I was sitting in the hotel bar the night before Arsenal’s League Cup final against Birmingham and two Blues supporters sitting next to me were talking about the game the next day. The one who looked remarkably like Mr. Rat was loudly talking up his team’s chances whilst the one who looked like Mr. Mole sat quietly looking rather nervously around the room to make sure no 6’4″ Arsenal supporter came over and smashed their faces in. Mr. Rat then proclaimed “these Arsenal supporters are all the same, they talk big about how they are going to do us but you offer one a bet and watch them melt. Because they know, we have a real chance. I think we will win.”
I sat there snorting into my drink at each proclamation and thought to myself that I should go over and take this guy up on his bet. Why not? I was full of confidence, we were the much better team, and we had beaten them just a few games prior. But instead of confronting the braggart and taking the bet, I finished my whiskey and went off to bed.
Seeing how Arsenal lost that match and I didn’t take his bet I guess he was right on both counts.
A similar, if amplified, mood pervades today’s FA Cup semi-final between Wigan and Arsenal and it’s quite understandable why: Arsenal are once again over-dogs, Arsenal are once again on the brink of winning their first trophy in years, Arsenal are missing a number of key players, the manager’s position is being questioned from all quarters (including Tim Stillman), Arsenal have a recent history of stumbling in big games against small opponents, and that 6-0 loss to Chelsea on the occasion of Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game seemed to cause many of us to join the other lemmings going over the cliff at full pace.
Arsene Wenger seems to have learned a lesson from the harsh losses of the last few weeks and is vowing to get the team to focus more on defending and attacking as a unit. Arsenals defense has been fantastic when they play within themselves and have proven that time and again against Liverpool, Tottenham, and the comeback win over Everton in this same competition when I was there last month. In each of those matches, Arsenal were able to sit back and invite the opposition to attack and yet repel each attack with solid, organized defending.
Wigan will probably come out looking to hit Arsenal with the 1-2 punch like they did against Man City at the Etihad stadium. Once they went ahead, they defended as well as I have seen from any team at Man City’s ground.
This puts a lot of onus on Arsenal’s early game because Arsenal play the same way, early high pressing, and we could have a wide open free for all in the first 15 minutes. What has many Arsenal fans worried is that this is exactly how Arsenal have been undone in each of their huge losses this season. Each time Arsenal have lost big it has been because the opposition have adopted Arsenal’s exact same tactic.
Another concern is that Wigan employ a 3-5-2 combined with a high pressing game so that they play a lot like Liverpool. Arsenal did beat that system twice this season and both times were able to do so by not allowing the opposition to overload the Arsenal fullback areas. Everton and Chelsea played a similar tactic in that they invited the Arsenal fullbacks forward and reserved an attacking player in behind the Arsenal midfielders. Shurrle and Lukaku both played on the right (Arsenal’s left) cutting back in in those games (and Liverpool played Suarez there to do the same in their 5-1 win over Arsenal) and I’d put almost any amount of money on Wigan trying the same. Basically, if we see both Arsenal fullbacks in the Wigan final third, it’s time to panic.
Wenger himself acknowledged that Wigan is a team full of Premiership players who happen to be playing in the Championship. So, as much as we’d all like to say that this is a lower division team playing against an upper division side it is nice to hear the manager aware of the threat that these guys possess. Fortune (the Wigan forward and not every gambler’s harsh mistress) in particular is a real threat off the bench. But I’m hoping we get to the point where Wigan are looking to the bench for a little good Fortune.
Wigan are not a crap team, again a fact Wenger points out by mentioning their record getting to the FA Cup semi final. They are second in the Championship in shots taken per game (15.1) and 5th in shots conceded (12.5). Defensively they are 4th in tackles made per game and 5th in interceptions (14.1). They are also a real threat from set plays having scored a 3rd best 16 goals from that position and they love to cross the ball with a 3rd best 24 of those per game. Like Wenger has said, this may be a Championship side but they are full of Premiership players and they play like it. Wigan are a hard nosed defensive side who get in the faces of their opponents and get goals off set plays. They have had a bit of bad luck in the last few matches but their losing margins have been slim.
Still, despite missing a number of players, Arsenal have four crucial players available for tomorrow’s match: Ramsey, Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud.
Even though he missed much of the season with injury, Ramsey is still Arsenal’s best player statistically. He is fearless in midfield. He works tirelessly to get open for passes and never hides when the team needs an outlet. He is also an underrated tackler (leads Arsenal in per game tackles) and constantly presses to get the ball back high up the pitch. And is if that weren’t enough he is third overall in scoring and assists. Truly a stats stuffer and while people poo poo stats, they show that Ramsey is a player with tremendous heart and work rate.
Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud are all this competition’s best scorers remaining. Podolski and Giroud have 6 goals between them and Podolski’s goals have all been winners. Cazorla only has 8 goals and 5 assists but having been shunted off to the side and playing second trumpet to Özil has really limited his ability to contribute. Meanwhile Giroud is Arsenal’s leading scorer with 20 goals this season. He’s only scored once in his last six matches but he scored a double against Everton in the FA Cup match before this one.
I expect Arsene will start with Giroud up front, Podolski as second striker, Ramsey in midfield, Cazorla on the left, Ox on the right, Arteta as defensive mid and the back four picking itself (Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, and Gibbs/Monreal). Fabianski will be in goal.
I’m expecting a very tough game from Wigan but hopefully the Arsenal quality will shine through and Ramsey will get us an early goal which will allow Arsenal the chance to sit back and defend for a while.
Something they are very good at.