Arsenal Monday verdict: FA Cup chance? Not defending like that
Gunners stay alive in Cup, but shaky back-line hardly inspires confidence in winning it
The M4 motorway was the scene of many a joyous FA Cup journey home for Arsenal fans, having won the trophy up the road in Cardiff in 2002, 2003 and 2005.
While the cars and coaches of Gunners’ fans were hardly as ecstatic making the journey back from South Wales on Sunday, there could be no denying that they had witnessed their side avoiding what looked set to be Arsene Wenger’s first ever FA Cup third-round exit at the 17th time of asking.
With 10 minutes remaining on Sunday, Wenger must have feared that impressive record was about to be ended. The Gunners were trailing to Michu’s goal and looked down, and in all probability, out.
Five minutes later, they were 2-1 ahead and a place in the fourth round was in their hands, only for a defence that had looked fragile all afternoon to fail to close out the game and allow Danny Graham to equalise.
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However, with a replay against the Welsh side to come at the Emirates next Wednesday, and a fourth round tie at Championship Brighton awaiting the winners, a glimmer of Wembley glory come May has come into view. Making it a reality will still take some doing though, even for the optimists around the club.
Jack Wilshere is unashamedly one of those, and is hopeful that Sunday’s comeback could be the catalyst for the Gunners to end their silverware drought that goes back to lifting this trophy in the Millenium Stadium almost eight years ago.
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“We all want a trophy,” says Wilshere. “When you finish your career, you look back and see how many trophies you won, so we all want them and we know how much the fans do. We know how much this Cup means and we want to get to Wembley, win and pick up the trophy.”
Easier said than done, a fact which Wilshere acknowledges: “It’s easy to sit here and say that when we get the first trophy, more will follow, but we know how tough the FA Cup is this year.
“We’re still in it, though, and we’re still in the Champions League, so we’re in a good position and we just need to make sure we get the results now.”
“We’re all hungry for it and maybe if we get a trophy this year, it can open the way for a few more. We’ve got a good crop of young players alongside some more experienced ones, like Mikel Arteta. So if we get a trophy this year or in the next couple of years we can really build something, a strong team who can stay strong for the next few years.”
What Wilshere, and surely Wenger also must know is that Arsenal will not win anything if they defend like they did on Sunday.
Michu, who has now scored three goals in a little over 120 minutes against Arsenal, will clearly be the man to stop in next week’s replay because from the moment he replaced Jonathan de Guzman on Sunday, the Gunners did not get near him.
But there were more problems than that. Wenger had decided to leave out his captain, Thomas Vermaelen, and pair Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker in the centre of defence.
They didn’t look too troubled until Michu arrived, but even after the Gunners had turned the game on its head to lead 2-1, Swansea always looked capable of scoring.
While Wenger’s introduction of Lukas Podolski sparked the comeback, the manager’s failure to replace any of his tired team towards the end has to be questioned.
The central midfield trio of Wilshere, Arteta and Santi Cazorla all looked exhausted, while Theo Walcott was another who could have made way for a more defensive-minded player, or one such as Vermaelen, who could have offered more assistance at defending set pieces.
Ultimately it was that weakness which again cost the Gunners on Sunday, and it is that lack of ruthlessness, that inability to hold on to a lead, that is the difference between winning medals and being left to dream about them.
Arsenal are still in the Cup, but host Michael Laudrup’s side next week with Swansea’s 2-0 win in December still fresh in the memory. Their chances of silverware, just like Wenger’s proud third-round record, remain very much in the balance.