Granit Xhaka red card galvanises Arsenal as determined and dogged defensive display keeps Wembley dreams alive

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·3-min read
Granit Xhaka red card galvanises Arsenal as determined and dogged defensive display keeps Wembley dreams alive
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By the end of last night’s game, Arsenal were dead on their feet — but they are alive in this Carabao Cup semi-final.

When Granit Xhaka was sent off just 24 minutes into this first leg, one feared Liverpool would run riot.

Jurgen Klopp’s side have scored 43 goals against Arsenal, more than they have managed against any other opponent, but they could not find the net last night.

Instead, Arsenal kept them at bay with a determined and dogged performance, which are characteristics not usually associated with them. They certainly were not on show at Nottingham Forest on Sunday, when Mikel Arteta’s side were dumped out of the FA Cup.

Arteta had vowed in the wake of that defeat there would be a reaction from his side, and the way Arsenal clung on for a 0-0 draw meant he was true to his word.

“When you come to a stadium like this, I said to them [that] you have to pick players that you are happy to go to war with, because you’re going to have a fight,” said Arteta.

“You’re going to have difficult moments, you’re going to have moments where you have to suffer and it’s about how to approach those moments.

“If you are willing to help your team, if you are willing to accept that at some moments you are not going to play the game that you want, then good things are going to happen.”

The fact Arsenal put in this kind of performance when they played for more than an hour with 10 men makes it all the more impressive.

The year is barely a fortnight old, but already Xhaka has served up enough drama to reassure Amazon it made the right decision to film a documentary of Arsenal this season. Since 2022 began, he has given away a penalty against Manchester City, contracted Covid-19 and now been sent off, meaning he will miss Sunday’s north London derby.

Granit Xhaka was sent off just 24 minutes into his Arsenal return against Liverpool (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)
Granit Xhaka was sent off just 24 minutes into his Arsenal return against Liverpool (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Wherever Xhaka goes, drama seems to follow, but he could have no complaints about this red. It was a clumsy challenge, with the midfielder catching Diogo Jota around his waist as he tried to clear the ball coming over his head. Xhaka’s swift apology on social media last night was evidence he could have no grievances.

“I want to apologise to everyone,” he wrote. “I am so proud of my team and the spirit that they showed to keep a clean sheet tonight.”

A Xhaka red card is usually the start of an Arsenal spiral to defeat, but last night it galvanised them to hold firm.

Arteta, who had already taken off full-back Cedric Soares after 11 minutes due to a hip issue, withdrew striker Eddie Nketiah following Xhaka’s sending-off and brought on Rob Holding. The Gunners went to a back-five, but at times it was more like a back-nine.

Arsenal have earned plaudits over the last six weeks or so for their tactical and technical performances, however this was a night when all that went out the window and it was backs-to-the-wall stuff.

However, the 10-man Gunners battled admirably at Anfield to claim a valuable goalless draw (Getty Images)
However, the 10-man Gunners battled admirably at Anfield to claim a valuable goalless draw (Getty Images)

Ben White was at the heart of it all, having arguably his best game since joining Arsenal in the summer. But the fact Gabriel Martinelli equalled the centre-back’s number of tackles over the 90 minutes emphasised how this was a team effort.

Arsenal’s forwards chased every lost cause and Bukayo Saka had to be hooked before the end, while Martinelli lay flat on his back on the Anfield turf at the final whistle as he tried to catch his breath.

Fringe players Calum Chambers and Holding rose to the occasion, and that will give Arteta much satisfaction, particularly as his tally of absentees could be at 11 by the time Sunday’s derby kicks off.

Last night threatened to be about those players who were absent. Instead, however, it ended up being about those on the pitch, as Arsenal came away with a result that has them still dreaming of a Carabao Cup Final against Chelsea next month.

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