MANCHESTER, England — Mikel Arteta was quick to say he was “disappointed” after watching his Arsenal team exit the FA Cup at the hands of Manchester City on Friday but the feeling might not last too long.
No manager wants to lose a game but for Arteta and Arsenal this 1-0 defeat is certainly not the end of the world. Anything but. Five points clear at the top of the Premier League, the title is the priority. Arteta rested key players at the Etihad Stadium and with no more FA Cup football this season, Arsenal’s fixture list (which still includes Europa League competition) between now and May is a little less hectic.
These things matter when you’re involved in a pressurized run-in and if the Premier League trophy is on display at the Emirates this summer, no one will remember a cup defeat in Manchester in late January.
“At the moment it’s disappointment because we are out,” said Arteta. “We could have taken much more from that game and we didn’t. Probably when I watch it back tomorrow the feeling that I have will be that we really competed and we made it really, really difficult for them, but we lacked something to win against a team like this.”
Arteta couldn’t really say anything else but if there was any doubt about his priorities, he gave the game away with his team selection. Of the XI which beat Manchester United 3-2 in the league game last weekend, six of his starters — Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli, William Saliba and Oleksandr Zinchenko — were named on the bench at the Etihad. They’ll all be back when the league restarts with a game at Everton next weekend.
If nothing else, though, it says something about Arsenal’s progress under Arteta that a tie in the FA Cup can be treated like a luxury. It’s been 19 years since they last won the title and during that time, the cup has been a welcome source of success. Since last winning the Premier League under Arsene Wenger in 2004, they have lifted the FA Cup five times in 2005, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2020. Those lean years would have seemed much more bleak without those cup runs but now Arteta has good reason. to focus on bigger prizes.
The goal at the beginning of the season was to qualify for the Champions League but having opened up a gap at the top at the halfway stage, there’s a feeling now that this run is too good an opportunity to pass up. The Arsenal fans seemed to agree and despite making the long journey north from London to watch a much-changed team lose, they were still singing Arteta’s name at the end.
After starting the season in such blistering form and already defying expectations about what might be possible, Arteta has earned the benefit of the doubt. It might have been different had Arsenal been hammered — they lost their last game at the Etihad 5-0 in August 2021 — but for large spells of the game they matched City, who started with both Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland.
A comfortable win for Pep Guardiola’s side might have provided some kind of physiological edge ahead of the league game between the teams at the Emirates on Feb. 15 but even though City progressed, it didn’t feel like a statement win, the type of which can sometimes swing momentum in a title race.
The reality is that a weakened Arsenal team were able to go toe-to-toe with a strong City side on their own turf and if Arteta wants to find the positives in defeat, there were plenty.
“I think it will be a very different match,” said Arteta when asked about the league meeting with City next month. “I’m sure from both sides and with different personnel as well. We came here to win today we couldn’t and the next match will hopefully be different.
“I have a lot of time to try and think and prepare that match and Pep will have. We’ll review the match and try to do what’s best for us and nullify and create issues for the opponent like we always do.”
What it all means will only be clear at the end of the season. If City claw back the advantage in the Premier League and go on to win the FA Cup as well, Arteta might look back at the fourth round tie at the Etihad and wish he had picked a stronger team. But if in late May he’s on an open-top bus tour around London showing off the Premier League trophy, he won’t care less that there was no cup run this season. Arteta will hope that the days of relying on the FA Cup for silverware have gone. He’s got his eyes on a bigger prize.