Mikel Arteta’s side arrived at Wembley with next to no-one giving them a chance against Manchester City, yet it’s the Gunners and not Pep Guardiola’s men who will return next month for the final after a fabulous 2-0 win.
This was a victory that came straight from the training ground, one in which every single player played their part. Fortune may have favoured Arsenal when they saw off champions Liverpool in midweek, but they deserved everything they got at Wembley on Saturday evening.
Tactically, Arteta got it spot on. It was a win which highlighted why, after the dark days of the first half of the season, there is real cause for optimism now in north London.
Time and time again we’ve seen Arsenal sides capitulate in the face of superior teams. Since beating City here in the 2017 semi-final they’ve played them seven times, losing all seven, conceding 20 and scoring just two
But they shrugged that record aside to book their spot in what will be the club’s 21st FA Cup final, where they all meet either Chelsea or Manchester United on August 1.
It’s been a horrible season for Arsenal at times, one of the worst in recent memory. The fact they dropped below Burnley in the Premier League table moments before kick-off said it all.
But the past week has shown that, under Arteta, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
In terms of quality, the gap between themselves, Liverpool and City is vast. It’s been clear to see over the two games in the past few days. But the signs of improvement under Arteta are undeniable.
And whilst they were gifted their goals against Liverpool in midweek, at Wembley they earned them through fabulous moves which City had no answer for. Both were scored by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, his 24th and 25th of the season, but both came from moves that started deep inside their own half.
The first came after 19 minutes and was finished by Aubameyang after a move which started with goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, and featured 18 passes and included 10 of Arsenal’s 11 players.
Eight of the passes were actually made in Arsenal’s own penalty area as they sucked City in before springing forward on the counterattack. Alexandre Lacazette, who was magnificent throughout, found Nicolas Pepe, who picked out Aubameyang perfectly at the back post to score.
It was a wonderful goal and the 25 minutes which followed up to half-time were the best Arsenal have produced under Arteta since he arrived in December. Defensively, they were superb, with Martinez not having to make a single save, and going forward they produced some excellent combinations, with the final ball all that was lacking.
The inevitable onslaught from City came in the second half and in previous meetings Arsenal would have folded. But not on Saturday night. Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos were magnificent in front of a defence marshalled superbly by David Luiz, dropping in and offering real protection.
City dominated possession, but only mustered one shot on target – with Martinez saving well down to his left after Riyad Mahrez had cut inside and got a shot away.
And then on 71 minutes, Arsenal broke away and put the game to bed. Pepe was again involved, chasing down a clearance before finding Kieran Tierney. The Scotland international spotted Aubameyang’s run and there was only one outcome once the Gabon international had sprinted clear.
City tried to raise themselves but couldn’t. Cross after cross came in, but Luiz dealt with everything that came his way and anything that bypassed the Brazilian was collected by Martinez.
City were well beaten in the end. Out-fought on the pitch and out-thought off it. This may be Arsenal’s worst league season in 25 years, but for the first time in a long time they look like they have a plan.
They hit rock bottom during the final weeks of Unai Emery. The long journey back towards the top looks like it has begun.