brereton continued to terrorize Arsenal’s back four. He forced a save out of Ospina in the 30th minute and made the Colombian ‘keeper rush out of his goal to make a tackle reminiscent of Claude Makelele less than a minute later, thanks to Cash’s interception and surging run through Arsenal’s midfield on a counter-attack.
The visitors got ahold of the ball for a few minutes after those scares from Forest, and Alex Iwobi played a few defence-splitting balls. Unfortunately for the favoured Gunners, that did not last. Forest peppered Ospina’s goal with shots, and the ball landed on the chest of Eric Lichaj. He took a split-second to control the ball and dispatched it into the top-left corner on the volley to regain the hosts’ lead before half-time.
The second half of the match was not much better for Arsenal. It started with momentum for the Gunners, and Nelson and Maitland-Niles kept up their impressive displays on the left and ran the Arsenal attack. Arsenal beat their hosts to just about every loose ball early, but after the first 15 minutes of the second half, Arsenal seemed to lose their minds.
The favoured side had a few free kicks that they could not take advantage of, and they’d rue those missed opportunities based on the result at full-time. Eric Lichaj started to become accustomed to the attacking prowess of Arsenal’s young, quick, and skillful left side, which slowly shifted the momentum towards the hosts.
Forest had a great chance in the 60th minute when a pass set substitute Tyler Walker free and caught Mathieu Debuchy out of position. The Frenchman, who had a generally slow and poor performance, could not catch up to the winger, who fired in a cross to Ben Brereton. Rob Holding deflected his shot and nothing came from the corner, but it showed that Forest began to feel more confident.
A couple minutes after that solid bit of defending by the young English centre back, Brereton beat him to the ball inside Arsenal’s half and the defender blatantly pushed the inexperienced forward to the ground. Holding’s frustration with Arsenal’s and his own performance had surfaced. Holding should have high expectations of himself since he dominated Sergio Aguero in the FA Cup semi-finals last spring, but this childish tackle proved that the Championship side exceeded his and Arsenal’s standards on the day.
Minutes later, Nottingham Forest exploited Holding again. The 22-year-old took the ball off a Forest player in the box and tried to dribble out, but another Forest player quickly latched onto Holding’s poor touch. Instead of poking the ball away, he hacked Matt Cash’s ankle and gave away a penalty kick.
Ben Brereton stepped up to the spot and placed the ball perfectly into the top-right corner to make it 3-1 to the hosts after 64 minutes. Holding’s struggles continued in the 70th minute when he stupidly gave the ball away to Tyler Walker, but Forest did no damage to the Gunners.
Immediately after the penalty kick, Steve Bould, who held the touchline down in Arsene Wenger’s absence, put on 18-year-old striker Eddie Nketiah for 18-year-old midfielder Joe Willock, who had a quiet match. It was not enough for Arsenal.
Nketiah did well to create space between Forest defenders in his short time on the pitch, but he never received the right ball to finish. Jordan Smith saved his first touch of the match, a shot off a neat flick from Danny Welbeck. After that, Forest’s confidence came back and Arsenal could not get the ball out of their own end for the next five minutes.
Maitland-Niles, Walcott, and Welbeck went on the attack for Arsenal, and Welbeck netted a fluke goal that slowly rolled into the back of the net thanks to a fumbled save from Smith. Arsenal were within touching distance, but Forest quickly put it out of the North London club’s reach.
Ex-Arsenal defender Armand Traore intercepted a pass from Ospina and made a surging run into the Gunners’ box, and Mathieu Debuchy caught up to him and tackled him from behind. Technically, the Frenchman won the ball, but given the angle and the circumstances, John Moss made the correct call and pointed to the spot. Dowell took the penalty this time, but slipped forcing him to touch the ball a double twice to send the ball into the roof of the net. The linesman missed the first touch off the planted foot of Dowell, so the goal stood.
After that, Arsenal looked completely demoralized. There was no sense of urgency from the Premier League giants and they did not look like they cared about winning. Even after Moss gave Arsenal a glimmer of hope thanks to Joe Worrall’s second yellow card, they still didn’t go all-out to attempt to find two goals to level the match.
Youth Steals the Show
The best players on each side were just 18-years-old. Reiss Nelson was the only Arsenal attacker that consistently tried to create for himself and his teammates, and Mertesacker and Holding could not contain Brereton, a Stoke City reject. Most of Nottingham Forest’s starting XI was younger than 24-years-old, and the best players for Arsenal on Sunday are 20-years-old or younger. Maitland-Niles also performed well for the Gunners, and 20-year-old Matty Cash caused fits amidst the Arsenal defence.
Kieran Dowell, a 20-year-old loanee from Everton, and 22-year-old Zach Clough also came through for the hosts and embarrassed the Arsenal back four. Even Alex Iwobi had a few defence-splitting passes despite a rather quiet performance for his standards. Former Forest Academy manager and current Forest first-team manager Gary Brazil showed that he knows how to coach young players well, and his experience with youth players paid dividends on the way to their upset victory over the current FA Cup holders.