We’ve seen some absolutely mad games over the last couple of years, and this one probably tops the lot. At the end of the night, an early-round League Cup game I hadn’t thought that much about ended with a final score of Reading 5-7 Arsenal.
At half time the Arsenal fans sang “we want our Arsenal back”. If they meant a return to the days of ‘boring boring Arsenal’, famous for defending their way to 1-0 wins, then they can forget that happening any time soon. However, one thing remains from the Gunners’ glory years, nicely summed up by Arsene Wenger after the game: “You cannot play for Arsenal and give up, no matter what the score is”.
As bizarre as it is that Arsenal started so badly they they required a comeback of this nature, credit to them for pulling it off.
Wenger started with a blend of youth and experience; Martinez, Miquel, Frimpong and Gnabry, with Djourou, Koscielny, Arshavin and Chamakh, along with more regular first-teamers despite being relatively young themselves, Jenkinson, Coquelin and Walcott.
No one played well, to put it simply. The players just weren’t at the races and found themselves 3-0 down inside 20 minutes, then 4-0 down and seemingly out of sight after 36 minutes. Koscielny’s own goal and Martinez’s bizarre flap at Leigertwood’s shot being the worst of the bunch. The strange thing about this was, the home fans at the Madejski Stadium remained pretty quiet, almost as though they couldn’t believe how easy this was; almost as though Arsenal’s total ineptitude meant there was no tension in the crowd – this was an absolute walk in the park for the team who have not yet tasted victory in the Premier League this season, and the fans were sitting back and relaxing, and probably pinching themselves.
Only after going 4-0 down did Arsenal start to take some shots and give any signs of life – ordinarily that would not be good enough, but this was no ordinary game. Still, we didn’t know that at the time and Walcott’s lovely chipped finish from Arshavin’s through-ball at the end of the first half brought almost ironic cheers from the travelling Arsenal support. At this point the commentator made a comment about how this could be the start of an unlikely comeback, but I don’t think they or anyone truly believed it. I said myself on Twitter that even if we scored five, we were defending so badly that Reading would surely score 8 or 9.
Funnily enough, we didn’t exactly come storming out the blocks in the second half. Depressed-looking manager Brian McDermott said after the game that at 4-1 he felt nervous, and Reading started well in an attempt to regain their domination of the game. We flapped at a few crosses, Reading missed some good chances, and Martinez made one good save.
After the hour mark, we were still 4-1 down and not going anywhere. Wenger then made the substitutions that changed the game: Gnabry and Frimpong were taken off for Giroud and Eisfeld. Just a minute after coming on, Giroud headed in Walcott’s corner and made it 4-2. At this point even I dared to tweet “game on?”
For the first time in the game Arsenal started to control procedings. Arshavin became increasingly influential, Eisfeld gave us more creativity from midfield than the more defensive-minded Frimpong and Coquelin had been, and Giroud was everywhere, forcing fine saves from the Reading ‘keeper with shots from outside the box and one excellent diving header. In this period Chamakh also had a decent claim for a penalty turned down.
It was starting to look, however, like for all our domination this one was going to be beyond us. And so we deserved it, we’d started so badly, criminally badly, and this was our punishment. In the 89th minute we were given yet another glimmer of hope when Koscielny headed in another corner (I’d love to know when we last scored two from corners in one match!) to make it 4-3. Sadly, as we rushed back to the centre circle for Reading to kick the game off again, we were faced with the very real possibility that, from re-starting the game, they would not give us the ball again for whatever stoppage time remained.
Four minutes were announced, and indeed Reading used all the time-wasting tricks in the book, taking it to the corner flag, winning free-kicks and playing them short. They also made a substitution to slow things down further, but the referee rightly added this as an extra stoppage, which doesn’t happen often enough. After five minutes of injury time had been played, we finally got the ball and lumped it forward. Incredibly, the ball rather bounced off Giroud into Walcott’s path and he steered it home – or so he thought – the ball only trickled over the line (and it was over the line) before being cleared into the path of Jenkinson. Walcott and the other Arsenal players were rightly celebrating a goal that had gone over the line, but Jenkinson, who for all we know could have just been kicking the loose ball into the net as players sometimes do after a goal, made sure by hitting in the rebound – not a bad finish for a defender. He wasn’t to know, but the goal was later wrongly awarded to him instead of Walcott. Amazing. And we were in store for another half an hour of this!
As if there wasn’t enough happening on the pitch, there was some off the pitch comedy during the brief break before extra time, when Coquelin and Giroud threw their shirts into the crowd thinking the game ended at 90 minutes! Rather sheepishly, they had to ask for them back. Amazing.
As you’d expect from the team who’d made the comeback, we started extra time on top and took the lead through the club’s forgotten man, Marouane Chamakh. Not only did he score an actual goal, but he scored it from outside the box, something I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen him attempt before! Being the pessimist I am, I was nervous again once we’d gone in front. I’ve seen us chase leads quite successfully many times before, and I’ve seen us attempt to hang onto leads before; it’s not a strength of ours.
Indeed we eased off or maybe Reading played with a little less fear and in the second half of extra time they found an equaliser. A volleyed cross deflected into the path of Progrebnyak. There wasn’t long left and I think everyone was foolishly thinking ‘penalties’.
At this point, tactics almost seemed out of the window, and with Reading piling a few too many men forward, we broke, and even Arshavin found the energy to run almost half the length of the pitch unchallenged. As he broke into the penalty area my memory of this is rather in slow-motion, with my mind picking out two or three options for him in the box to pass to. Instead he shot low and hard from a narrow angle, the ball rebounded to Walcott who somehow got the finish past the goalkeeper and a couple of Reading defenders on the line. It was beautifully scrappy, the kind of goal we don’t score enough – sometimes it’s good to just hit the ball hard and see were it bounces; the best tactic can be to leave things to chance. Tonight things fell our way.
This extraordinary game was still not over, and in stoppage time our young goalkeeper Martinez showed his inexperience and infuriated Wenger on the touchline by collecting a ball and kicking it out straight away, straight back to the opposition, presumably anticipating the final whistle. However, Reading came back at us again for one more heart-in-mouth moment. As it happens, we cleared the ball up field with a hoof from Walcott. This hoof then evaded Reading’s last defender in comical style and found its way to Chamakh, who lobbed the advancing ‘keeper in style – another goal for him, and another that came from outside the box! It was 7-5, and at last it was over.
There’s not much more that can be said of such a mad game, so I’ll end with some words about the Arsenal fans in attendance. Not that you’ll hear anything about it anywhere in the media, who for some reason brand our supporters as quiet, grumpy and often disinterested, but our fans tonight were fantastic and loud all the way through. If it had been the other way round, you can bet we’d never hear the end about how good the Reading fans were even while their team were being thrashed, much like the constant bleating about Irish fans at Euro 2012, but for some reason those rules don’t apply to Arsenal and that’s a real shame. To those who were there, you’re a credit to your club and you’re certainly better fans than I am – I seriously considered shutting off my internet stream at 4-0. I’m glad I didn’t, and I’m glad you didn’t walk out as I’m sure it was tempting to. You deserved the great game and classic victory you saw.