If Steve Cooper wanted to make a statement about how far Nottingham Forest have come in recent months, then this was it. On ITV. Prime time Sunday afternoon. With Roy Keane, Ian Wright, Idris Elba and almost 25,000 fans in attendance. And the rest of the football world watching.
Yes, we’ve been here before — knocking Premier League sides out of the FA Cup (Arsenal in 2018, Manchester City in 2009). And yes, maybe it will have no bearing on the rest of the season. But what it did show was belief — the fans are already on board, but it’s evident the players have completely bought in.
Forest had a game plan. And they stuck to it. Everyone knew their job. Everyone knew their role. And everyone looked comfortable and confident in taking the game to the team currently fourth best in the country.
Last time we faced Arsenal, at the Emirates in the League Cup in September 2019, we were utterly outclassed by the North London side’s youngsters as they beat us 5-0. We were timid, struggled to impose ourselves and, at best, it was a big day out for everyone.
This time was different. There was no deferential respect. Debutants Steve Cook and Kienan Davis slotted in like they’d been here for months, and there was a determination, a focus and a discipline that remained throughout the whole game.
Make no mistake, Arsenal were obviously the favourites. Ben White, Martin Ødegaard and Bernd Leno cost the visitors in excess of £100m, let alone the value of their much-vaunted youth players. Yet despite all the talent on display, the Gooners were tepid.
Mikel Arteta’s side were sloppy in possession, lacking in purpose and didn’t manage a single shot on target in the 90 minutes. But it would’ve been easy to succumb to a moment of brilliance from the likes of Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Martinelli. Forest didn’t give them an inch.
Cooper’s strategy was evident very early on. Press high and hard, don’t allow the visitors to settle and take the game to them. Djed Spence, Ryan Yates and Brennan Johnson all combined well to crowd the ball on the right early on — Nuno Tavares, at left-back for Arsenal, lasted just 34 minutes before being substituted.
Cook settled immediately in the centre of the back three, and marshalled Eddie Nketiah superbly throughout. And Davis looked assured early on, holding the ball up and getting stuck in — how nice is it to actually have somebody in the number 9 shirt?
The game remained balanced for the first half-hour, Forest trying to create chances while keeping Arsenal at bay. With no joy down their left, Nketiah and then Albert Sambi Lokonga both had shots from the edge of the box, on the right, either side of the 30-minute mark.
As the visitors began to see more of the ball, you had to wonder whether a moment of skill would be the difference. And the battle between Jack Colback and Saka on the left side looked like it could be pivotal.
As we reached half-time it remained 0-0 and, while Joe Worrall was perhaps lucky not to have been spotted pulling White’s shirt in the area, Cooper’s plan was working and the players could only have been emboldened.
Arsenal carried on as they were in the second half, while Forest looked even more up for the challenge. Spence, quite evidently man of the match, began by dancing past the opposing defenders — and his asking price will no doubt have significantly increased after this performance. (The signing of Richie Laryea hopefully an astute move.)
The visitors were soon passing the ball around in our half, keeping possession, but to no avail… and then Johnson was released. The Welshman hurtled to the edge of the box, showing Rob Holding a clean pair of heels, and the square ball to Philip Zinckernagel produced a fine save from Leno. Exhilarating stuff and the City Ground sensed the potential.
Forest continued to work hard, staying compact, diligently holding their shape and keeping Arsenal at bay — the belief in the home side carried them and the crowd.
A Saka cross to Nketiah should’ve been the breakthrough for Arsenal, but instead of burying it he tamely headed it back across goal — proof of how out of sorts the 22-year-old looked.
A James Garner free-kick from 30 yards out forced a great save from Leno on 62 minutes, and then Colback, chasing the ball, was pushed over in the area. A penalty?
As the game went on it was still hard to say what would happen. Saka was put through on 79 minutes and could’ve shot but instead squared to Lacazette and Worrall dealt easily with the threat.
And then it happened three minutes later. Arsenal gave the ball away under pressure on the halfway line from Yates, the ball landed at Johnson’s feet and he released Yates who’d raced down the right. A superb cross met Lewis Grabban’s outstretched foot and the City Ground exploded.
An incredible performance. Arsenal were truly awful throughout but take nothing away from Cooper’s side — organised, disciplined, courageous, beautiful. This was a night to be savoured and proof of the belief that now runs throughout the red half of Nottingham.
The head coach said: “We enjoyed the game. It was one we had to commit to, we had to go into it with a positive mindset because of the challenge.
“We’re here to compete, we’re here to play well and win games. We deserved it, Arsenal didn’t have a shot on goal, we missed good chances, we maybe could have had a penalty and we had a lot of set-plays. We scored a goal which was the outstanding move of the game.
“Tactically, we were excellent, hence why they had no shots on goal. That takes some doing against Arsenal, so credit to the boys for committing to the game plan, for their concentration and carrying it out with real desire.”