U.S. international Eric Lichaj scored a header and stunning volley to help Nottingham Forest knock Arsenal out of the FA Cup.
NOTTINGHAM, England — Three points from Nottingham Forest’s 4-2 win vs. Arsenal in the FA Cup third round.
1. Forest stun the holders
For almost 22 years in English football, Arsene Wenger had never been knocked out in the third round of the FA Cup. Until Sunday, that is. Holders Arsenal are out of the one competition in which they have seen success in recent years, beaten 4-2 by a Nottingham Forest side lying 14th in the Championship and without a permanent manager.
A remarkable brace by Eric Lichaj, plus penalties by youngsters Ben Brereton and – controversially — Kieran Dowell, knocked out Wenger’s side, who were humiliated despite playing a weakened team. And Forest thoroughly deserved their win. Arsenal looked complacent and lacklustre, whereas their hosts were hungry, closed down relentlessly and showed touches of slightly incongruous class.
As expected, Wenger — watching from the stands thanks to his touchline ban — made plenty of changes. Nine, in fact, with only Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Rob Holding remaining from the starting XI that drew with Chelsea. Theo Walcott made a rare appearance up front, while Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock also got a chance in a youthful Gunners side.
Walcott scuffed an early effort when through on goal, but from there Forest gained traction. Matty Cash forced a fine save from David Ospina and then, shortly after, the Championship side took a surprise lead. Everton loanee Dowell belted across a free-kick at head-height from a tight angle on the right and American right-back Lichaj was there at the near post to head into the roof of the net.
The home fans were jubilant but the goal seemed to serve as a bucket of water to Arsenal’s collective face and they equalised three minutes later. Walcott crossed a free kick into the area and, after Rob Holding’s header the post, the ball bounced to Mertesacker, who poked it home through a thicket of legs.
But while Arsenal threatened intermittently, Forest eked their way back into things and, just before the break, were ahead again. A cross from the right was only half-cleared and fell to Lichaj, who took it down on his chest and hit the sweetest volley he’ll ever strike into the top corner. Given he has never scored more than twice in a single season, he looked as surprised as anyone as he tumbled in celebration of his second in this game.
After half-time, Arsenal had most of the ball and tried to chip away, but struggled to create meaningful chances. And then, on one of few breaks, Forest went further ahead. Cash broke into the area and surprised Holding, who tripped the midfielder and a penalty was given. The 18-year-old Brereton slotted home with the composure of a veteran.
Arsenal looked frustrated, but were handed the chance of a reprieve when a ball was played through to the left of the Forest area. Goalkeeper Jordan Smith slid out to claim but let it squeeze through his hands and Welbeck slipped the ball into the empty net.
It looked like a nervous last 10 minutes awaited for the home side, but then Forest were awarded another penalty after former Arsenal full-back Armand Traore found himself clean through on goal and was challenged by Mathieu Debuchy; it looked a fair challenge, but referee Jon Moss pointed to the spot.
This time Dowell stepped up and slipped, but the ball looped in. The officials consulted, the suspicion being that Dowell had kicked the ball twice, but ultimately the goal was awarded. Had VAR been in place, it quite probably would not have stood.
In those closing stages Joe Worrall was sent off, but Forest held out for a remarkable win.
It was a day to forget for FA Cup holders Arsenal at Nottingham Forest.
2. Defeat is an indictment of Wenger
Whether you can apply this performance to any sort of wider context with Arsenal is debatable. After all, they played a much-changed team, none of whom would be part of any first-choice side that Wenger might put out. But it does speak to a lack of depth in the Gunners’ squad.
Most of their contemporaries at the top of the Premier League could probably select a reserve team and still make pretty short work of a team struggling in the second tier, yet Arsenal were so infuriatingly flat here. Part of the theory in picking fringe players is that they will be keen to make a good impression on the manager, but few did that.
Welbeck scored and Reiss Nelson was lively, but Meretesacker looked his age, Holding gave away a penalty with a clumsy challenge and Walcott was basically anonymous.
But more than that, this is just another hit against Wenger. Gradually things have chipped off his standing as Arsenal manager but, in the last few years, the FA Cup was one of his few successes. Now even that has gone.
Surely not even his greatest defenders could consider the Carabao Cup — Arsenal meet Chelsea in the semifinal this month — as significant enough to argue in his favour. The case for him still being the best man for his job is eroding like a cliff after years of heavy storms.
3. Positive signs for youthful Forest
These are interesting times at Nottingham Forest. Awaiting the appointment of their fourth permanent manager in a year after Mark Warburton was sacked last week, the club’s new owners do, at the very least, give the impression of having a plan in place.
Theirs is a young team; five of Sunday’s starting line-up came through the youth ranks and, spearheading the attack, 18-year-old Brereton was excellent. The fear that the highly-rated centre-forward seemed to put into World Cup-winner Mertesacker was quite extraordinary.
These players give a sense of hope and perhaps this performance will, at the very least, give confidence that Forest can achieve more. Games of this nature are tricky to put into true context but, even against a shadow Arsenal side, to play like that could eliminate some of the uncertainty that has plagued Forest this season.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.