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.

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SMR end-of-season review 2014-2015: The Defenders

Continuing the review of the Arsenal squad’s performances in the 2014-2015, it’s the defenders. Each player will receive a rating and a one-word summary of the season.
2. Mathieu Debuchy
The Frenchman has been incredibly unlucky in his first season at the club as a couple of nasty injuries limited his involvement. The signs were promising that Debuchy was going to be a solid replacement for Bacary Sagna, but ankle and shoulder injuries now mean he faces a real fight to be the first-choice right-back following the emergence of others in his position this season. He’s strong defensively and filled in well when needed at centre-back, so he’s still got a lot to offer the club.
One-word summary: Unlucky
Rating: 6/10
3. Kieran Gibbs
Gibbs hasn’t had a bad season, but the impressive performances of Nacho Monreal have seen the Englishman drop out of the starting XI more often than expected. He remains a very solid full-back and the competition with the Spaniard should be good for his development. The controlled volley at Anderlecht was a particular highlight.
One-word summary: Challenged
Rating: 6/10
4. Per Mertesacker:
Regular readers / listeners will know that I love Per Mertesacker. He had a difficult start to the season following the World Cup and without Laurent Koscielny alongside him, the BFG looked a bit vulnerable. Mertesacker was written off by many as being past it, but he came back strong in the second half of the season as he reached the impressive levels he played at for most of the previous season. The return of Koscielny helped, but Mertesacker’s leadership stood out as Arsenal went on an excellent run of form in the league and retained the FA Cup. Although it was off his shoulder, the cup final goal was just a beautiful moment.
One-word summary: Hero
Rating: 7/10
5. Gabriel
Many expected him to displace Per Mertesacker as soon as he arrived in January, but the German’s good form has meant Gabriel has mainly been on the bench since his arrival. That doesn’t mean he won’t have a big part to play for Arsenal in the future as the signs were very encouraging in the games he played in. It sounds an obvious thing to say, but Gabriel looks like he loves defending by being quick across the ground and tenacious in the tackle. It is great to have that quality in the squad having been light in central defence, and Arsene Wenger can now tailor the centre of the defensive to deal with different styles of attackers.
One-word summary: Encouraging
Rating: 6/10
6. Laurent Koscielny:
It’s no coincidence that Arsenal’s form picked up when Laurent Koscielny’s achilles calmed down. That sort of injury does pose some concerns for the future, but given Koscielny was available for the majority of the second half of the season, it seems to be under control. The partnership with Per Mertesacker was re-established and was excellent. He also seems to have dropped his tendency to dive in and concede needless penalties every now and again.
One-word summary: Boss
Rating: 8/10
18. Nacho Monreal
Arguably Arsenal’s most-improved player this season. Like a lot of the team, Monreal went through a tough spell in the first-half of the season as he was asked to fill-in in an unfamiliar central defensive role. His efforts in there were admirable, and stood him in good stead as he was picked for most of the big matches at left-back ahead of Kieran Gibbs. While not known as much for being an attacking full-back, the composure with which he slotted the ball in at Old Trafford in the FA Cup showed the confidence he’s gained during the season.
One-word summary: Improved
Rating: 7/10
21. Calum Chambers
Mainly due to injuries to others, and a lack of cover at centre-back, we saw a lot of Calum Chambers in the first half of the season. There were times in latter appearances where his inexperience showed, but it’s easy to forget how impressive his earlier performances were, particularly when playing at centre-back. He’ll continue to develop and will be stronger for some of the games he’s struggled in.
One-word summary: Future
Rating: 6/10
39. Hector Bellerin
Bellerin went through a few chastening experiences in the first half of the season, with his Champions League debut at Borussia Dortmund and the defeat at Stoke particularly challenging ones. But he has taken his chance given to him following Debuchy’s second bad injury. His pace has been well documented, but his defensive position improved quickly as the season went on meaning he didn’t have to rely on it as much. Bellerin’s composure on the ball isn’t a surprise given his football upbringing included Barcelona and Arsenal, but he’s also got an eye for a goal with two excellent finishes against Aston Villa and Liverpool at the Emirates. It’s exciting to see how much further he can develop after a breakthrough season.
One-word summary: Rapid
Rating: 7/10

Wembley awaits as Welbeck guns down Manchester United

8,600 Arsenal fans made their way up to Manchester on Monday more out of hope than expectation. This wasn’t really because there was much to fear in the current Manchester United team, but more to do with the wretched record Arsenal have at Old Trafford in recent years. Even last season, with Manchester United in a mess under David Moyes, the Red Devils still found a way to win against the Gunners, making it nine defeats in ten games for Arsenal away at Old Trafford.
In the Premier League meeting between the two teams earlier in the season, Arsenal dominated the match, played at a high tempo and should have comfortably dispatched Manchester United back up north without any points. Yet somehow the Gunners imploded again, losing 2-1. The 2-0 win away to Manchester City did offer the travelling Gooners some cause of optimism, but the Manchester United mental block was still a huge one to overcome.
While both teams showed nerves given the magnitude of the game, and the importance it would have on the season for the two clubs, Arsenal always looked to have more control than Manchester United, as Arsene Wenger got his team selection and tactics spot on. While most expected Olivier Giroud to start, Wenger selected a motivated ex-Man Utd man, Danny Welbeck, to lead the line and chase down the vulnerable home defence. While he didn’t hold the ball up as well as the Frenchman to bring others into play, Welbeck was a constant threat because of his pace. It was this speed that allowed him to capitalise on the short back-pass from Antonio Valencia in the second half, round David de Gea and slide the ball in to send Arsenal to Wembley.
There was a momentary pause from Welbeck after he scored as he contemplated not celebrating for a split-second, but the emotion took over. It was a huge goal for his new club, regardless of the opposition, but it was also one in the eye for a manager who deemed Welbeck not good enough to play for his boyhood club. The goal could be the confidence boost he needs to score more for the Gunners, and feel like he’s properly added the full stop to his career at Manchester United.
Welbeck was just one of the players brought in by Arsene Wenger as the boss made five changes from the starting XI in the previous game at Queens Park Rangers. Such is the depth of options now available in the squad, those five changes didn’t make the team look weaker at all. Before going off when he tweaked a hamstring, the returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided Arsenal with an excellent attacking outlet on the right-hand side, while Laurent Koscielny looked more like himself returning alongside Per Mertesacker.
Nacho Monreal also came back into the team after being unlucky to be replaced by Kieran Gibbs in the last few games. The battle for the left-back spot is an interesting one for Arsene Wenger because he now has two players who, while they have slightly different qualities, can be relied upon and trusted. Each time you think one is getting ahead of the other, there’ll be a great performance that changes your mind. Against Manchester United, I thought Monreal was excellent. Apart from the cross from Angel Di Maria which led to Wayne Rooney’s goal, he closed off Manchester United’s right-hand side and fought hard for the team.
His night was topped off by scoring his second goal for the club. He timed his advance into the penalty area perfectly in the first half to be the beneficiary of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s mazy run. Monreal ghosted into acres of space in the box, took a confident first touch and stroked the ball past de Gea at the near post. Considering the quality attackers who have been thwarted by Manchester United’s Spanish goalkeeper this season, it was impressive to see Monreal offer a lesson in calm finishing.
Everywhere else on the field, Arsenal players stood up and worked hard for the cause. Even against a Manchester United team that is still trying to find itself, every Arsenal player needed to put a shift in to get a result, and everyone did that. Francis Coquelin typified the spirit by being a warrior in front of the back four, while Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, bar allowing Rooney a free header to equalise, dealt with the balls into the box from the hosts.
Having not watched too much of Manchester United this season, I was staggered by their style of play when watching them live. With Marouane Fellaini in the team, United were constantly looking for the direct ball into the box, with very few alternatives. This helped Arsenal as they were happy to let United have the ball in defence, or in midfield, knowing it was unlikely they’d play through Arsenal’s midfield. Arsenal also adapted at set-pieces, with Per Mertesacker breaking out from the zonal system to man-mark Fellaini out of the equation.
While Louis van Gaal seemed to be guessing with his substitutions by making two at half-time, Arsene Wenger was more in control, making the right changes. Most fans, myself included, expected Theo Walcott to replace the injured Oxlade-Chamberlain, but Wenger opted for Aaron Ramsey, who enabled Arsenal to further control the midfield. He then sensibly replaced Hector Bellerin with Calum Chambers before the Spaniard was able to receive a second yellow card, and Olivier Giroud was able to hold the ball up and win a few free-kicks near the end of the game after replacing Welbeck.
It wasn’t an explosive Arsenal performance, but it was sensible and controlled in a frantic game. The defensive shape of the team was good, but they always looked dangerous when in possession. It has taken time, but it does feel like Arsene Wenger and his team are beginning to get the measure of these big away games.
Arsenal’s victory was helped by having a referee who was willing to make brave, and correct, decisions against Manchester United. Michael Oliver correctly booked two players for diving, before giving Angel Di Maria a second yellow card for his daft shirt pull on the referee. Because of their desire to win set-pieces to put the ball in the box for Fellaini, it seemed United players were desperate to go to ground during the whole evening, so to actually see it punished was refreshing.
The Gunners will make a fourth trip to Wembley in just over a year, with the winning run rumbling on in the FA Cup. For the second season, Arsenal have reached the semi-finals without needing a replay. In a strange way, the semi-final place was just a nice consequence of winning the game. Arsenal had a point to prove, while Danny Welbeck had a personal score to settle. The travelling 8,600 fans were loud and proud, and the Old Trafford hoodoo was broken. It was bloody fantastic!