Sunday, January 26, 2014

No Friday night fright for Arsenal

A 4-0 win over Coventry City sounds very routine. For the most part, this fourth round FA Cup match at the Emirates was just that. However it didn’t go without some scares and some unusual moments. Given that it was strange enough that Arsenal were playing on a Friday night, some odd occurrences shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
Two goals from Lukas Podolski one each from Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla were enough to get Arsenal into round five. Having those players on the score sheet was a sign of how seriously the Gunners took the match. With memories of cup exits to Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers from the previous season still feeling painful, Arsene Wenger didn’t want to take any chances in his team selection.
Part of picking a strong team was partly due to missing some players from injury, but for many it was still a surprise to see names like Jack Wilshere and Mesut Ozil on the team sheet. Certainly in the early stages of the game, Arsenal taking the game seriously was evident as the passing was crisp and the League One opponents struggled to see the ball. That period of pressure culminated in Ozil sliding a perfect pass through for Podolski to round the goalkeeper and open the scoring.
The second goal in the first half was an old school Arsenal goal that was pieced together by the German contingent. Serge Gnabry whipped in the corner, Per Mertesacker did the Bould-esque near post flick-on and Podolski nodded the ball in at the back post. Simple, effective.
There was then a bit of a lull for Arsenal, pretty much until the last ten minutes. Coventry competed well and created some chances, whilst the hosts knew they didn’t have to bust a gut to get a result.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got some valuable minutes on the pitch in his comeback from injury, but in a central midfield position. Arsene Wenger has said before that the Ox will end up in the centre eventually, but even with the emergence of Gnabry, I suspect he will still be primarily deployed a winger for the rest of the season with Theo Walcott out.
The midfield partnership of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere has potential, but it highlighted how important it is to play Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini. They provide the link between the back four and the attacking midfielders and the striker and provide a vital shield in front of the back four. Coventry were able to have a few clear runs at Mertesacker and Koscielny because no-one was playing as a proper holding midfielder. It was fine to play the more attacking duo of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere against Coventry, but against better opponents, one of Arteta of Flamini will need to be back in the team.
As the visitors tired, Arsenal reinforced their front-line with Cazorla and Giroud coming on. Moments after his arrival, Giroud fired the ball past the goalkeeper after Gibbs’ cut-back, before Cazorla hammered in the rebound after Jenkinson was denied at the end of a flowing move.
One of the things that gave this Friday night an unusual, but positive, feeling, was the friendliness of the fans to each other. In the build-up to the match, the plight Coventry fans are in because of the owners moving them to Northampton was well documented. The travelling fans protested twice in the match, and it drew a great response from Gooners who applauded. No fans like to see clubs moved away from their home like Coventry has, so the support of the fans was great.
This slightly bizarre Friday feeling was heightened further when some of the Arsenal floodlights cut out near the end of the first half. There was still enough light to continue play, but with lights from mobile phones held up from the crowd, it was quite a sight at the Emirates Stadium for a few minutes. It still might not have the same feeling as Highbury, and to be honest it probably never will, but that sight was a reminder that Arsenal do play in a beautiful stadium.
To top the Friday night off, there was even a one man pitch invasion, although that was by far the most anti-climatic moment of the night.
Coventry City can be pleased with their efforts as, considering the financial problems they’ve had and the young squad they’ve got, they played some good football. It was easy to see why they’ve done well in League One this season in spite of off the pitch turmoil. Ultimately though, it was the comfortable evening that Arsenal fans expected. Job done. Now for Liverpool in round 5.