Monday, February 17, 2014

More than a 5th round victory

Arsenal’s revenge against Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday wasn’t just a fifth round victory in the FA Cup. The old competition is worth fighting for, and despite the doubters, the 2-1 Arsenal win showed that it is alive and well as a tournament, but the victory for Arsenal was worth more than a quarter final place.
Even though Arsenal made some changes from the line-up that was thrashed at Anfield, the win means that the Gunners can write off the 5-1 defeat as an accident. The mental block of beating big teams has gone a long way to being overcome, with the effect being stronger because the team beaten was one that was so comprehensively better than the Gunners just a week earlier.
After the consolidating draw with Manchester United in midweek, Sunday offered the real chance for Arsenal to respond to the humiliation, and gain some valuable momentum before a run of winnable league games. Plus there’s the small matter of Bayern Munich coming to town on Wednesday. Another crushing defeat could have meant that the team went into that game with no confidence, as they did after losing to Blackburn in the FA Cup 5th round last year. This win will help Arsenal in every competition.
Unlike at Anfield, Arsenal looked ready for what Liverpool would throw at them. Even though it wasn’t the most fluent Gunners performance, and wasn’t without alarms in defence, every player who donned the red and white on Sunday came away knowing they gave everything to win the game. There was no sense of the FA Cup not being a priority by the way the players were focused, applied pressure to Liverpool and were clinical when attacking with pace.
The biggest difference for Arsenal compared to the Anfield annihilation and the midweek draw with Manchester United was the attacking option of two direct wingers. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was excellent on the right, whilst Lukas Podolski also offered an outlet on the left. This meant there was more space for Mesut Ozil to work some magic in the middle of the midfield, with options to pass to.
These pace options were vital for the second goal, with Ozil looking at his most effective when there were players running beyond him. The pass down the right channel for Oxlade-Chamberlain was perfect so the winger didn’t have to break stride. His cut-back was then perfect for Lukas Podolski’s superbly timed run, with the German clinically drilling the ball in. All the emotion, tension and frustration was released around the Emirates by that goal. It looked simple, but was devastatingly effective.
Arsenal were also boosted by the return of Mathieu Flamini, who unlike against Southampton recently, worked well in tandem with Mikel Arteta in midfield. Arteta pushed further forward, whereas Flamini sat deeper and offered more protection to Mertesacker and Koscielny. With Arteta suspended for Bayern’s visit on Wednesday, it was great to see Flamini hit the ground running after his own suspension.
Despite concerns over starting Nacho Monreal and Carl Jenkinson, the Arsenal back four were focused and didn’t crack under some intense pressure from the visitors. There was one particular favourite moment for me when Carl Jenkinson launched into a meaty tackle in the second half, clearing out man and ball. It was hard, but fair, and typified the added steel to this Arsenal team.
Despite good performances all over the pitch, the man-of-the-match was the Arsenal goalkeeper. Lukasz Fabianski is likely to leave Arsenal this summer, but whoever signs him will be getting an excellent keeper. There can’t be many better back-up keepers in the Premier League. The Pole made some excellent saves and, bar one error near the end, he commanded the penalty area well. Fabianski also came up with a brilliant bit of Jens Lehmann-esque time-wasting by getting Daniel Sturridge to tie his laces.
A word too for Yaya Sanogo. From no fault of his own, there was some negativity about his selection up front, however whilst he still looked very raw, he couldn’t be faulted for effort. He caused the Liverpool centre-backs problems and looks like a viable option up front.
Even though there were changes, after the game it was hard to view Arsene Wenger’s team selection as a weak one. A gamble? Yes it was. However the squad is stronger than in previous seasons, and squad players can be trusted in important games. They’ll all be needed in the next few weeks with more big fixtures coming up after progressing to the quarter finals.
The win was further proof that this squad is made of more this season. There’s still a long way to go, but for the first time in many seasons, Arsenal have a strong interest in three competitions in the middle of February. More rousing performances like the one against Liverpool, and that interest can last all the way into May. With revenge gained against Liverpool and the 5-1 defeat out the system, Arsenal have some momentum back.
Last Saturday at Anfield made us fans question why we bother following football. The win at the Emirates provided the answer.