Wigan Athletic 1 – 1 Arsenal
Arsenal win 4 – 2 on penalties
As serene and happy a place as the world is, there are somethings which are not quite right. Or if not quite right is the wrong phrase, some things have sent the balance out of kilter. To a backdrop of the brilliantly tuneless harmony of Seven Nation Army, Santi Cazorla sent the final kick of this FA Cup semi-final spinning past Scott Carson; Arsenal had won a penalty shootout and comfortably so, thank you very much. And this morning, catching up on yesterday’s Premier League action, Match of the Day introduced us to potential delights of Thierry Henry as a pundit for this summer’s World Cup. And then Henry spoke; oh, New York, New York, what have you done to his accent?
It wasn’t a vintage performance from Arsenal despite being a typical performance of the current vintage. The match was largely forgettable; FA Cup semi-finals normally are, it’s why we remember the extraordinary so readily. A match where endeavour was lost in a sea of sideways and backwards passing as Arsenal struggled to find the guile to break down the well-marshalled banks of blue and white massed in front of them.
And who cares? The record books don’t carry any sense of artistic merit, of why a burning sense of injustice may endure down the decades, well beyond what might be termed the norm. All they will record is that she will be wearing her yellow ribbons at Wembley in May: Arsenal won.
And I don’t care about the style, grace or aesthetic beauty of it all. Winning yesterday was all that mattered.
It could – should – have been more comfortable. Arsène decided to go with Yaya Sanogo and the youngster almost scored, thwarted by Scott Carson as Arsenal sought to start quickly. It was a common theme through the match, ‘almost’ describes his game; almost scored, almost created, almost controlled the ball, caught offside almost as many times as Emmanuel Adebayor. I can almost understand why Arsène signed him but to lead the line in a match of this importance? I have no comprehension of why the manager would make that choice and Olivier Giroud’s performance on arriving as a substitute underlined the gulf between the two.
But it doesn’t matter, Arsenal won and that is all that matters.
Watching from the touchline, Wenger’s demeanour grew increasingly frustrated as the game wore on, a bundle of nervous energy striding too and fro from the bench to the edge of his technical area, increasingly his body language betrayed his increasing frustration. It was fascinating to watch this in the moments between the award of Wigan’s penalty and the match resuming, a perfectly harmonious accompaniment to the vocal frustrations of the stands bedecked in red, white and sickened green faces. Michael Oliver’s theatrically thoughtful decision-making added to the sense of occasion, a moment of which Olivier would be proud.
It didn’t matter; Arsenal won.
That was the spark for life to be born into the Arsenal performance. A moment where hands were on hips, a manager head bowed in thought on the sidelines, turned momentarily away from his players. Their backs turned to him, looking at each other searching for answers and inspiration, questioning whether it was all happening again. How they couldn’t let it happen again. Recent weeks have seen Arsène praise the players spirit, at times when you know it was a PR sop. That moment before the restart was the signal that they believed in themselves and more importantly, how they weren’t going to let ‘it’ happen again.
Purposefully, Arsenal set about providing width which had been previously missing. Podolski paid the price for an ineffective display as the left flank was remodelled and revitalised following Kieran Gibbs introduction and Arsène moved the side to a more ‘traditional’ front pairing, who roamed the pitch. Giroud was pivotal to that, giving urgency to the proceedings, dropping short, attacking the area, providing purpose and a focal point to the attacks.
Wigan were well-versed in repelling the attacks and when they weren’t, the woodwork denied Bacary Sagna’s stooping header. Not to be outdone, Gibbs forced Carson into a one-handed save. But the pressure built and the frustration erupted as the ball bludgeoned off Per Mertesacker’s face into the net. It was a gutteral relief that filled the air, a burning sense of injustice sated for the German, even if he had been rightly penalised at the other end.
It was inevitable that the match would be decided by penalties. Denied once more by the woodwork, Arsenal could have won in extra time, rarely looked like losing. And that is something that sits with me about the match. For all the criticism of the laboured nature of the first hour, Arsenal rarely appeared in danger. When chasing the game there was, it seemed, only a five-minute spell when they didn’t seem capable of finding the equaliser. And then it came, at which point it was apparent that there would be just one winner if they were to emerge before penalties.
And then they came. Tension as the realisation dawned of what was to come, a serenity about proceedings as the coin was tossed to decide ends. Inevitably, the kicks were before the Wigan supporters; did that help the Arsenal players more, knowing they have fifty thousand supporters behind them as they strode toward the penalty area. The farcical nature of it all captured with one of the officials shooing a camera crew off the pitch, lest they encroach any closer to the waiting players.
You forget how much time there is between each kick; what do you do? Quietly resolve to find the nearest bar when it is over; offer prayer to whichever god you do or don’t believe in. Relive each kick on the big screen; spare any thought for the anguish of the other supporters? Actually, the latter is something I can’t offer nor did I see any sign of camaraderie or sympathy; it doesn’t exist. And each kick, the full gamut surrounded us. The stoic watcher, the rabid derider whose catcalls added to the mishmashed cacophony; the head-burier who surfaced only to witness the celebrations, the screenwatcher riveted to the hanging televisions above the ‘Arsenal end’. Long, tall, short, round, good, bad and ugly; male, female, old, young, seasoned hand, novice. All were hung rapt, each save from Fabianski greeted with more joy than the following goal. The bridgehead built, Arsenal heads were kept and the match won.
And celebrate, yes we did. In the ground, outside, on trains, tubes and bars. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, what the miserable, bitter personification of everything which is wrong with punditry, extols. Arsenal won. And that is all that matters.