Sunday, May 31, 2015

Big players. Big game. Big performance.

Often, in hindsight, winning a major football match after two hours of crippling tension can provide the most incredible moments, despite the vast majority of game being torturous to watch. In last year’s FA Cup final, Arsenal fans went through every emotion with a horrific start to the match against Hull, followed by the comeback and the extra time winner. But having been through it once, Gooners were keen to not have to go through the same stress against Aston Villa in the Wembley showpiece in 2015.
Finals have a frustrating tendency to be too cagey with teams mainly focussing on not making mistakes. High-scoring FA Cup finals have been at a premium in recent years, with Arsenal’s inability to start the game well last year contributing to one of the more exciting finals at the new Wembley. This is what made Arsenal’s 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa on Saturday all the more exhilarating. The Gunners didn’t look nervous, didn’t look overawed by the occasion, and looked to be positive, rather than worrying about the negatives in the game.
This attitude was typified by the big players in the Arsenal team. Everyone was exceptional on the day, but Santi Cazorla, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez brought their best to biggest stage. In their own different ways, those three players are the ones that can have the greatest influence on the Arsenal team. Cazorla links the defence and attack and is brilliant at relieving pressure through his close control, Ozil is so smooth and silky round the field and creates the space for everyone around him, while Alexis’ energy, pace and skill give the Gunners momentum going forward.
On the big occasions, you always look first and foremost at your team’s main stars, and look to them to set the tone for the rest to follow. Arsenal’s key players, especially Ozil, have faced criticism before for going missing in such moments, but everyone was very aware of the magic being weaved by Arsenal’s stars on Saturday as they swarmed over a bewildered Aston Villa.
With Coquelin patrolling in front of the back four, Cazorla and Ozil gave Arsenal complete control of the match, setting the tempo for fast paced attacking from the Gunners. The ending to the Premier League season stuttered slightly when Arsenal slowed down their attacking movements, allowing the opposition to get numbers back defensively, but Arsene Wenger’s side upped the tempo for the FA Cup final, playing the game at a ferocious pace.
11391580_10153300465014303_5434214984623467848_nDespite the dominance, had Arsenal gone into half time without taking the lead, things could have got nervy in the second half, but Theo Walcott allayed the fears but thundering in a left footed volley five minutes before half time.
Having taken the unusual decision to attack towards the Arsenal fans in the first half (presumably because of the low sun being in the goalkeeper’s eyes), it was brilliant to have a goal scored in front of the wall of yellow, which erupted as the ball flew into the net. The atmosphere was superb for the whole game at Wembley, helped by good support for Aston Villa, but a lot of credit has to go to RedAction and the Arsenal for the scarves and big surfer flag.
Having made the breakthrough, it would have been easy for Arsenal to take a cautious approach after half-time, and go into their shell in an attempt to not make any mistakes. But this is where the infectious enthusiasm, and ridiculously awesome footballing ability, of Alexis Sanchez came in. With the Chilean desperate to leave his mark on an FA Cup final, there was no way Arsenal could be cautious.
The mark Alexis left on the Wembley was one that will have to be remembered as one of the greatest FA Cup final goals ever. Forget Ricky Villa, forget Steven Gerrard, forget Roberto Di Matteo, think Alexis Sanchez. He jinked into the space created by Nacho Monreal’s overlapping run, and unleashed a swerving, dipping, rocket from 30 yards that would have been virtually impossible for any goalkeeper to save. Just to boost the aesthetics of the goal even further, the ball even flew in off the underside of the cross bar.
It was an outrageously brilliant goal, and capped a sensational first season at the club for Alexis Sanchez. What a player. What a goal.
Any momentum Tim Sherwood was hoping to create after half-time was brutally crushed by the venomous, yet beautiful, firecracker of a goal from Alexis. With Villa wobbling, Arsenal didn’t look to sit back and play safe. They sensed the opportunity to kill the game off with a third goal, and but for some good goalke11223504_10153300465229303_2531567196151231937_neping from Shay Given, that clincher could have come moments after Alexis’ strike, but Cazorla was denied.
While unable to get on the score sheet himself, the Spaniard bagged himself an assist with a good cross from a corner for Per Mertesacker to effectively seal victory with the third goal. The German’s excellent second half of the season has coincided with the overall improvement of the team, so his individual performances have flown under the radar slightly. Defensively, he dealt with Christian Benteke superbly at Wembley, but seeing him nod (shoulder!) the ball into the net at the other end was just a beautiful moment. For someone who is so often considered an easy target for criticism, he’s won two FA Cups and the World Cup in just over a year. He is an absolute hero.
Arsenal were able to drop the intensity slightly after the third goal, but still carried a huge threat on the counter-attack as Villa tried to salvage any sense of pride from the match. In the end, they only managed two shots in the whole match, both of which were blocked. Considering how well they played in knocking-out Liverpool in the semi-final, it was surprising to see them struggle to impose themselves on the match.
11392899_10153302642669303_200999098140208669_nBut, that was largely the case because Arsene Wenger got his team selection and tactics spot on. He went for pace up front with Theo Walcott, which helped stretch the Villa defence on the big Wembley pitch. The choice of Wojciech Szczesny also worked, because on the few occasions Aston Villa did look to cross the ball to Benteke, Szczesny came out and challenge the Belgian for the ball, something David Ospina would have been less likely to do. The option of playing Aaron Ramsey on the right has been questioned recently, but it worked against an open Aston Villa side as there was space around the box for the Welshman to run into.
Even Arsene Wenger’s substitutions worked, as with seconds of injury time left, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played a low ball across the box for Olivier Giroud to apply a trademark Giroud finish, with a neat flick with the outside of the left foot at the near post. He must have been hugely disappointed to have missed out on the starting XI, but he still managed to get on the score sheet.
The victory means Arsenal are the most successful club ever in the FA Cup with 12 wins, and have secured back-to-back victories in the competition. There was a hope after last year’s win, that the 2014-2015 season was the one to push on and challenge for the title. Mainly because of injuries, a lack of form and the World Cup hangover meant that didn’t happen, but the winning mentality is building in the squad by backing up last season’s cup with a more convincing victory this time around.
The message from the players in all of the interviews after that game 11069219_10153302642744303_4975606718269940291_n - Copywas that the challenge is to push on for more next season, but for the moment, I hope they take a step back briefly and enjoy the winning feeling from the FA Cup, because the fans certainly are! After being starved of it for a while, it tasted good last year, and tasted a bit sweeter this year with such a comprehensive and destructive performance in the final.