The Gunners, outplayed in periods by Wigan, needed a penalty shoot-out to book their place in the showpiece, and must raise their game if they are to end their trophy drought
By Ewan Roberts
Football has an absorbing habit of creating moments in which any number of extremes can be possible. For the 20 minutes Wigan had the lead at Wembley, Arsene Wenger had never cut a more forlorn figure. FA Cup glory was slipping away, the chance to end nine years without a trophy was fading and his very future at Arsenal was looking increasingly bleak.
But then Per Mertesacker rose highest at the backpost to change the narrative, and a confident penalty shoot-out performance secured the club’s passage to the final. Doubts over the manager were erased, replaced instead by an elation Arsenal fans have experienced all too infrequently.
Of course, the 120 minutes of frustration, tension and rank toil that preceded Santi Cazorla’s final kick of the ball should not be ignored. The Gunners were matched by a Wigan side playing in the second-tier of English football, and who were allowed to boss the match for large periods of play. Arsenal may have created several guilt-edged chances, but this was not the dominant display expected of them.
The decision to play Yaya Sanogo ahead of Olivier Giroud was ill-judged, while Aaron Ramsey, who stayed on the field until the second period of extra-time, was risked for far longer than he should have been after so long on the sidelines.
Sanogo, who has now started cup ties against Liverpool, Everton, Bayern Munich and today’s semi-final with Wigan, was a major source of frustration. The young Frenchman routinely found himself in excellent goalscoring opportunities only to waste the chances that fell his way – of which there were many. When Arsenal need a cool head and maturity, the 21-year-old only fluffed his lines.
The match itself was a curious contest. Sanogo’s profligacy prevented the Gunners from building up a head of steam, while Wigan – save for some disastrous moments with their high defensive line – never looked particularly flustered.
Roberto Martinez may have left the club but his philosophy – which, with Everton, is now threatening to claim fourth place at Arsenal’s expense – remains intact under Uwe Rosler. There would have been no mention of parked buses or smash and grabs in the gameplan, with the Latics enjoying large spells of dominant, controlled possession.
Callum McManaman was undoubtedly the star of the first half, and questions will be asked of Rosler’s decision to withdraw him. The young Englishman, who shone in last year’s final against Manchester City, constantly exploited the left side of an Arsenal defence that looked punch-drunk when McManaman ran at them, before also embarrassing Mertesacker with a darting run infield.
It was only when Olivier Giroud was introduced, with the Gunners a goal down, that the tide began to turn. Curiously, it was Wenger’s decision to switch to 4-4-2 and play more direct that paid dividends – a tactic totally at odds with the Frenchman’s philosophy, though perhaps it was exactly that sort of unexpected roll of the dice that was required.
The introduction of Kieran Gibbs, too, had a huge impact. In this instance it was enforced, with Nacho Monreal – butchered by McManaman for much of the match – injured in the build-up to Wigan’s goal. Gibbs was able to plough forward and stretch the Latics’ defence.
Arsenal’s players will take heart from the win, insist it as a sign of their growing resilience and toughness. Yet that betrays the flow of a match in which the Gunners struggled and came so close to losing out on a place in a long-awaited final against a side well below them in terms of quality and pedigree.
It should have been so much more straight-forward, instead the victory was drawn out and laboured. Next up, in all probability, is Hull City, and Arsenal simply cannot afford to reproduce such a below par performance.
Their lacklustre display was not punished by the Championship outfit today, but Steve Bruce’s men have the potential to be more ruthless, and anything but victory in the final will see Wenger’s future again called into question, just as it was for 82 minutes at Wembley.