BOURNEMOUTH, England — This was one youthful team selection that could not be accused of devaluing the FA Cup.
At a time when Premier League clubs face charges of debasing the game’s oldest cup competition by sending out second-string teams in the tournament’s early rounds, Arsenal fielded a side packed with youngsters who still provided excellent value in their 2-1 win at Bournemouth.
Their success at a chilly Vitality Stadium was built around a quartet of players aged 20 or under — Joe Willock, Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah and man-of-the-match Bukayo Saka, who rewarded Mikel Arteta’s faith in him with a goal and an assist in the first away win of Arteta’s eight-game tenure as head coach. The immediate prize will be another trip to England’s south coast in the fifth round to face third-tier Portsmouth, but Arsenal could find themselves reaping the benefits of nights such as this for many years to come.
The visitors scored both their goals in the first 26 minutes and each were examples of the kind of sweeping, incisive football that was seen as Arsenal’s trademark in the not-so-distant past.
Five minutes in, Willock expertly rolled his man in midfield, surged toward Bournemouth’s retreating back four and found Martinelli, whose lay-off allowed the overlapping Saka to take a touch and slam a shot past home goalkeeper Mark Travers via the underside of the crossbar. It was a move that contained 22 passes and the second goal, while less intricate, was every bit as slick. Striker Nketiah, making his first appearance since being recalled from a loan spell at Leeds United, was involved at the start and the conclusion — first laying the ball off to Willock, then charging into the box to convert Saka’s low cross with an assured left-foot finish.
Having been thoroughly second best for the first 35 minutes, Bournemouth started coming back into the game and had most of the play in the second half. But in a continuation of the spirit shown in last week’s back-to-the-wall 2-2 draw at Chelsea, Arsenal toughed it out. Substitute Sam Surridge‘s goal for Bournemouth, deep into second-half stoppage time, came during a period when the visitors were on the ropes, but in such moments — as at Stamford Bridge — is the character of callow footballers forged.
The exuberance of Arsenal’s young players even seemed to rub off on some of their older teammates. Calamity-prone centre-back Shkodran Mustafi pinged passes around the pitch with scarcely seen authority and even had the rare pleasure of hearing the away fans sing his name, before a collision with Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez brought his night to a premature end midway through the second half.
Whereas some of the other teams in the Premier League have used FA Cup matches to hand playing time to promising fringe players, the victory at Bournemouth revealed the extent to which Arsenal’s kids have been successfully integrated into the first-team squad. While Nketiah, 20, was making his first start for the club in a year, both 18-year-old Saka and 20-year-old Willock have made 15 starts this season and Martinelli, another 18-year-old, a dozen. Alongside them, Matteo Guendouzi cut the figure of an elder statesmen despite still being three months shy of his 21st birthday himself.
As is always the way with young players, Arsenal’s starlets have learned to make a friend of serendipity. Saka was blooded on the wing by Unai Emery, Arteta’s predecessor, before being repurposed as a left-back by interim manager Freddie Ljungberg following injuries to Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac. Willock was an early beneficiary of Emery’s mistrust of Mesut Ozil, starting each of Arsenal’s first three league games but then dropping back down the pecking order. Brazilian summer signing Martinelli seized opportunities to shine in the Europa League and Carabao Cup, before proving himself a capable understudy for the suspended Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Absent in Bournemouth due to a hamstring injury, 20-year-old winger Reiss Nelson is another young player who has impressed this term. The upshot is that when Arsenal’s long list of absentees begins to diminish, Arteta will find himself with genuine competition for places in almost every area of the pitch.
The Arsenal manager said Nketiah had been “terrific,” while he felt Willock had shown his potential to become an “outstanding player” in the No. 10 role. When Arteta spoke about the “courage to play” that Arsenal’s youngsters had shown, he thumped his fist on the table in front of him for emphasis.
“In the first half, we were really, really good,” the Spaniard said in his postmatch news conference. “They executed everything that we planned in a really good way. They have courage to play; they have courage to make big decisions. They are important in this side. They are not the icing on the cake; they are probably a quarter of the team at the moment.”
Arteta started his tenure as Arsenal head coach with a 1-1 draw at Bournemouth on Boxing Day. A month on, his side are now unbeaten in six games in all competitions. And while nobody is going to get carried away with Arsenal languishing in 10th place in the Premier League table, the future looks very promising indeed.