Thoughts from Wembley: Torturous afternoon’s Final flourish

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I don’t know about you, but I remembered reaching an FA Cup final as a good deal more fun.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m delighted to be there — and being there is undoubtedly what matters — but the journey was as torturous as a coach ride with that Man City fan in the Barclays ad.

Let’s focus on the positives: however shoddily, the job got done. A positive result in the final will vanquish any traumatic memories of the painful semi. In recent weeks, Arsenal have been criticised for a failure to grind out results on the big stage. Yesterday, they managed exactly that.

A penalty shootout is a test of technique. However, it’s also a test of nerve. It was to my considerable surprise that Arsenal passed that particular test with flying colours. Settled by the confidence and competence of Lukasz Fabianski, our takers executed their kicks perfectly.

I was chuffed too for Per Mertesacker, who would have been hugely unfortunate to have been cast as the scapegoat in the event of an Arsenal defeat. A mistimed lunge led to the Wigan penalty, but he eradicated the error with the crucial equalising goal. It was a better finish than it looked: Mertesacker had to twist his body quickly to direct the header in to the near post.

Whatever you might hear or read elsewhere, our celebrations were justified. We’ve reached our first FA Cup Final in nine years, and have a fantastic chance to end a protracted wait for silverware. There was joy, and there was enormous relief. Stranded in the press box, I crumpled over my desk, exhausted. In the cup, results are everything. We had what we needed.

If all you’re interested in is basking in the promise of a return to Wembley on May 17th, I understand entirely. It’s probably best you stop reading now. I won’t begrudge you: I’m about to take a sip from my editorial glass which will take it from just over half-full to a little under half-empty.

The uncomfortable truth is that I saw little yesterday to convince me that that the chasmic flaws in the side are anywhere closer to being fixed.

We were dreadful. The team looked devoid of imagination, robbed of courage and drained of energy. After 120 minutes, we were held 1-1 by a team from the division below. It was hardly encouraging. Reaching the FA Cup Final is undoubtedly a good achievement, but avoiding defeat to a Championship team is primarily a disaster averted.

The decision to start Yaya Sanogo looked questionable before kick-off. By half-time, it looked plain absurd. I felt sorry for a player who is clearly not ready to be playing for a club of our stature. Going by some of the furious gesticulating when Wenger chose to replace Podolski rather than Sanogo, some of his team-mates feel the same way.

By the time the game entered its last 20 minutes of normal time, I was physically shaking with the enormity of what was unfolding before me. Make no mistake: Arsene was within 10 minutes of being forced to leave Arsenal on a sombre note. What’s more, he looked powerless to do much about it. It was grim viewing.

After the game, a journalist joked that I should ask Arsene what the plan was against Wigan. There’s no point answering a question to which there is no discernible answer.

I’m delighted we’ve made it to the final, particularly because it ensures an opportunity for a glorious finish for a manager who has served this club with remarkable distinction. Arsene was asked after the game if the result of the final would have any bearing on his future. His response was curt and immediate: “No”. Increasingly, I feel his mind is made up. Perhaps he, like me, thinks it could be time for a change — regardless of what happens when we return to Wembley.

Thoughts on FA Cup, Bayern & Spurs

There is a strange pressure about being FA Cup favourites…
It’s an unpleasantly familiar sensation, much like the one we found ourselves in at this stage 2011’s Carling Cup.

Surely, the lessons of that disastrous final have been learnt. We’re more experienced, more determined and more professional. We ought to do it. There are no excuses.

I was pleased with the Bayern result and performance…

In my opinion, the tie was effectively dead after the first leg result. If I’m honest, I’d pretty much resigned it as soon as the initial draw was made. However, 1-1 at the Allianz Arena was a creditable result that allowed us to continue our campaign with the semblance of gathering momentum. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was absolutely superb: in the continued absence of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, he must be one of the first names on the team-sheet.

The penalty save felt significant…

Not only did it ensure we left without suffering a dispiriting defeat, but it also felt like the moment that Lukasz Fabianski guaranteed his place in the FA Cup semi-final side. In this form, his departure on a Bosman in the summer feels like a significant loss.

Spurs are on the ropes…

Their fans are as unsettled as they’ve been for some time. Speaking to Spurs supporters, it seems there’s a sense that the club lack direction and purpose. They feel little to no affinity with the players, and are worried they’re trapped in a purgatorial prison. A “negative spiral”, you might say.

However, derby day is a real equaliser. We know only two well how quickly the trajectories of the two north London clubs can be reversed. Arsenal will need to ensure their focus is absolutely right if they’re to come away with three points.

We need those points pretty badly. Although the increased probability of FA Cup success has made that the focus, we still have a good chance of winning the Premier League. It would take an extraordinary run, but then title wins usually do.

Arsenal 4-1 Everton: Giroud is comfortably our best striker

Arsenal 4-1 Everton
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsene gambled with his team at either end of the pitch…
When it came to selecting his team, Arsene Wenger made two big calls at the extremities of the pitch. First off, he allowed Lukasz Fabianski to continue in his role as Arsenal’s cup goalkeeper. At the opposite end, he selected Yaya Sanogo to start ahead of Olivier Giroud.

Given the result, Wenger will feel justified in his decisions. However, if Arsenal ultimately reach the FA Cup Final, I’ll be screaming for Szczesny to start. There is little room for sentiment when there is silverware at stake.

The goal was an important moment for Mesut Ozil…
The fist pump he gave when the ball hit the net was as expressive a show of emotion as we’ve seen from Ozil since he arrived on these shores. The fact that every single outfield Arsenal player joined him in celebration seemed significant, too: this was a clear show of support for a player who has been under fire.

This was Ozil’s first goal for three months, and his best performance in a while too. Afterwards, Wenger described him as “regenerated” after a recent rest.

He’s certainly found the season hard going. I’ve heard that Arsene believes this is a particularly difficult year for Ozil to have moved to the Premier League. Six teams are battling for Champions League qualification. Another 10 face the possibility of relegation. Every time you face one of those teams, you’re engaged in a high-intensity battle. At Madrid, Ozil simply didn’t encounter that ferocious level of competition on such a regular basis.

It’s been a steep learning curve. Hopefully this match represents something of a turning point.

Flamini’s booking made life hard…
Mathieu Flamini was booked after 23 minutes. It’s no coincidence that it was around that time that Everton began to pose a consistent threat on the counter-attack. His ability to break up the play was severely hampered. On Everton’s equaliser, there was a clear moment of indecision where Flamini was reluctant to put in a tackle and face a red card.

Giroud is the best striker we have…
I must confess I find Arsene Wenger’s faith in Yaya Sanogo somewhat baffling. He’s big, strong and willing, but miles away from Olivier Giroud. I’m not even convinced that he’s better than Nicklas Bendtner.

Giroud’s two goals showed he’s still the top man. He now has 18 in all competitions — one more than he managed in the entirety of last season. He’s far from perfect, but he’s also comfortably the best striker we have.

Two wins from glory…
I’m not a fan of hosting the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley, but it ensures a good day out and a sense of occasion. If we can win there and book a place in the final it will ensure a dramatic end to what’s been, on the whole, a positive season.

It was great to see some familiar faces at the Emirates…
Before the game, Theo Walcott was out on the pitch. It was encouraging to see him walking unaided – I’m told he’s begun doing rehab on a zero-gravity treadmill. Disappointingly, this does not teach him how to fly, but instead allows him to run without putting significant weight on his joints.

Then, at half-time, Pat Rice came out to thank the fans for their support in his battle with cancer. Pat’s a real fighter and a true Arsenal man, and it was genuinely heartwarming to see him looking so well.

All in all, a very good day.

 

Some thoughts on Coventry, Podolski and Draxler

Arsenal 4 – 0 Coventry

Match report | Highlights

This was our biggest win of the season…
…although the scoreline was arguably somewhat flattering. After romping in to a two-goal lead, Arsenal took their foot off the gas and instead applied the dreaded handbrake. On a side note, it’s vaguely amusing that a handbreak is something designed for security, but in Arsenal terminology has transmogrified in to something perilous.

Anyhow. Had Coventry’s Leon Clarke been in better form, the underdogs may even have grabbed a couple of goals. As it was, they failed to take their opportunities, and tired late on.

That’s what a midfield without Arteta & Flamini looks like…
Arsene fielded a very attack-minded central midfield of Jack Wilshere alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Although both players impressed in possession, without the ball they struggled. In the second half, Coventry regularly isolated and outmanoeuvred our full-backs. The work that Arteta and particularly Flamini do in wide areas is often overlooked and utterly vital.

It’s hard to argue with Podolski’s numbers…
He now has more goals than starts in 2013/14. He’s comfortably the best finisher in the Arsenal squad. In the light of his brace, it’ll be fascinating to see whether or not he gets the nod to start against Southampton on Tuesday. He couldn’t really have done much more to demonstrate his ability against Coventry. If he doesn’t start, it suggests that nothing Podolski can produce on the pitch will alleviate Wenger’s patent unwillingness to field him from the start.

We were more German than ever….
When Gedion Zelalem came on for his first-team debut, Arsenal had five Germans on the pitch. On the same night, Bayern Munich played in the Bundesliga. They ended their game with just four.

Further reading: Globe-trotting Gedion Zelalem looks at home at Arsenal – ESPN

However, I don’t think Draxler is coming…
Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t see this deal happening in the January window. A lot of amateur body language experts have come out of the woodwork to analyse Arsene’s various smirks and batting eyelashes, but I don’t think there’s anything in there to suggest we’re on the verge of a swoop for the prodigiously-talented Draxler.

I think the player would very much like to come. A lot of the noise this week seems to have emanated from his camp. However, the more certain Arsenal are of the player’s commitment the less likely they are to play his steep release clause. Arsenal will do the deal when they can get it cheapest.

There’s another reason for my doubts. Earlier in January, the club were actively considering a bid for a wide player. That search was accelerated when Theo Walcott was ruled out for the rest of the season. However, since then, agents who had previously being tasked with identifying potential recruits are now being fed the same “we have 17 wingers” line that Wenger trotted out in his post-Coventry press conference. That is the new company line – inspired, one might imagine, by the swift development of Serge Gnabry.

“Ah”, you say, “but what if he sees Draxler as a striker?” Wenger may well have a long-term plan to develop Draxler in to a striker, but is the middle of a title challenge really the best time to embark upon that sort of experiment? As much as I’d like us to sign the player, I suspect not.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the reason Wenger has privately called off the hunt for a wide attacker is that he’s already found the one he wants: Draxler. However, looking in to his eyes on Friday night, I didn’t sense the same anticipatory glee I saw prior to the Ozil signing.

I think Arsene would still like to sign a striker, ideally on loan. Whether or not that will be possible in what’s left of the window remains to be seen. It looks unlikely.

I’d like to be wrong. I’d love Wenger to go out and make a signing in this window. I have a horrible, nagging suspicion that if we don’t, we may be left wondering “what if” come May. We’re in a phenomenal position, and I can’t fathom why we’d choose to leave anything to chance.

The FA Cup Draw…
I’ve come to accept that any home draw is essentially a good draw. We’ve been handed three in succession, so can’t really complain. Manchester City facing off against Chelsea is also fantastic for our chances. The FA Cup certainly represents our most direct route to silverware this season. It’s tantalising to imagine that we are just two wins from Wembley, and four wins from a trophy. Admittedly, the draw does leave us with a pretty daunting schedule over the next two months. However, as a United-supporting friend said to me in the light of the draw: “Better to be scared than bored”.

Further reading: Why February Could Be Make or Break for Arsenal’s Season – Bleacher Report

Arsenal 2 – 0 Spurs: I Sher-Woodn’t want to be a Tottenham fan

Arsenal 2 – 0 Tottenham
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I’ll admit, I was worried about the XI Arsene picked…
Before the game, Arsene said he’d treat this just like an important league game. He was fibbing. Had this been a league game, Szczesny, Mertesacker and Ozil would all have started. Perhaps Olivier Giroud would even have been roused from his sickbed.

Instead, all four were absent from the starting XI, and two from the matchday squad entirely.

There were two areas that particularly troubled me. The first was at centre-back: the pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen has never looked particularly secure. The first half showed that fielding these two talented but impetuous defenders does make us a little vulnerable in-behind – Vermaelen was twice turned when trying to nick the ball early. However, any anxiety was relatively short-lived: a cut knee forced Vermaelen off at half-time, with Mertesacker coming on to replace the Belgian.

My other concern was the goalkeeper. Although Lukasz Fabianski’s recent performances have been relatively solid, I’d be lying if I said I’d entirely let go of my perception of him as something of a calamity waiting to happen – as my annotated team-sheet will show.

My fears were misplaced…

Arsenal were never really tested. Fabianski made one decent save to deny Christian Eriksen, but other than that Arsenal looked very secure. Emmanuel Adebayor, whose good form going in to the game was cause for dark premonitions, spent the match tucked firmly in Laurent Koscielny’s back-pocket. Roberto Soldado, meanwhile, is truly the heir apparent to Helder Postiga in Tottenham’s Hall of Infamy.

To be honest, Tottenham made it very easy for us.

I think Tim Sherwood’s positive impact at Tottenham has been hugely overblown. He’s only won three of his first six games. He drew at home with an out-of-sorts West Brom, and lost an important Capital One Cup tie at home to relegation-threatened West Ham.

I don’t know if it’s because he’s a young English manager, but the praise he’s received seems hugely disproportionate when compared to his actual tangible impact. The BBC have even chosen to conveniently overlook the West Ham game and call this the first defeat of his time at Tottenham:

I’m convinced that a Spurs side managed by AVB would have given us a better game today – in fact, they did just that, back in August.

Sherwood has been lauded for his revolutionary introduction of an old school 4-4-2 formation. However, today was the first occasion on which his system was tested against a quality five-man midfield. It might be good enough to beat mid-table sides like Manchester United, but it’s not going to be good enough to beat the Arsenal.

Another bizarre thing about Sherwood is that while he has overhauled the team, he’s chosen to retain arguably the most catastrophic element of AVB’s team: the kamikaze high line.

It was telling that Wenger opted to pick a three diminutive speedsters up top in Gnabry, Walcott and Cazorla. He had probably watched Liverpool’s tiny trio of Suarez, Coutinho and Sterling demolish Tottenham a matter of weeks before.

While I’m on it, Tim Sherwood is a spectacularly inarticulate man…
I know I’ll be accused of snobbery here, but I don’t care. After the match, Sherwood claimed, “We was not not outnumbered in midfield, we wasn’t”. Seems like he’s stuck in his own double-negative spiral.

Gnabry was outstanding…
Starting Fabianski felt like a gamble. Starting Gnabry felt like a declaration of faith. That faith was repaid with a storming display. For an 18 year-old, it’s his football intelligence that really takes your breath away.

Amid all the chatter about the Januzaj lad at United, you might forget that other club’s are even allowed to have exciting youngsters. Apparently if they don’t have even the slightest chance of playing for England, they’re not as interesting to our national press. Nevertheless, I can’t see many more promising prospects than Gnabry around – and he doesn’t dive. While I’m at it: if he played for a club with a midfield as weak as Moyes’, he’d probably be starting every week too. As it is, he is in competition with the likes of Cazorla and Ozil for a regular place.

Further reading: Serge Gnabry comes of age as Arsenal see of Spurs

Rosicky…
…deserved that goal. He probably deserves a new deal, too. Arsenal will face competition from the MLS and elsewhere for his services in 2014/15, but I’d be delighted to see him stay with the club. You won’t find many 33-year olds who could race away from Danny Rose quite so effectively. He’s like Peter Pan. Or maybe Benjamin Button. Maybe eventually he will regress in to being a weird little baby old person. Who knows? But I want to see it happen. At Arsenal.

Further reading: Super Tom Rosicky Shines Against Spurs

Theo Walcott looked impressive as a centre-forward…
His finishing was a little off, but he showed great movement and a willingness to take on the physical elements of the role. On the admittedly limited evidence of the past two games, he’s a far better bet for the position than Lukas Podolski.

As for the whole stretcher-based controversy, Spurs want to be careful throwing money at Theo – they’ve already chucked away £100m in the summer transfer market.

Arsenal saw out the game in relative comfort…
My overall thought watching this match was that gap between the two teams seems to have widened significantly in the first-half of this season. This was the most one-sided derby victory for some time.

The Fourth Round beckons, and I hope we give the FA Cup some real focus this year. It’d be a massive thing to reach the final or, God forbid, win it. The players seemed to flourish away from the weekly pressure of the Premier League, too – this was our best performance in weeks.

Arsenal have nine days rest now before an awkward-looking trip to Aston Villa, and the resumption of Premier League duties.