FA Cup: Gunners end 9-year curse at Old Trafford to reach semis

The FA Cup was the only realistic chance left for both Arsenal and Manchester United to win some silverware this season. It was therefore no surprise to see them field their strongest lineups in Monday’s quarterfinal match. A cool finish from Monreal and a smart interception from Welbeck guided the Gunners to their first victory at Old Trafford since 2006.

FA Cup Quarters

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Welbeck got the nod over Giroud to lead the attack. It was a risky choice from the manager since Giroud is a more prolific scorer than Welbeck. Wenger certainly assumed that Welbeck’s pace would prove more important than Giroud’s hold-up play. Cazorla hit the Red Devils on the fast break in the 16th minute to send Welbeck clean through on goal but the ball got stuck under the England striker’s feet. Welbeck became the purveyor in the 21st, feeding Oxlade-Chamberlain, whose lob attempt sailed wide.

Arsenal could have led 2-0 by the 30th when Welbeck chased a ball over the top from Ozil. Rojo seemed to pull him back on the 18-yard line but the referee waved away Welbeck’s penalty claim. A minute later, Welbeck had his first scoring chance by outjumping two defenders to meet a cross from Chambo. However, his downward header lacked power to beat De Gea.

Welbeck kept pressing the Manchester United defense in the second half and his hard work paid off in the 61st when Valencia made a weak backpass to De Gea. Welbeck beat De Gea to the ball, flicking it around the goalkeeper to score into an empty net for his first goal since December. Hopefully, that winning goal will boost his morale for the run-in because the Gunners definitely need rotation, and therefore competition within the squad, to perform well in the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League.

Nagging injuries

Most fans could guess that Chambo would start at Old Trafford from the moment Wenger left him on the bench against Queens Park Rangers last week. His scoring form has been poor this season, but his work rate and passing skills are better than Walcott’s. Chambo’s ability to run at defenders made a difference in the first half. He led a counterattack in the 22nd by skipping past Shaw but Rojo killed the play with an obstruction. Four minutes later, Chambo dribbled past three defenders to slip a through ball to Monreal. The Spanish leftback took a touch before slotting the ball past De Gea from a tight angle for the opening goal.

Unfortunately, Chambo picked up a hamstring injury in the 50th and was replaced by Ramsey while Ozil shifted to the right wing. When a player struggles with a nagging injury, the chances of a relapse are quite high. In the offseason, you have time to get your body up to speed. But once the season has already started, the pace to rebuild your fitness after recovering from an injury is more frenetic and simply too taxing for your body, which often breaks down again.

Ramsey, who also had his share of injuries this season, has not yet rediscovered his form. Di Maria clearly dived when Ramsey touched his arm in the 76th. But the point is that the Argentine midfielder outpaced Ramsey. The Red Devils were down to 10 men a few seconds later when Di Maria grabbed the referee’s shirt to get a second yellow card. In the closing minutes, Ramsey was booked for making a rugby tackle on Young near the halfway line. The Wales midfielder is like a diesel engine, so I guess he will need a couple more weeks to get back to his best level.

Cazorla, key to team’s balance

Sanchez did not score but still had a good game. In stoppage time, the Chile forward played Ozil in and a lack of self-confidence led the Germany playmaker to play the ball back to Sanchez, whose curling effort was tipped around the post by De Gea. Ozil had a good sight of goal and should have shot with his right foot from 17 yards while it was more difficult for Sanchez to beat De Gea from a tight angle. Sanchez was also at the start of another counterattack in the 38th but Herrera made a cynical foul to end the threat. Sanchez’s pressing contributed to Valencia’s turnover on the winning goal. He twice cut inside Valencia but his goal attempt was blocked in the third minute and he was fouled in the 72nd.

In midfield, I thought Cazorla’s performance was outstanding. He had no assist and no goal but he proved instrumental to the balance of the team, winning five of six tackles, more than any other player. Cazorla still managed to keep the highest passing accuracy among the Gunners despite those defensive efforts. Quite a lesson for Ozil. Cazorla killed a counterattack with a clean sliding tackle on Blind in the 23rd. His interception in the 53rd created a chance for Sanchez, whose curling shot was stopped by De Gea. The understanding between the two players showed again in the 74th with Cazorla volleying a cross from Sanchez but De Gea made a diving save.

First 2-3 seconds after a turnover

The Gunners were wary of the pace of Di Maria, Young and Rooney and therefore played a low defensive line. Our forwards did a great job by pressing in the first couple of seconds after a turnover to give our defenders enough time to regroup at the back. Manchester United enjoyed 58 percent of ball possession but most of it was innocuous sidepassing. The Gunners were clearly the more threatening side, suffering twice as many fouls as the hosts.

Lacking creativity in midfield, the Red Devils relied on long balls and set pieces to trouble the Arsenal defense with Fellaini often playing like a second striker. Rooney could only manage a tame diversion off a corner in the seventh minute. The Gunners were nearly punished for their passivity in the 65th. Carrick redirected a corner toward Smalling, who sent his close-range effort over the bar. Monreal and Welbeck failed to track Carrick on that play while Smalling ghosted past Coquelin.

Fellaini acted like a focal point inside the Arsenal area. He knocked down a long ball for Young, who fired over the bar in the 20th. The Belgium international then outjumped Monreal in the 68th to meet a cross from Young but Szczesny saved his downward header. While Fellaini was dominant in the air, it was a different story on the ground. Fellaini collected a through ball from Smalling in the 13th but lost possession after attempting a quick turn. The much shorter Coquelin won many of his duels against Fellaini, who finally received a yellow card in the 58th for repeated fouling.

Smart and smarter

The threat came from the air but in the end it was Rooney who scored for Manchester United, heading in Di Maria’s pinpoint cross to level in the 29th. Scared of Di Maria’s pace, Monreal was not close enough to the Argentine midfielder to cut the cross. Likewise, Koscielny managed to get ahead of Rooney but was too far from the England striker to challenge for the ball. Rooney had another chance in the 49th but headed Rojo’s cross wide after Monreal put him off.

Monreal had a decent game. Of course, he scored the opening goal and made six interceptions, more than any other player on Monday. But he also struggled against Di Maria, a world-class player. Di Maria outpaced Monreal in the 43rd to chase a long ball from Valencia and forced a save from Szczesny with a low half-volley. Monreal was lucky not get booked in the 51st for tripping Di Maria. At normal speed, it looked like Di Maria overran the ball before Mertesacker won it. But TV replays showed Monreal actually clipped Di Maria’s back leg. In the 86th, Monreal attempted to hold Januzaj outside the area for a split second. However, the Spaniard was smart enough and let Januzaj go once he reached the box. The Manchester United substitute was not so smart and earned a yellow card for a blatant dive. In hoping to win a penalty, Januzaj wasted a good chance as Rooney was waiting for a cutback.

Mental fatigue?

Bellerin had a lapse of concentration for the second straight game. Last week, he failed to stop the cross that led to Queens Park Rangers’ goal in the closing minutes. On Monday, he was not careful enough with his positional play in the fourth minute and got booked for a late tackle on Young. Bellerin is so fast that he has more room to recover than the average fullback. But sometimes, pace is not enough to make up for positional mistakes. Let’s give Bellerin some credit for winning duels against Young despite that Damocles’ sword hanging over his head.

I guess most fans held their breath in the 64th when a wrongfooted Bellerin fouled Young, who was cutting inside. The referee did not pull a second yellow card from his shirt and I think it was the right call. That was Bellerin’s second foul of the game and his obstruction did not look as cynical as his first foul. The manager made a sensible decision by replacing Bellerin with Chambers two minutes later.

What can be the reason for Bellerin’s concentration issues? An easy explanation could be that Bellerin is feeling a bit too comfortable as a starter and is therefore lowering his guard. A more plausible explanation is that Bellerin, still a teenager, is struggling to handle the mental fatigue in his first season with the first team.

Szczesny’s stagnation

Wenger gave Ospina the night off and started Szczesny in goal. Szczesny stopped a downward header from Fellaini and a half-volley from Di Maria, but he also showed why he’s no longer the No. 1 goalkeeper at the club. He dribbled past Rooney inside his own area in the 15th. That’s the kind of unnecessary risk that Courtois, De Gea or Lloris wouldn’t take. Szczesny also spilled a cross from Di Maria in the 33rd although there was no Red Devil challenging for the ball.

The saddest part is that Szczesny’s ball distribution still hasn’t improved. Two poor clearances triggered counterattacks by the Red Devils. Szczesny kicked the ball toward Fellaini on the stroke of halftime. After a couple of passes, Fellaini could only fire a low drive straight at the Poland goalkeeper. His poor clearance in the 61st pulled the Arsenal defense out of position. Blind headed the ball toward Fellaini, who played Di Maria in. Under pressure from Monreal, Di Maria’s low effort sailed wide.

Both Szczesny and De Gea are 24. In 2011, they were fighting to become the No. 1 goalkeeper in their respective clubs. While De Gea is now considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Szczesny has stagnated, unable to iron out the flaws in his game.

Turning a corner

The season ends in May but there’s still a long way to go. The Gunners are in third place in the Premier League, one and three points clear of Manchester United and Liverpool respectively. Anything can happen with 10 rounds left. They are also two games away from retaining the FA Cup. Again, losses to Bradford and Blackburn in the 2012-13 season show that the semifinal match against Reading or Bradford will be no gimme. In the Champions League, Arsenal must make history to reach the quarterfinals. No team has ever qualified after losing the first leg at home by a two-goal margin. In a two-month span, the Gunners can prove they are made of the stuff of champions just like they can show they are pathetic underachievers. Have they finally turned a corner with victories at Old Trafford and the Etihad stadium?