Cup football has this ability to elicit raw emotions out of fans who have, for the best part of the last two months, watched their team in an apathetic stupor. Arsenal have piled on the disappointment since the turn of the year but, for this one game, they dug deep and pulled out a performance to be proud of. There’s no caveat attached to this victory. Arsenal are returning to Wembley to play for yet another FA Cup and that’s all that matters.
Arsenal: Cech; Gabriel, Koscielny, Holding; Chamberlain, Xhaka, Ramsey, Monreal; Ozil, Alexis; Giroud
Subs: Martinez, Gibbs, Bellerin, Coquelin, Iwobi, Walcott, Welbeck
Manchester City: Bravo; Navas, Kompany, Otamendi, Clichy; Toure, Fernandinho; De Bruyne, Silva, Sane; Aguero
Subs: Caballero, Zabaleta, Kolarov, Fernando, Delph, Sterling, Iheanacho
Arsenal forced into 5-4-1 in a nervy first half
Wenger’s decision to use a back three once again was a big call and one that was looking more questionable as the first half progressed. Arsenal were sluggish, unable to consistently press City and slow down their build-up. City dominated the ball in Arsenal’s half and found space in midfield as Arsenal were slow to funnel back and get into shape. Chamberlain and Monreal were pinned back into fullback roles, making Arsenal’s back three a back five. Arsenal were so deep they couldn’t get up the pitch, and made it easy for City to swarm around their midfielders and win the ball back.
Fortunately, City failed to capitalise on their dominance. Although they found space down the flanks, the trio of Gabriel, Koscielny and Holding were positioned well to cut out balls into the penalty area. Gabriel did a great job covering for Chamberlain and ensuring Sane didn’t have the space to get shots or crosses away. Aguero was unable to escape Arsenal’s defenders and get onto through balls. This was the period City should have capitalised on Arsenal’s nerves and timidity.
In fairness, City were on the wrong end of refereeing decisions. Aguero had a decent shout for a penalty when he felt the faintest of clips from Chamberlain and stumbled over. Then, towards the end of the half, they had a goal ruled out by the linesman who deemed Sane’s cross to be out-of-bounds; replays showed a slither of the ball was still in play.
Arsenal grow into second half
The second half saw a much improved and positive Arsenal performance. The first major difference was that Arsenal worked harder to recover their shape and slow City’s passing down. Arsenal were much more aggressive and willing to commit tactical fouls to slow City even further. Up top, they applied more pressure to City’s backline and forced mistakes. Chamberlain played a crucial role in getting Arsenal up the pitch with his powerful running and enabling them to play more of the game in City’s half.
Yet, it was during this period that City took the lead. Arsenal had done well to limit the number of chances on their goal but set-up poorly on a set-piece. They committed too many players without sufficient cover. Ramsey was caught on the ball on the edge of City’s penalty area and City broke. Their long pass found Aguero, who was able to race away from a lead-footed Monreal and dink the ball over Cech. Cech made it easier for him by hesitating to charge him down, while Arsenal should be alarmed at Monreal’s lack of recovery pace.
The Spaniard managed to make amends, though. Chamberlain came forward and whipped in a sensational cross that found his opposite wing-back steaming in at the back post. Monreal volleyed home with aplomb and celebrated with as much gusto.
With the score level, both teams pushed for a winner and created a more open game. Danny Welbeck had Arsenal’s best chance late on, but his shot narrowly missed the post. For City, Yaya Toure was a growing influence and causing problems with his direct running with the ball. Arsenal’s defending was excellent and the game went into extra-time.
Alexis continues love affair with Wembley
Arsenal’s determination carried over into extra-time and got some joy getting Danny Welbeck up against City’s tiring backline. Welbeck’s pace and willingness to run the channels presented a much different problem than Olivier Giroud did, and it was he who drew Kompany into giving a dangerous free-kick. Ozil sent the ball to Koscielny, who peeled off his marker and headed it back across goal. Welbeck missed his kick, but Alexis was on hand to pick up the pieces and put Arsenal ahead. The Chilean had been quiet up to this point, but has a knack for scoring at Wembley – four goals in an Arsenal shirt and one for Chile.
Arsenal had opportunities to kill the game off in the first half of extra-time, but neither Holding or Welbeck were able to put away headers. This set-up a tense second half as City came forward and Arsenal put everything into preserving their lead. Delph had their best chance and only Bellerin’s last minute intervention prevented an equaliser. City then hit the bar from the resulting corner. Luck was certainly on Arsenal’s side as they saw out a 2-1 victory.
A performance to be proud of
It wasn’t the prettiest Arsenal performance but it’s one everyone can be happy about. When it mattered most, we were able to put aside our issues, pull out a fighting, gritty display and overcome a good team. Gabriel had an outstanding game – easily his best in an Arsenal shirt after a string of unconvincing displays. Holding was composed despite only just coming back into the team. Chamberlain impressed once more in his new wing-back role. Ramsey and Ozil worked incredibly hard despite not always producing in the final third.
In the end, that’s what fans want to see. Fans can forgive a lack of quality in some instances if the application is there. They like a team that leaves it all on the pitch and Arsenal did that.
That’s what’s frustrating about them. Arsenal can and do have performances like this, yet spend most of the season allowing themselves to be panned for a lack of effort and heart. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying it, but Arsenal would have fewer critics if they displayed the same level of fight in every game instead of leaving it to the last minute.
I am, of course, very happy they did pull it out. Whatever is going on with Arsenal on and off the pitch, I can’t help but feel like a kid after wins like this. Arsenal are in a cup final, so let’s be happy about it. Chelsea represent a tough test, but it’s the cup, and as the old cliché goes: anything can happen.