The Gunners reached the FA Cup final by showing some character on Saturday to beat title holder Wigan 4-2 in a penalty shootout after both teams were tied at 1-1 in extra time. Fabianski stopped the Latics’ first two spot kicks while Arteta, Kallstrom, Giroud and Cazorla converted their penalties.
What the scoreline doesn’t say is that Arsenal dominated the match and had at least twice as many chances as Wigan. Some fans were unhappy that the Gunners could not beat a lower-league side in regulation time. But do they remember that Arsenal also needed penalty shootouts to eliminate Port Vale and West Ham in 1998? Probably not. Most fans just remember that the club won the Premier League and the FA Cup that year because what really matters in the end is silverware.
The Gunners faced massive pressure before that match. An exit would have meant a ninth straight year without a trophy. Arsenal missed some key players such as Rosicky, Wilshere, Ozil, Walcott, Flamini and Koscielny but the team had enough quality to go through. On paper, this is the club’s best chance to win a title since the 2011 League Cup final lost to Birmingham.
Mixing up tactics
Wenger made four changes from the side that was thrashed 3-0 at Everton, with Fabianski, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo replacing Szczesny, Flamini, Rosicky and Giroud in the starting lineup. Chambo provided some penetration in the final third while Sanogo’s mobility allowed Arsenal to mix up tactics.
When Giroud leads the line, the team’s passing game becomes too predictable with midfielders making runs off the Frenchman. Giroud can hold the ball up if he receives an accurate long pass. However, Giroud does not have the pace to chase long balls when the Gunners target spaces behind the defense.
Sanogo has less experience than Giroud but is strong enough to fit in Arsenal’s short passing game and mobile enough to become an option in a long passing game that helps our midfielders run a bit less. Some fans didn’t like Sanogo’s performance at Wembley because he failed to convert any of his chances. But one silver lining is that Sanogo created more chances in a single match than Giroud in his last three games.
The Everton ghost
Rosler used a 3-5-2 formation to press high up the pitch and hit Arsenal on the fast break. When the Gunners were about to pull the Latics out of position, Wigan often made cynical fouls to kill the play. That’s how Beausejour stopped a one-two between Sanogo and Chambo in the 40th. Gomez and Collison received yellow cards in the second half for professional fouls on Giroud and Gibbs respectively.
McManaman’s pace was Wigan’s main asset. The English striker outpaced Vermaelen in the 31st to make a teasing cross, but Mertesacker was able to clear the ball. McManaman got again the better of Vermaelen in the 38th but fired wide. A minute later, Fortune capitalized on a counterattack to test Fabianski.
Arsenal seemed to have the match under control in the second half, but some poor decision-making from Mertesacker gifted Wigan the opening goal in the 59th. The German defender brought McManaman down with a sliding tackle inside the area. You could see the ghost of the Everton loss in that play. Lukaku cut inside Monreal and Vermaelen the previous weekend to score a second goal for the Toffees. Mertesacker certainly thought something similar could happen when McManaman cut inside. For a split second, he thought he could win the ball but McManaman took the ball away before the German could rob him. I thought Rosler made a mistake by replacing McManaman with Powell in the 68th. The manager clearly wanted to protect Wigan’s lead but he also lost his team’s main threat.
Lack of leadership
Gomez converted the subsequent penalty to put Arsenal in a big hole. Mertesacker is usually our most reliable centerback. He’s slower than Koscielny and Vermaelen but he’s also smarter and doesn’t make Vermaelen’s positional mistakes or Koscielny’s rash tackles. We can give him some credit for bouncing back with the equalizer but you kind of wonder where’s the leadership at the back when there are so many defensive errors in a single season.
Fabianski, Chambo, Sanogo, Sagna and Gibbs were Arsenal’s standout performers on Saturday while Vermaelen, Podolski and Cazorla disappointed. Ramsey made his first start since Boxing Day and still lacked a bit of match fitness. I thought the manager should have pulled him out in the second half instead of waiting the 23rd minute of extra time to replace him with Kallstrom.
Chambo has proved the club’s best player in the FA Cup this season. He was a real livewire on Saturday, making things happen with his runs, crosses and shots. The England winger played a one-two with Ramsey in the opening minute but a heavy touch allowed Carson to collect the ball. Chambo also contributed to Arsenal’s long passing game with a run in the 15th to chase a ball over the top from Ramsey, but Carson came off his line to deny Chambo.
Chambo’s main quality is his versatility in the final third. He could have had two assists with better finishing. When Chambo crossed for Sanogo in the fifth, the Frenchman beat Boyce to the ball but saw Carson save his header. Sagna connected with another cross from Chambo in the 80th but his header crashed against the post.
One interesting part of Chambo’s repertoire is his shooting ability. The Gunners sometimes have this tendency to walk the ball into the net. It’s a pleasure to watch when you have goals like the one scored by Wilshere against Norwich, but it also makes the opponents’ job easier because they don’t need to patrol the midfield.
I believe Arsenal should have used long-range strikes a bit more this season while facing teams parking the bus. Chambo had a long-range attempt saved by Carson in the 74th. And just when the fans’ stress level got very high, Sanogo set up Ox, whose off-target drive was diverted home by Mertesacker in the 82nd for the equalizer. The pair combined again when Chambo struck the post in the 21st minute of extra time.
Sanogo’s positive impact
A lot of fans will disagree with me, but I thought Sanogo had a positive impact on our game. Sure, he’s still a raw player at 21 and hasn’t scored in England yet, but he brings much more energy on the pitch than a knackered Giroud. I think Sanogo’s main priority in the short term should be to get rid of a certain naivety. When Sanogo collected a through ball from Cazorla in the 51st, he was too easily outmuscled off the ball by Ramis. At the top level, you must better use your body to shield the ball.
There were also a couple of times when Sanogo should have beaten the offside trap. The Frenchman had plenty of space in the 86th but was a yard offside when Arteta sent him clean through on goal. A quick look at the pair of Wigan centerbacks would have prevented Sanogo from killing a promising play. In stoppage time, Sanogo could have scored the winner with a simple tap-in at the far post, but a lack of belief and anticipation prevented him from connecting with a cross from Sagna after Giroud missed the ball at the near post.
Wenger’s tactical move
Now, what I don’t get is why he’s portrayed as a catastrophe. Obviously, Sanogo doesn’t have Van Persie’s silky first touch. But Giroud also had an average first touch before joining Arsenal. Let’s take a look at the chances Sanogo had against Wigan. His header in the fifth was saved by Carson. When Sanogo chased a long ball from Podolski in the 42nd, his first touch was poor but he was still able to hit a shot that Carson stopped with his leg. Under Boyce’s pressure, Sanogo then flicked wide a low cross from Ramsey in the 67th. In extra time, Sanogo took a pass from Chambo to fire a snapshot that Carson tipped over the bar. Finally, when Mertesacker redirected a high cross from Sagna into his path, Sanogo sent his spinning shot over the bar. Basically, Sanogo forced Carson to make three saves from five chances. In my eyes, that’s a decent rate.
In the end, it was Podolski’s substitution in the 68th that helped the Gunners crack the Wigan defense. Podolski’s performance was mediocre and I really wonder whether he’ll be shipped out this summer to hire a better striker and give Gnabry more playing time. Wenger sent Giroud on to switch to a 4-4-2 system with Cazorla and Chambo on the wings.
Nullifying Wigan’s pressing
In the past, the manager could easily switch to an unorthodox 4-2-4 system with Van Persie, Chamakh, Bendtner and Walcott up front while chasing an equalizer. Wenger has been much more conservative this season, shifting to a 4-4-2 system only a couple of times. I’ve sometimes asked myself whether the manager was too rigid, bored or simply clueless to stick to the same system when the game required a tactical move. The manager nullified Wigan’s pressing by having two outlets for long balls. Giroud had a low drive stopped by Carson in the 87th.
The Latics capitalized on Arsenal’s exhaustion in extra time to create a couple of half-chances. Collison headed wide in the 23rd before Powell missed the target with a low diagonal drive in the 26th. However, no team could make the difference in extra time and needed a penalty shootout to choose a winner.
Arsenal will next play Hull which defeated Sheffield United 5-3 on Sunday. Some Gunners won’t take anything for granted as they were part of the team that lost 2-1 to Birmingham three years ago. Wenger will have to find the right words to prevent another debacle.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com