Victory Without Harmony: Arsenal Survive Wigan Athletic
Arsenal have wriggled free of Wigan Athletic to progress to the FA Cup Final.
It was an ugly, ugly victory.
The Gunners were out-fought, out-worked, and out-thought for much of the match.
Arsene Wenger chose a starting XI that followed my instruction.
Yaya Sanogo lead the line instead of the faltering Olivier Giroud and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was restored.
Sanogo and Oxlade-Chamberlain nearly came good just five minutes in. Oxlade-Chamberlain swung over a brilliant half-volleyed cross that Sonogo met in the six-yard box. The young French striker’s downward header was directed straight into Scott Carson; six inches to the left or right and Sanogo would have gone down in Arsenal’s history books forever.
But it was an aimless header and Sanogo had a very poor match.
His touch was rubbish, his commitment and desire lacking, as he nonchalantly stumbled around the pitch like a giraffe roller-skating through a sheet of marbles.
Sanogo should have had nothing but white-hot adrenaline coursing through every vein in his body – instead he looked like he couldn’t be bothered to offer a challenge, gamble on a run, or chase a loose ball.
If a young player can’t ‘get up’ for a big game like this is that symptomatic of a bigger problem?
Thankfully, per normal and as predicted, Oxlade-Chamberlain was Arsenal’s one player that exemplified urgency for success. Throughout the duration of the match, and during extra time, the English winger took players on, made smart rounded-runs without the ball, smashed a bullet off the crossbar, and overall looked a lively and impassioned figure amongst an otherwise lackluster Arsenal.
Wenger’s decision to leave Oxlade-Chamberlain out of the starting lineup against Manchester City and Everton may prove to be one of the biggest mistakes of his career. Punishing him for the Chelsea debacle could cost Arsenal the Champions League and the ramifications of exclusion from that tournament will be severe.
But back to the FA Cup where Lukas Podolski was awful.
It was very difficult to tell that the German was even involved in the contest. It’s hard to recall a single touch in the first 20 minutes of the match. He again proved to be the king of the underwhelming and uninvolved performance. It is absurd that he stepped up to take the free kick Oxlade-Chamberlain had won. It was positioned more kindly for a left foot, yes, but the German had no business taking the dead ball.
Santi Cazorla should have pulled rank but it was an out of character and disinterested performance by the Spaniard. He was played as the central attacking midfielder but barley showed up for much of normal time. Clearly, the side effects of the Everton capitulation have scarred the Spanish wizard. Based on his body language during the Everton loss and the comments made during the week, his performance today questions his faith in Arsenal.
Apart from Oxlade-Chamberlain in the first half, the one player that played with purpose and conviction was Bacary Sagna. The right-back was fantastic; defending deep inside the Arsenal box, getting forward to swing in crosses, pushing to score from corners, a truly respectable performance. If this is his final season for Arsenal he is giving 100 percent in every single match he plays.
Truth be told, Arsenal’s first half display was pathetic considering what was at stake.
The second half didn’t start much better. The Gunners had zero energy and looked sickly and lethargic. It took 10 minutes to finally get going a bit, and that was thanks to the fans and their chants of ‘ARSENAL!’
But moments later, it was Wigan’s enthusiasm for the contest that was rewarded.
Nacho Monreal was shrugged off and tossed aside like a rag doll and Per Mertesacker foolishly chopped down a cutting Callum McManaman in the area. Jordi Gomez was made to wait several minutes before taking the penalty as Monreal writhed in pain from an unseen injury, but eventually converted to further turn the screw on the withering North Londoners.
Shortly thereafter, Wenger brought on Olivier Giroud for Podolski. The crowd responded with boos and jeers, as Sanogo had been downright awful and seemed like a straight like-for-like change, but it was a pick your poison choice as both Sanogo and Podolski were astonishingly unmotivated.
Scattered in large gatherings in front of and around the red seats of Wembley Stadium, Arsenal supporters put hands to faces, bit their nails, and covered their mouths, nauseated in a state of shocked disbelief at what they were seeing.
Arsenal had 10 minutes left to salvage their best shot at ending the trophy drought when Sagna struck a header off the post, and then Gibbs got in on the act from a Sanogo flick, his header cutting through the air towards the bottom corner of the net only to be saved by a diving Scott Carson.
It looked as if it wasn't going to happen; as if the apocalypse had arrived.
Then, after an unsuccessful Arsenal corner, Sanogo retrieved and controlled a ball off his chest in the corner of the penalty area and moved it on to Oxlade-Chamberlain who was just outside the box. The young Englishman struck the bouncing ball with full force into the turf and it went upwards before dipping its way to the back post.
Mertesacker had been hanging around, his gazed followed the flight of the ball as he timed his run to perfection, he ran on and glanced home a brilliant headed finish to score the most important goal of his Arsenal career and achieve redemption for his earlier sin.
Arsenal equalized and for once had fought back the dark hand of adversity.
Cautionary attacking ruled the last few minutes as the two sides prepared and seemed resigned to extra time.
Arsenal dominated possession for much of the next 30 minutes with square passes and negative possession, Sanogo forced Carson into a save, and young Oxlade-Chamberlain fired a blistering shot off the crossbar, in a match destined for penalties.
Then cometh the legend.
The legend of Lukasz Fabianski was born in penalty kicks as the Polish keeper saved the first two Wigan attempts to give Arsenal a huge advantage. Wenger’s faith in a player this season had for once been repaid.
Mikel Arteta and Kim Kallstrom seized on the opportunity and kept their nerve to make it 2-0.
Arsenal led the shootout 3-2 when Cazorla approached to seal progression to the final.
The diminutive maestro approached the spot kick with calm intent, took a long run up to the ball, met it with his right foot, and sent it screaming into the heart of the goal, bulging the back of the net.
Victory had arrived – a victory without harmony perhaps, but a victory nonetheless.
Cazorla ran towards his goalkeeper, pointing a finger at him all the while, as if to say finally, finally an Arsenal player had stood up and been accountable in a big moment, and as he jumped into the Polish international's arms, maybe, just maybe, Cazorla’s scars from the Everton assault began to fade and once again he believed in the Royal Arsenal…