Sunday, January 25, 2015

Arsenal survive a crazy fourth round

When the fourth round draw was made for the FA Cup, it didn’t seem like the most exciting way the balls could have been pulled out the bowl. The majority of the top teams were playing lower league opposition and it seemed like they’d all get through comfortably. As it turned out, it was one of the best fourth rounds the FA Cup has ever seen, with Chelsea, Manchester City, Southampton, Tottenham and Swansea all suffering surprise (and in most cases hilarious) defeats, while Liverpool and Manchester United have to go through replays against lower league sides.
Considering the results that had gone previously, Arsenal will be relieved to have made it through to round five, despite the 3-2 victory at Brighton being closer than it should have been. For the majority of the game, Arsenal were in complete control of the game, kept the ball well, created chances and always looked dangerous going forward. The hosts from the Championship punished Arsenal’s two slack defensive moments, but couldn’t create a late chance to grab a replay.
Apart from obviously winning the game, the main positive for Arsene Wenger was the game time he was able to give Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil, and that both players scored. Walcott has looked very rusty since returning from knee and groin injuries, and while he still made a few poor decisions that slowed down attacking moves at the AMEX, it was by far Walcott’s best appearance since his injury problems. It was helped by scoring so early in the game as he controlled Chambers’ ball into the box and fired into the bottom corner. Walcott’s misses this season have come from over-thinking the situation, but against Brighton, his finish was instinctive and crisp.
It knocked the stuffing out of Brighton early on as the hosts couldn’t build any moment in the first half. Arsenal passed the ball around beautifully, and it wasn’t a surprise to see the intricate passes bring the second goal. Normally the assist-maker, Mesut Ozil was on the receiving end of a cracking through ball from Tomas Rosicky, and the German showed no signs of rustiness to control well and clinically finish.
Considering the problems Premier League clubs had on Saturday, Arsenal were giving a lesson in how to avoid an upset on Sunday with a professional performance. But Brighton were reinvigorated in the second half, and lackadaisical play from Chambers, Flamini and Koscielny allowed O’Grady time and space to score. Having seen Chelsea blow a 2-0 lead on Saturday, everyone was waiting for the FA Cup fourth round to throw up another unlikely twist, but Tomas Rosicky had other ideas.
Given the captain’s armband in the absence of Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker, Rosicky constantly gave drove Arsenal forward with his bursts of pace and clever forward passing, but his most decisive contribution came at a time in the game when Arsenal could have panicked following Brighton’s first goal. Rosicky played an excellent blind pass to Giroud before volleying the chipped return in from the edge of the area. It was a quality goal, and showed how useful it is to have a player as good as Rosicky available to rotate in when needed. Having not played too often in the first half of the season, the Czech international brings a freshness to the team, and can be hugely important in the rest of the season with the FA Cup and Champions League still to play for.
Arsenal made things hard for themselves again by letting the hosts back in the game with 15 minutes to go. Nacho Monreal, filling in at centre-back with Per Mertesacker rested and arrival of Gabriel Paulista yet to be confirmed, got drawn out of the back four allowing Baldock in behind to clip the ball past Wojciech Szczesny.
The Gunners did see the game out well for the rest of the match as Francis Coquelin gave an impressive cameo performance off the bench as he helped sure up the midfield. Brighton couldn’t create a clear opportunity, and ultimately were fortunate to not concede more with some cynical fouls on Alexis Sanchez and Chuba Akpom when the Gunners broke away.
Ultimately, it was a job well done from Arsenal, even if it should have been more comfortable. Some key players were given a much-needed rest and others that needed minutes got them, and played well. It was notable that Arsene Wenger continued his cup-keeper policy of giving the second choice stopper a run-out, meaning Wojciech Szczesny was back between the sticks for the first time since his horror show at Southampton. He couldn’t do too much about the two Brighton goals, but otherwise went fairly untroubled because of the dominance the Gunners had for the majority of the game. Without being properly tested, Szczesny wasn’t able to put in a performance that is likely to dislodge David Ospina from the Premier League line-up against Aston Villa next weekend.
With other big sides out, Arsenal are now one of the favourites for the tournament, but whoever the draws picks out for the Gunners on Monday, this weekend has reinforced that nothing can be taken for granted in the FA Cup. In round four, Arsenal heeded the warnings of those who failed before them and hopefully will continue to do so as the tournament progresses.