Arsenal produced some of the most scintillating football of Mikel Arteta’s reign so far, with two goals from two academy graduates, as they saw off the belated challenge of Bournemouth to ensure a fifth-round tie at Portsmouth.
For 30 minutes Arteta’s passed and moved with more speed and creativity than their supporters have seen for many a month. Their youngsters were at the heart of it, too, with Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah both rounding off excellent team moves with a display of ruthless finishing.
Only in the final few moments, when an otherwise disjointed Bournemouth struck a stoppage-time goal through Sam Surridge, did Arsenal’s defence come under sustained pressure from the home side.
“In the first half we executed everything that we planned in a really good way,” said Arteta, who praised the “courage to play, to make big decisions” of his youngsters, including Gabriel Martinelli and Joe Willock.
The only negative on the night was another injury to a defender, with Shkodran Mustafi set to join Calum Chambers in the treatment room after he was stretchered off the pitch following a collision with his own goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez.
Mustafi clutched at his ankle in agony although it was too early on Monday night to assess the severity of the damage. “When a central defender has to come off, normally it is not good news,” said Arteta.
Arsenal are already hoping to complete a deal for Flamengo defender Pablo Mari, who arrived in north London this weekend but has since returned to Brazil. Despite reports in Brazil that the deal had collapsed, with Arsenal looking to loan the player and Flamengo hoping for a fee, it is understood the two clubs remain in negotiations.
“We have a very clear intention of what we want to do in the market with the resources we have,” said Arteta. “If we can do it, fine. But his [Mustafi’s] fitness will not change anything.
Telegraph Sport revealed on Monday that Arsenal are expecting an approach in the coming days for Aubameyang, who has less than 18 months remaining on his contract. “I want Auba here, 100 per cent,” said Arteta. Aubameyang, still suspended, would no doubt have been impressed with the attacking play of the Arsenal youngsters in the first half. The pattern of the game had been set before Saka’s fifth-minute opener, with the visiting midfield already taking control of Bournemouth’s half.
The goal started with Willock, 20, spinning away from a challenge and finding Martinelli, 18. On the overlap was Saka, also 18, and his finish into the top corner was as thunderous as the move was incisive. In all, there were 22 passes in the build-up to the strike, with every outfield player making a pass for Arsenal.
“If we can score in two passes it is better,” said Arteta. “We don’t need that many passes but we need to move the opponents and find the right spaces to attack.” Arteta-ball? Bournemouth had not seen anything yet. Twenty minutes later the visitors were at it again, with Willock picking out Saka and Saka picking out Nketiah for the tap-in.
Recalled early from his loan spell with Leeds, this was Nketiah’s first start for Arsenal in more than a year. His predatory instincts have earned him plenty of admirers at the club and his joy was clear to see: he even saved himself another fist-pump after the goal was approved by VAR.
“What did we learn? I don’t think we learned too much because our mentality was not right in that opening period of the game,” said Eddie Howe. “I was disappointed and I let the players know that. It was way below the levels we expect.”
Such is the nature of the FA Cup these days that Bournemouth will not be overly upset to exit the competition. They have a Premier League relegation battle to be worrying about, of course, although the nature of their performance in that first half an hour will be more than troubling for Howe and his coaching staff.
They improved as the game wore on, yet there was rarely a sense that a comeback was possible, even after a late tap-in by Surridge. On Saturday they meet Aston Villa in a seismic match at the foot of the table. “We know how big the game is,” said Howe. “We don’t need to build it up internally.”