You can say whatever you like in condemnation of International football (and frankly, I would agree with most of it), but the FA Cup is a much different animal. The last two rounds were far less stressful affairs, in which such banalities as manager conversations over fizzy drinks, the state of a visitors change room, a bizarre combination of sandwiches and sports gambling, and heartwarming financial contributions all took more headlines than the matches themselves.
Of course, if flat track bullying isn’t your thing (i.e. your name isn’t Mesut) than Saturday might have given you the cup action you crave. The best team in the history of the Premier League (this season’s Tottenham) totally outplayed the presumptive league winners, Chelsea, despite somehow allowing 4 goals and losing by 2. That is, of course, if you were buying what Jermaine Jenas had to say after the match. Sadly for the former Tottenham man, the game was broadcast for others to see.
Still, it must be a big blow to Mauricio Pochettino, who despite being the manager of the biggest and best club in London (his words), has yet to win any silverware in his time in charge at Tottenham. Without the prospect of a St Totteringham’s Day, assuring that their cross-town rivals finish the season without a trophy should be of some small consolation for Arsenal supporters starved for success since the turn of the new year.
Sunday’s match between Arsenal and a Manchester City made good on the promise of a great football weekend. In Arsenal’s second consecutive match lining up with a back three in defence, the increased commitment to plugging a leaky line has clearly paid dividends. Manchester City saw all three-quarters of possession in the first half, as Arsenal are yet to find the same sort of fluidity and spacing that they enjoy in their usual tactics, but the last two results have been difficult to argue against.
It took 120 minutes of heart pounding back and forth to send a team through to the final to face a formidable Chelsea side, but surprisingly to many Arsenal held their nerve. Several minutes inside the first half extra time, Alexis was able to bang a loose ball in the penalty area into the the net. So huge was the goal for the club , that even Alexis capped off his celebration by turning towards his teammates. Wow.
Arsene Wenger out-coached Pep Guardiola. Let that sink in for a moment. Two weeks ago, would anyone have thought that Wenger would come out with three at the back, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would be by far the team’s best player on the pitch and that Manchester City would score first but Arsenal would respond in kind? If so, please be in touch, I have some bets that need placing.
While there may be several benefits to this radical formational shift, For Alexis, it appears to mean seeing less of the ball throughout the course of play. His involvement
in the match seemed to grow as City began to wear down, but it wasn’t until Welbeck was subbed on that Arsenal’s forwards started to exert more control over the match. No word on whether this is displeasing to Alexis, but given he was able to score the winning goal, perhaps we have bought ourselves a week or so of smiles from the Chilean. I still think begging his dogs to stay is the way to go though.
Olivier Giroud was effectively cancelled out by Vincent Kompany for the majority of his time on the pitch. When he opposition has a defender that can match Giroud’s height and strength, the most you can expect out of the Frenchman is some amusingly animated “Oww” handshaking after a coming together.
Mesut Ozil came to play in this match. I realize this nullifies my joke from earlier, but that is a sacrifice I am willing to make. Ozil had himself a good week, as he kicked it off with a match winner against Middlesbrough and finished it off with a solid performance against City, but the big news, of course, was the release of his new autobiography, in which he details some interesting behind the scenes stories about his relationships with coaches and teammates. It is also quite heavy on smoldering stares between Ozil and Jose Mourinho. Seriously.
Granit Xhaka nearly gave me a heart attack in this match. It was clear that when Arsenal had the ball, several players seemed intent on beating the first present defender before moving it along. Xhaka attempted more take-ons with the ball at his feet (and near his own goal) than I had ever seen him. Even though he did not put on his usual passing masterclass, his toughness and fight were invaluable for keeping the team in control as the chippy nature of the match increased in the second half. He is also learning how to foul better, with several crunching challenges that managed to stay out of the book. A good match for Xhaka, and he certainly benefitted from playing alongside Aaron Ramsey.
Speaking of Ramsey, he also had himself a good match. As the more adventurous or the midfield pairing, he often found himself drifting toward the forward line when the team were in possession. The entire City team looked dead by the end of the match, while Ramsey just looked like he could keep going for another 45 minutes. Ramsey will always be good for a head scratcher or two throughout the match, but this run of games he is getting in the side can only spell good things for his form.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should send Wenger a serious thank you note. How many people would have predicted that a move to right wing back would turn Chambo into the best player on the pitch? I mean seriously, is this the same guy that used to make me groan every time he would attempt a cross? Yes, it is, and it seems Arsene has unwittingly stumbled across his best position.
Hector Bellerin has found his best position in the 3-4-2-1: Right Wing Bench. The Spaniard was looking burned out and in need of some time out of the lineup, but I am not sure he figured that his time spent on the bench might make his place in the starting XI disappear for good. When he subbed on late, he did look comfortable in the wing
back role, so perhaps his omission won’t be a permanent one if the new formation sticks around.
Gabriel and Rob Holding were the two biggest surprises of the match. At least, the were if you missed the Middlesbrough match earlier in the week, where they were both excellent as well. Gabriel has improved leaps and bounds from the impulsive card bait he was only a year ago, and Rob Holding is looking like the steal of the century, having cost nearly 20 times less than Mustafi (and playing 20 times better at the moment). He is a solid and reflexive defender in the box, but it is his passing and dribbling ability that are going to make Pep feel some serious buyer’s remorse over John Stones, Machester’s Own Goal Machine. Count me among those unwilling to drop either one right now to facilitate Mustafi’s return to the lineup.
Petr Cech made up for his indecision on Aguero’s opening goal with a brilliant touch on a corner bound strike from Yaya Toure. I am not convinced that his role as number 1 goalkeeper won’t be challenged next season, but it should be he that starts the cup final against Chelsea. We have seen what Ospina can do against a team like Chelsea so, um, Cech, please.
Oh, Nacho. We seem to do this every week don’t we? You start off decent but tentative. Then you work your way into the game and up the flank in attack. But then, we lose the ball and you are caught out, giving the other team an easy chance. Today was no different, and Aguero took it. Scoring the equalizer went a long way toward forgiving the aging left back, but his days in the starting XI are very numbered.
I seem to have made it a habit of comment on the refereeing lately, and today is no different. I seem to have forgotten much about the rules of the game. Or at least, that is the conclusion I am forced to draw after this match. Running into the back of an opposing player is only a foul if your wearing red apparently. And if you are writhing on the ground, holding your face, while also having the audacity to play for Arsenal, it is not a foul. One thing is absolutely clear, however: opposing players are starting to realize that rugby style takedowns in the box are legal if performed to an Arsenal player. I wonder which Gunner will hear his justified shouts for a penalty waved off next?
As the final whistle blew, Arsene Wenger jumped for joy, so happy was he to see his team win such an important match. One feels for the Frenchman, who has seen entire months of his season consumed by the same questions from the same people about the same old issues. To see him jump in the air with such obvious and unbridled elation, it gives hope to the possibility of his career ending on a high. Arsenal are now 1 match away from silverware this season, and to top the whole thing off, Tottenham have set the record this weekend for consecutive defeats in the FA Cup Semis. If that doesn’t make you smile, then I give up.