Outstanding performances from Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ozil and Cazorla on Saturday fired Arsenal to a 4-1 victory over Everton in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. The Gunners are just two wins away from their first trophy since 2005.
It was a tricky match against a tough opponent. Martinez is a smart tactician. The Spanish manager led Wigan to the FA Cup title last season and gave Arsenal a hard time in December when the Toffees drew 1-1 at the Emirates Stadium.
Wenger fielded his strongest lineup with the exception of Szczesny and Giroud. The manager traditionally starts his back-up goalkeeper in this competition, which explains why Fabianski got the nod over Szczesny. Sanogo was a more surprising choice up front. Fatigue was not a factor since Giroud only played 10 minutes in France’s 2-0 win over the Netherlands on Wednesday. But then who knows what Giroud did on Friday night. Would you start a player who often dates escort girls the night before a match? Maybe it was just Sanogo’s performance in the 2-1 win over Liverpool a month ago that convinced Wenger to leave Giroud on the bench.
High tempo and strong commitment
In my eyes, however, the main question mark was about our midfield. Ramsey and Wilshere have contributed to Arsenal’s title bid this season with their deep runs. We missed both of them on Saturday as Ramsey is still recovering from a hamstring injury while Wilshere injured his foot in England’s 1-0 win over Denmark. Wenger could have used a box-to-box player by starting Chambo in midfield and Gnabry on the right wing. But the manager opted for cautiousness by partnering Flamini with Arteta while Ozil and Cazorla shared the playmaking duties.
The first half was played at a high tempo with a lot of commitment from both sides. But it was definitely less physical than in the 1-1 draw with Everton in December and there was nothing nasty like in the 1-0 loss at Stoke. The Gunners quickly took the lead by converting their first scoring chance in the seventh minute. Chambo found Cazorla, who skipped past McCarthy to play Ozil in. The Germany playmaker buried a diagonal strike into the bottom corner despite a block attempt from Coleman and Stones.
Ozil’s improving understanding with Cazorla
Ozil’s first goal this year had a flavor of redemption after his missed penalty against Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Fans still remember how Flamini chastised Ozil in the second half for not tracking back. It was quite telling on Saturday to see Flamini call on his teammates to congratulate Ozil for the opening goal. That means the chemistry is still good in the dressing room despite our poor run of form in the Premier League.
The play in itself was fascinating. Cazorla is usually the second striker while Ozil is a pure playmaker. But they swapped roles for the goal. Of course, there’s no animosity between Ozil and Cazorla. But they’ve never developed a strong understanding like Wilshere did with Giroud, and like Walcott did with Van Persie. Ozil tried to return the favor in the 41st with a cross for Cazorla, whose volley took a deflection off Distin for a corner. This match could be the start of a fruitful partnership between Ozil and Cazorla. Ozil also set up Cazorla for Arsenal’s second goal in the 2-2 draw with Southampton in January.
Space behind the fullbacks
The trouble, however, with playing a false winger who often cuts inside is that you leave some space to your opponent, especially when your fullback also charges forward. Mirallas was good at finding space behind Gibbs and Sagna in the first half. Barry played Mirallas down our left wing in the 10th and the Belgian forward crossed the ball for Pienaar, who was put off by Sagna while shooting.
Teams know that Sagna and Gibbs are offensive fullbacks and that Cazorla and Ozil prefer the midfield to the wings. The few options to fix our vulnerability on the wings are: 1. To have more cautious fullbacks. 2. To have attacking midfielders who track back like Ozil did in the 14th to win the ball back from Mirallas. And 3. To have a defensive midfielder who covers the wing.
While the Toffees dominated possession at the Emirates Stadium in December, they adopted a different approach on Saturday and mostly relied on counterattacks to hurt Arsenal. Flamini made a late challenge on Stones in the 23rd to kill a counterattack and earn a yellow card. That booking proved lethal when Everton hit the Gunners on the fast break in the 32nd. Barkley set off a dash from his own half and was tracked by Flamini on our left flank. However, the Frenchman could no longer make any cynical foul. Mirallas outpaced Sagna to meet Barkley’s cross at the far post. The Belgian forward cut the ball back for Lukaku, who controlled it and flicked home for an equalizer against the run of play.
The Toffees were outnumbered on that play but still managed to score. Gibbs was stranded up the pitch but both Flamini and Ozil covered him. Barkley was no scoring threat from such a tight angle, but he had two passing options inside the box. I guess Vermaelen should have marked Lukaku and let Mertesacker deal with Mirallas. But Vermaelen did not spot Mirallas’ run and attempted to cut the passing channel. In the end, Vermaelen could not intercept Barkley’s cross and Mirallas beat Sagna in a 70-yard dash to make the difference at the far post. Vermaelen’s decision-making was average but Sagna was the main culprit for that goal. It doesn’t make sense to have both fullbacks so close to the Everton area while leading 1-0.
Getting nothing from corners
Everton nearly took the lead from another counterattack in the 35th. Mirallas beat the offside trap and cut inside Flamini to hit a tame shot while a pass to Lukaku was the better option. The visitors then capitalized on a sloppy pass from Chambo to get a scoring chance in the 43rd. The situation did not look good with three Gunners facing four Toffees. But Chambo made a 50-yard run to make a clean tackle on Lukaku inside the box.
Chambo does not have Walcott’s finishing and pace, but his defensive contribution and his technical maturity are much better than Walcott’s and help explain why he feels as comfortable in midfield as on the wing. The main reason why the manager is reluctant to play Chambo in midfield lies in his turnover rate. His youth sometimes leads him to make risky plays. To Chambo’s credit, he worked his socks off to win the ball back each time he lost possession.
Chambo’s velocity and directness were a constant threat for the Toffees. He initiated the opener with a flick for Cazorla. Two minutes later, he set up Sanogo for an angled strike that was parried by Robles. Chambo also had two longe-range efforts saved by the Everton goalkeeper in the 10th and the 34th. I guess 1-1 was a decent score at half-time. My only regret was our poor use of set pieces. Arsenal had 10 corners in the first half to none for Everton. The Gunners were unable to test Robles although Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Sanogo are strong in the air.
The Toffees also have a top prospect with Barkley, but thank God he’s not a finished product yet. Lukaku intercepted Vermaelen’s missed clearance in the 54th to set up Barkley, who fired over the bar from 14 yards. The Everton midfielder hit the ball as hard as he could while a more seasoned player would have tried to catch the frame. Barkley made the same mistake in the 75th when Barry teed him up, shooting wide from the edge of the box although Flamini and Ozil were late for the block.
The Gunners did not create much after the restart. They were trying to rediscover a bit of defensive stability after Everton made them look shaky on the fast break. Cazorla had a curling shot palmed away by Robles in the 57th. Wenger added more power up front by replacing Sanogo with Giroud in the 61st. The Gunners struggled to find Sanogo throughout the match. Sanogo has been sidelined for months by a back injury. It will take a bit of time to have a stronger complicity between Sanogo and his teammates. Hopefully, Sanogo will be less naive too. A couple of times, he waited for the ball to reach his feet instead of beating his marker to the ball.
Chambo’s strong performance in the first half was rewarded in the 66th when Ozil released him down the right flank. Barry blocked Chambo’s cross, but the rebound fell to Chambo, who got tripped by the Everton midfielder. Arteta converted the penalty by firing into the bottom corner to the keeper’s right. But the referee ordered Arteta to retake the penalty because Giroud had encroached into the area. Arteta sent the ball into the top corner to the keeper’s left for a 2-1 lead.
While Martinez sent on Osman and McGeady for Pienaar and Mirallas in the 76th to chase an equalizer, Wenger replaced Chambo with Rosicky in the 78th to increase ball retention. Chambo got such a loud ovation that you sometimes wish all our Premier League matches were FA Cup games as well.
Wenger called Rosicky a “great accelerator of the game” after his wonder goal against Sunderland last month. Sure, Rosicky can make deep runs but I’ve always felt his main quality was the fluidity he brings in Arsenal’s passing game. Sagna overlapped with Rosicky in the 83rd to cut the ball back for Giroud, who tapped home from six yards. Give credit to Giroud for making a couple of steps back to give Sagna a decent passing channel. But the Toffees can also blame themselves for their poor positional play with three defenders surrounding Giroud before the final ball.
Rosicky also had a hand in the last goal. Cazorla stole the ball from Deulofeu, who replaced Barkley in the 84th. The Spaniard found Rosicky on the right flank, and the Czech midfielder fed Ozil on the edge of the box with just one touch. Giroud took Ozil’s blind pass to beat Robles with a low strike. The Gunners will face Wigan in the semifinals next month and have become the heavy favorites in this competition after Manchester City lost 2-1 to the defending champions on Sunday.
The fight for a Champions League spot
Arsenal next play Bayern Munich in the second leg of their Champions League tie on Tuesday. Wenger will probably field his strongest lineup, but the Premier League match against Tottenham next weekend is much more important. Let’s be honest: our chances of winning the Champions League this season are very small even if we miraculously eliminate the German side. On the other hand, we haven’t secured a Champions League spot yet. If the Spurs win on Sunday, they will pull within three points of Arsenal and the pressure for our games against Chelsea and Manchester City will become massive. Wilshere is not a prolific scorer but he still contributed five goals in all competitions this season. With the England midfielder sidelined for six weeks, it’s time for other players to step up.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com