Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Gunners graft to go back to Wembley

It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always fluent and easy on the eye, but it felt like we got our Arsenal back on Sunday. One win doesn’t solve the issues that have risen from a turbulent second half of the season, but in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, Arsenal looked like a proper team again.
The players worked hard for each other, they covered the ground, they were disciplined and organised and showed a level of commitment and will to win that has been so obviously lacking in recent months. It does lead to questions as to why it has taken such a dreadful run of results to bring about the change in attitude, but I guess it’s a case of ‘better late than never’. It might be too late to get into the top four in the league, but not too late to win some silverware.
There’s still a lot of questions surrounding the manager, as there should be after the recent run of form, but there is no denying that Arsene Wenger got it right tactically against Manchester City. Sticking with three at the back worked as it seemed like Pep Guardiola expected the Gunners to revert to a back four. Sane, Sterling and De Bruyne couldn’t get much joy in wide areas, and when the ball came inside, Arsenal were disciplined in holding their shape defensively to shut off space for Sergio Aguero.
It meant the Gunners relinquished a lot of possession in the game, but with a team that was low on confidence going into the game, it was the correct decision from the boss to make sure they were defensively solid and hope that with the likes of Ozil and Alexis on the field, there would be the attacking quality to create enough chances when they did get the ball.
While the Gunners did create enough to win the game 2-1 after extra time, it was defensively where they really impressed. Gabriel looked suited to playing in a back three as he wasn’t left exposed and his time spent at right-back earlier in the season served him well when tracking out into wide areas. He also did a great job of getting under the skin of City players with a few robust, but not reckless, challenges. Despite those tackles, he didn’t let his emotions boil over and do something stupid, which we’ve seen before. It was undoubtedly up there as his best game for the club.
On the other side of Laurent Koscielny in the back three was Rob Holding, making his first trip to Wembley Stadium itself, let alone just playing his first game there. For £2 million, Arsenal have got themselves one hell of a player. Holding was confident when on the ball, but a proper defender without it by winning headers and blocking shots. He didn’t look overawed by the occasion and slotted in brilliantly into a system he won’t have played in very often.
In front of the back three, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey had to put in a shift to cover the ground at Wembley. Having three centre-backs effectively takes the attacking midfielder out of how the team has previously lined-up, so there is extra onus on the two central midfielders to compensate. City dominated possession in the middle of the pitch for most of the game, but with Xhaka able to play longer passes and Ramsey willing to burst forward to support the striker, Arsenal were able to counter-attack effectively when they did get the ball. Defensively, the two were quick to get back into formation when they did lose possession and both hounded City’s midfielders when they approached the final third of the pitch.
While it was an excellent team performance, the real stars were arguably the Arsenal wing-backs. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain followed up his good showing at Middlesbrough with a superb display of pace, trickery, crossing and good defensive cover. Having thought he’d found his position in central midfield a few weeks ago, the Ox has made a compelling case to make that position on the right his own, should Arsenal stick with the system. On the other side, Nacho Monreal was equally as good. Of Arsenal’s left-backs, Kieran Gibbs is the obvious choice to play as a wing-back as a keener attacker, but Monreal showed he is willing to bomb forward and support the forwards when necessary. His defensive work was also superb, regularly stopping crosses and giving City very little joy when attacking down the right. While both wing-backs were excellent, no-one could have expected the two to combine the way they did for Arsenal’s equaliser.
Having gone 1-0 down, there was a real concern that Arsenal would crumble again. All of their good defensive work was undone somewhat by one piece of miscontrol from Ramsey, one ball over-the-top from Yaya Toure and one counter-attack finished by Sergio Aguero. But Arsenal finally showed what they are made of with a spirited response. Ten minutes after going behind, Oxlade-Chamberlain whipped in a superb cross from the right aimed for Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey. It went over both, but out of nowhere, Nacho Monreal arrived like a train to thunder a right-footed volley past Claudio Bravo.
It was a forward run you wouldn’t expect Monreal to make, but it was almost as if he had a ‘sod it’ moment and just gambled. The timing of run and finish was absolutely perfect, and suddenly Arsenal believed.
The Gunners had to ride their luck with a dubious disallowed goal in the first half, Yaya Toure’s shot being tipped onto the post by Petr Cech and Fernandinho crashing a header off the bar, but as the game went on, you just got a sense that it could be Arsenal’s day. After all the horrors of recent weeks, there was a team wearing red and white who looked hell bent on doing everything they could to get through to the final.
After Danny Welbeck shot across goal and Rob Holding headed over, Arsenal took the lead in extra time. There was an element of fortune about the ball dropping to Alexis Sanchez after Welbeck mis-kicked in the box, but when it did reach the Chilean, his control and instant finish was too quick for Kompany and Bravo to react in front of him. It was Alexis’ only shot of the game, but was ruthlessly finished.
Arsenal had a few chances to wrap it up on the break in the second half of extra time but chose the wrong passing option, and while they limited City chances pretty well, the best opening came to Fabian Delph as Arsenal almost got caught short at the back, only for substitute Hector Bellerin to race back and make a vital block into the side-netting.
The celebrations on the final whistle had a lot of joy combined with suprise that the Gunners had turned in such a committed performance. Arsenal made themselves hard to beat, and were a nasty team to play against on Sunday. Earlier in the season, when things have kicked off a bit between players, Arsenal have often left one player to fight their own battle. I thought it was telling in extra time when Fabian Delph had a disagreement with Gabriel, the Arsenal players swarmed around their man. I’m not advocating Arsenal trying to start fights every game, but it was great to see the team rally round each other and look much more of a collective than City did.
You couldn’t help but be warmed by the reaction of Arsene Wenger at the end of the game. He’s a manager that isn’t known for his outpouring of emotions, but the joy and relief on his face was evident. Whatever fans’ perspective on the manager might be, no-one can ever doubt how much he cares about Arsenal Football Club, and how much every defeat hurts him. He came up with a plan on Sunday and it came off and his players, finally, put in a performance that backed up their words about wanting him to stay. The win might be enough for Wenger to sign the new contract, but could also delay the decision further because of not wanting to disrupt the build-up to the final at the end of May. This summer is probably still the right time for him to step aside, but Sunday was proof that it won’t be the unmitigated disaster some are making it out to be if he does continue to manage the team next season.
Arsenal now have a blueprint performance to refer to for the remainder of the season. The top four is unlikely, but if the team play each game with the same attitude and desire they showed on Sunday, it’s not impossible. More than anything though, it feels like Arsenal are a team again.