It doesn’t matter how it happened, just that it did happen. Arsenal will be back at Wembley for the FA Cup Final on 17th May after another indifferent performance preceded a penalty shoot-out win with Lukasz Fabianski saving two.
This is clearly an Arsenal team out of form, and they looked like a side that has had recent struggles on Saturday. However the difference at Wembley compared to the past weeks was that the players looked like they cared. They gave everything, with some players almost unable to walk from the field at the end of the shoot-out after the effort they’d put in for the 120 minutes. Questions can and will be asked about certain players, tactics, creativity etc etc, but Saturday was just about sheer determination to not lose.
That was the case for both sides as Wigan deserve immense credit for the way they’ve defended the FA Cup as holders from last season. On the face of it, struggling to beat a Championship team could be embarrassing for Arsenal, but there’s something about Wigan and the FA Cup in the last two seasons. Realistically, it was unlikely to be a stroll for the Gunners as the Latics were always going to give everything to hold onto hopes of retaining the trophy. It’s also no coincidence that they’ve beaten Manchester City in this competition twice in the last two seasons.
However, Arsenal shouldn’t have put the fans through the emotional turmoil for 120 minutes and should have won more comfortably. I don’t care about that though. Semi-finals are just about winning.
In previous seasons where Arsenal have won the FA Cup, there have been some turgid semi-final performances, but no-one cares when you’re in the final. My mind goes back to an own goal from Gianluca Festa winning the 2002 semi-final against Middlesbrough when a much better Arsenal team than the current crop were pretty dreadful at Old Trafford. It was similar a year later in 2003 when David Seaman’s famous wonder save was the difference against lower league Sheffield United in another poor performance. All that matters is getting through.
After going 1-0 down on Saturday, it was interesting to see Arsene Wenger switch to 4-4-2 by playing Olivier Giroud alongside Yaya Sanogo. Whilst it could be seen as a desperate move, with Wigan effectively playing with a back five, there was little space for Lukas Podolski to be dangerous in the channel between the full-back and centre-back. Arsenal have always been criticised for not having a plan B, but it came into effect yesterday and just about worked. Arsenal were more direct and eventually forced the ball in after two other good headed chances.
Per Mertesacker was unusually clumsy in conceding the penalty that gave Wigan the lead, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that he in the right place to score the equaliser. He is a man with real character in this team and will have felt he owed the team something after giving away the penalty. Should Thomas Vermaelen leave this summer for regular football, the BFG should be the club captain.
When a game goes down to penalties, whilst there is a large element of luck in them, you need players to be calm and get the job done. With so much pressure on the kicks, I was impressed with the Arsenal takers as I really feared they might bottle it. The early save from Fabianski meant that there was an added pressure on the Wigan takers, but Arteta, Kallstrom, Giroud and Cazorla always looked more composed walking up to the spot.
The celebrations after Mertesacker’s goal and after shoot-out were immense, with 50,000 people going wild at Wembley. It was a celebration of getting over the hurdle of winning at Wembley after the experiences against Chelsea and Birmingham, along with the pressure of just winning silverware, no matter who the opposition was. The fans and the players have been through a lot emotionally in the last month, and after such an incredibly stressful 120 minutes, the relief and elation poured out. Overall, it was a dreadful game but that was a beautiful moment. Differing views on the players and the manager were forgotten and Gooners in the ground just went mental.
One way or another, good or bad, the semi-final at Wembley was going to create some sort of memory. Thankfully, it created a great one.
It will be interesting to see who is available to play on Tuesday night against West Ham United in the Premier League as the players (and the fans!) were shattered at end of the semi-final. It was an incredible effort from Aaron Ramsey to play over 110 minutes on his first start since Boxing Day, plus Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain only passed a late fitness test before playing 120 minutes. There still isn’t much scope for rotation, so Tuesday will be a challenge.
It’ll be a challenge that Arsenal have to rise to though. The momentum and the confidence boost from reaching the final should help them forget the physical tiredness from the match and get back to winning ways in the league. The cup final will be a great end to the season, but there is some serious league business to deal with first.
Once that is dealt with though, she’ll be wearing a yellow ribbon in the merry month of May because the famous Arsenal are going back to Wembley.