Nottingham Forest 1 Arsenal 0
Four years ago, a defeat at the City Ground ended Arsène Wenger’s unblemished record in the FA Cup third round; now Nottingham Forest have dealt Mikel Arteta an identical similar fate.
They thoroughly deserved this victory against opponents who did not manage a single shot on target all evening and whose sparkling recent form was far removed from an insipid offering. The substitute Lewis Grabban scored the winner from close range seven minutes from time and, on this showing, a pacy and intelligent Forest side should be placed significantly higher than ninth in the second tier.
Arsenal’s players cut striking figures in a one-off, whited-out kit designed to highlight their “No More Red” anti-knife crime initiative. It was a crisp look but they struggled throughout for precision against opponents who, in lining up strongly, clearly felt this tie could do their play-off hopes little harm. Steve Cooper’s team were brisk, snappy and urged on by a crowd that fancied the occasion, roaring their approval in the 10th minute when their debutant loanee from Aston Villa, Keinan Davis, squared up to Rob Holding in front of the technical areas.
Holding and the Forest captain, Joe Worrall, were the only two starters who had been involved in the 2018 tie. Nuno Tavares – one of seven changes forced by injury, Covid and the Africa Cup of Nations to the Arsenal side that ran Manchester City close last Saturday – threatened to increase the prospects of another upset with a bizarre intervention as proceedings continued to fizz. His right-footed backpass towards Bernd Leno was wildly overhit and aimed at chest height, forcing the keeper to awkwardly concede a corner.
The visitors’ threat in the opening quarter was limited to a shot that Ben White pulled wide of the near post. Arteta had been able to select a familiar attacking midfield trio of Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard and Gabriel Martinelli but there was more of a scratch feel elsewhere. Charlie Patino, the gifted 18-year-old whose debut in the Carabao Cup last month brought a goal against Sunderland, was given his first start in midfield alongside Albert Sambi Lokonga. Sliding into a sharp challenge inside 40 seconds, Patino quickly showed an understanding that steel would be required alongside technical grace.
Forest forced the tempo through Djed Spence, a rangy wing-back who restricted Martinelli on the Arsenal left while frequently exposing Tavares, and the speed of Brennan Johnson. Philip Zinckernagel probed and teased around them, standing up a delicate cross from the byline that begged to be attacked. Nobody did and, for all their bright work, Forest had not managed a shot of note by half-time.
Not that Arsenal achieved significantly more. Holding screwed an ambitious volley out for a throw-in but they asserted a degree of control after the half-hour. Saka and Lokonga both saw efforts deflected off target, the latter’s strike at least causing Brice Samba brief concern in Forest’s goal, but an agitated Arteta did not look especially happy. He made that crystal clear in replacing the struggling Tavares, who did not appear to be injured, with Kieran Tierney in the 34th minute. Tavares needs to seize chances such as this one and he knew it, judging by a frustrated reaction before he sat down.
Inspiration had come a distant second to perspiration at both ends. Spence attempted to reverse that order within a minute of the restart but sliced a cross-shot behind after another strong run. It was another strong start from Forest, Zinckernagel sparking plaintive shouts for a penalty after falling easily in the box, although Eddie Nketiah saw Steve Cook block his shot as Arsenal countered and had his ears warmed by a well-positioned Saka to his right.
The game’s first shot on target came within a whisker of producing its opening goal. Zinckernagel took it, forcing Leno to tip around his post smartly after connecting 12 yards out, but the chance owed everything to the highly rated Johnson. He flipped the ball over his own head on halfway and showed Holding a clean pair of heels before centring accurately for his teammate; it was an electric piece of initiative but, moments later, Arsenal should have rendered it a distant memory.
Nketiah had the goal at his mercy when found unmarked by Saka just before the hour but got his header all wrong, sending it away from goal. Although a bit-part player, Nketiah usually dispatches such openings and Forest had received a major let-off.
For the first time, a goal for either side did not seem a tall order. James Garner drew a parry from Leno with a meatily struck free-kick from 30 yards. Nketiah blazed over from an angle and was joined up front by Alexandre Lacazette, who replaced the neat but quiet Patino.
Strong defending from Worrall prevented Lacazette from converting another Saka delivery. It was another replacement striker, though, who struck the decisive blow. Grabban had come on for Davis and, when Johnson intercepted Lokonga’s loose pass, he smelled a chance to showcase his own predatory gifts.
Johnson sent Ryan Yates down the right and Grabban, haring into the box, clinically converted his cross on the stretch. A mini pitch invasion ensued and, at full time, so did more rapturous celebrations. – Guardian