Reading 1-2 Arsenal (AET): No semi-final flourish but Gunners get there

To be perfectly honest, I’d rather look forward to an FA Cup Final than back at a less than inspiring game.

Just like last year, we made hard work of Championship opposition at the semi-final stage. From around the hour-mark, this game really could have gone either way. There was something miraculous about how we navigated the two ties at Wembley last season, and there were times during this match where I wondered if our luck had finally run out.

In my opinion, we underperformed just as badly as Liverpool did in the other semi. Fortunately, our opposition did not have the quality to punish our sloppiness. Pavel Pogrebnyak running at you does not pose quite the same threat as Christian Benteke.

Our disappointing display is in part explained by Arsene Wenger’s decision to rotate the team. That’s not a criticism — I felt the introduction of Wojciech Szczesny, Mathieu Debuchy, Kieran Gibbs and Danny Welbeck made sense. Wenger kept the midfield intact and thus ought to have preserved the core of the side.

However, that theory overlooks quite how integral Olivier Giroud has become to our style of play. Without him as a focal point, our attack looked disjointed. Danny Welbeck took some stick for his performance, but it seemed to me he suffered from playing in a team that had forgotten how to use him. We’re utterly reliant on Giroud at present, and were unable to adapt to a different style of striker.

With the fall-backs faltering, the changes made for a substandard performance. One only hopes there’s not more to it: this extraordinary winning run has to end at some stage. After another drab win at Burnley, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that our form peaked against Liverpool and is now on the wane.

That we made it to the final is largely down to Alexis Sanchez. This was reminiscent of our performances in the first half of the campaign, when we were regularly bailed out by the Chilean’s individual brilliance. Although he was quiet for long periods against Reading, he was still able to provide the two telling moments. When you pay £35 million for a marquee forward, it’s in the hope they’ll deliver when the crunch comes. Sanchez did not disappoint. The Americans would doubtless call him a ‘clutch’ player. I’ll settle for calling him bloody brilliant.

And so it’s Villa in the final. I’m delighted with that: Steven Gerrard’s farewell party would have cast a sentimental shadow over proceedings had Liverpool progressed.

However, Villa also worry me, for one simple reason: I can’t bear the thought of making Tim Sherwood happy. I’ve gone on record in the past stating my belief that Sherwood has the glass-eyed star of a man with more gilets than brain cells. To lose to him would be the ultimate humiliation. Spare me that, Arsenal. Please.

Ps. Listen to this week’s Arsecast Extra for discussions on Szczesny, Debuchy and the game.

Video: On the Whistle reaction to Burnley – “They can’t all be pretty”

Here’s the On The Whistle video after a 1-0 win over Burnley that could be described as ‘gritty’, ‘niggly’ or plain ‘ugly’ depending on how generous you’re feeling. After eight league wins on the spin, I’m feeling pretty generous, so I’ll say it was ‘unusual looking’. Maybe it could be a model – not like a model who’s actually attractive, but one of those ones that looks a bit like an alien.

There probably won’t be a longer write-up of this game as there’s really incredibly little to say. I don’t know what we’ll talk about in the Arsecast Extra on Monday. Probably whether we’d rather be a goat or a hammer. Tune in to find out.

Arsenal 4-1 Liverpool: Is there a better team in England?

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This might seem like the hyperbolic tubthumping of the deluded fan, but I’m not sure there’s a better team in England at the moment than Arsenal.

Before you say it, it’s not Chelsea. They might lead the league table, but friends behind enemy lines assure me they’ve played well just once since Christmas. The January signing intended to reinvigorate their tiring team, Juan Cuadrado, is currently looking like the world’s most expensive Gervinho impersonator. They should just have bought this lovely curtain set:

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The game against Jose Mourinho’s men is beginning to feel like our cup final (apart from the actual cup final, of course, which remains very much a possibility). It’s a one-off opportunity to lay down a marker for next season, but more than that it’s an opportunity to make this season infinitely more memorable. You can’t win a trophy every year, but you can ensure you leave behind several glorious results enabling you to lord it over your rivals.

Arsenal finally seem to have got the hang of that, with victories over both Manchester clubs and now Liverpool in 2015. Beating the Anfield side isn’t particularly new, but the emphatic nature of this victory is. Arsenal approached this game with confidence rather than trepidation. That’s a delicious novelty.

I really hope they can do the same against Chelsea. The fact that Arsene Wenger has never beaten Mourinho is both bizarre and embarrassing, and this seems like an ideal opportunity to put it right.

We’re undeniably on a roll. The numbers prove it: we’ve won seven on the spin, Olivier Giroud has 10 in 10, and we’ve just put four past Liverpool.

It can’t be coincidence that the upturn in form has coincided with having a full contingent of outfield players for the first time in years. Shad Forsythe has taken some amusing stick this season, but perhaps we’re finally be seeing the benefit of his inaugural year at the club.

This is now the strongest Arsenal squad in years. It’s not perfect, but there is depth in every department. The fact that Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Debuchy, Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby all made a successful return to training during the international break yet were not needed for the bench tells you something about the variety of options at the manager’s disposal. Calum Chambers, who was entirely fit, was not even named in the matchday squad.

Of course, all this positivity comes laced with regret. After leading the league for so long last season and ending the wait for silverware, this should have been the year to mount a serious title-challenge. Unfortunately, our quest for the trophy was over before Autumn was out. Sadly, the emergence of Francis Coquelin and acquisition of Gabriel – both obviously required back in August – came too late to challenge Chelsea.

I’m proud that Arsenal are 2015’s best team, but enormously frustrated that they won’t be 2015’s champions. It was there for the taking.

On The Whistle: Who would you swap Giroud for?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Right now, who would you trade Giroud for? On current form, I’m not sure there’s anyone in the Premier League I’d rather have. There are better players out there, but I’m not sure any of them are outperforming the Frenchman.

Anyway, have a watch of the video. I’m off on an international break of my own to Morocco. There’s an Arsecast Extra here for you too with chat on Newcastle, Walcott, Welbeck and more.