By Greg Oldman (@GregOldfield21)
Arsenal scored two fantastic second-half team goals to defeat Orlando City 3-1 in front of over 19,000 fans at the FC Series Wednesday night at Exploria Stadium. Goals by Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson gave the Gunners the edge after the two sides went into the half tied at 1-1.
Starting with mainly a reserve side, the Gunners put instant pressure on Orlando City from the jump, attacking down both wings with Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pépé while Mohamed Elneny paced the Arsenal midfield with long stretches of possession in the early going. Orlando, who countered with a mostly young lineup, had Facundo Torres controlling the Lions attack from the wing with striker Alexandre Pato playing alongside Benji Michel, who put Arsenal under pressure in the 2nd minute, forcing Rob Holding into an early caution.
Martinelli gave Arsenal the lead five minutes into the game. The Brazilian winger combined down the left side with Albert Sambi Lokonga, beating three Orlando City defenders to cut inside the box. His shot deflected off the back of Antônio Carlos, wrong-footing Pedro Gallese before heading into the net.
Orlando had a great chance to tie the game in the 24th minute when Michel broke free with a well-timed run from the center line to meet a long ball by Torres, but Aaron Ramsdale made a strong reactionary kick save on the breakaway to deny the Orlando striker.
Orlando found the equalizer in the 29th minute. Carlos sent a long ball that Torres ran onto, pushing aside Nuno Tavares before cutting inside with his left. The Uruguayan Designated Player fired a shot that split Pablo Mari and Tavares, beating Ramsdale to the near post to knot the game at 1-1.
Nketiah almost scored a second for the Gunners nine minutes from the break off a recycled corner, but his shot was blocked in front by César Araújo. Orlando held much of the possession late as Arsenal worked a high press, but a skied Andrés Perea shot and a beautiful Nketiah turn in extra time were the only scoring chances in the closing minutes as first half finished tied at one.
The second have brought several changes from both sides with new signing Gabriel Jesús and Martin Ødegaard coming on for Arsenal as well as American goalkeeper Matt Turner, who had a quiet outing. Jesus made an instant impact, forcing a Gallese save one minute into the second half. Four minutes later, he dribbled around several Orlando City defenders toward the endline and hit Gallese with a shot from a tight angle.
Nine minutes into the second half, Lokonga blasted a shot from distance that hit Gallese in the chest, but the Gunners couldn’t convert the rebound. Arsenal’s Player of the Year Bukayo Saka came on fifteen minutes into the second half and forced Kyle Smith into a quick yellow card after beating the Orlando defender around the outside. A Thomas Partay free kick several minutes later cleared the wall but couldn’t beat the Orlando City goalkeeper.
Nketiah gave Arsenal the lead in the 66th minute on a superb team goal. Following a string of possession, the Gunners worked the ball from Granit Xhaka to Ødegaard, who put Jesús through to goal. Smith’s tackle on the Brazilian striker fell nicely to Nketiah, who slipped it past Gallese for the 2-1 Arsenal lead.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta was pleased with the play between Nketiah and Jesús in the opening minutes of the half. “We want to build those relationships,” he said. “You can see that they are finding themselves with good timing, and it’s important because there are two players with a big goal threat.”
Youngster Nelson replaced Nketiah fifteen minutes from time and scored Arsenal’s third five minutes later. Another Arsenal build up from Xhaka to Ødegaard found Saka one-on-one at the edge of the penalty area. Saka’s sent a ball across the penalty spot to Nelson, who volleyed it past Gallese to extend Arsenal’s lead.
Two minutes later, Saka found himself alone with only Gallese to beat, but Gallese got the better of him, making a low save with his legs. Arsenal nearly added a fourth four minutes from the end when Xhaka’s free kick beat the wall but found the side netting, and Nelson almost added his second off a stoppage-time free kick that was pushed away by Gallese.
Both teams played out the final minutes looking ahead to future games on Saturday, with Arsenal continuing their preseason in Orlando and the Lions resuming their MLS schedule.
Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja applauded his team’s performance against the top English side. “The class and the quality of the players is incredible,” he said, “and having one of the best teams in the world here in front of us in our city and with our fans playing against them. But not just playing against them, competing. That’s the highlight of our night.”
Arsenal will be back in action July 23rd when they face Chelsea at Camping World Stadium in the Florida Cup.
ARS: Martinelli 5’
ORL: Torres 29’
ARS: Nketiah 66’
ARS: Nelson 80’
ARS: Holding 2’
ORL: Jansson 14’
ARS: Maitland-Niles 18’
ORL: Smith 61’
ORL: Ruan 90+2’
Arsenal: Ramsdale (Turner 46’), Cedric (White 46’), Holding (Saliba 59’), Mari (Gabriel 46’), Tavares (Bellerín 84’), Elneny (Partay 59’), Maitland-Niles (Ødegaard 46’), Lokonga (Xhaka 59’), Pepe (Saka 59’), Martinelli (Jesus 46’) Nketiah (Nelson 74’)
Unused Subs: Walters, Marquinhos, Balogun
Orlando City SC: Gallese, Moutinho (Smith 46’), Jansson (Schlegel 46’), Antônio Carlos, Halliday (Ruan 63’), Araújo (Urso 46’), Perea, Mulraney (Lynn 74’), Torres (Akindele 63’), Pato (Tablante 84’), Michel (Williams 84’)
Unused Subs: Grinwis, Kara, Pereyra, Freeman, Rivera, Hackenberg, Gunera