Monday, February 28, 2011
Carling Cup Final: Birmingham 2-1 Arsenal
Some are hoping that Arsenal can pick themselves up from this, and win one of the three bigger tournaments they are still competing for this season. I am asking whether they will win another trophy under Arsene Wenger.
The team were on a decent run of results until yesterday. Unbeaten since the meek surrender to United at Old Trafford. But there had been signs of weakness. Most obviously, there was the amazing collapse at Newcastle, drawing a game they had led 4-0. More relevant to yesterday, perhaps, was the struggle during the FA Cup ties against Leeds, Huddersfield, and Leyton Orient. These games suggested that Arsenal's reserve players struggle to beat limited, but well-orgainised and highly motivated underdogs.
Against Birmingham, Wenger did not want to play too many of his back-up players. But injuries to Fabregas and Walcott forced his hand. Still, that shouldn't have mattered. The only non-regular to come in was Rosicky. Positionally speaking, he is a direct replacement for Fabregas. Quality-wise, he is now painfully inadequate. But the biggest blow, as it turned out, was to the mental side of Arsenal's game. Without their captain and best player, they looked nervous and failed miserably to impose their much-vaunted passing style. Still, big teams win without playing well. They do it by hanging in, not making mistakes...
The game started with Arsenal enjoying a huge slice of luck.
Zigic, found by Fahey, played the best pass of his career through to Lee Bowyer, making a vintage Ljungberg-style run beyond the Arsenal defence. Bowyer reached the ball ahead of the on-rushing Szczesny, and was bowled over by the Pole. It was a clear penalty, and quite possibly a red card, but the linesman had wrongly raised his flag. Clichy was playing Bowyer yards onside.
Arsenal rallied a bit. Their first good bit of play came when a nice reverse pass from Nasri found Arshavin in the box with his back to goal. He shimmied to leave Jiranek flailing, but his left foot shot was repelled by the legs of Foster. The first save of many.
The favourites failed to build on this moment of promise, however. Their play was littered with sloppy moments. Alex McLeish had recognised Arsenal's lack of pace sans Walcott, and the Blues defence played high up the pitch. Arsenal offered no direct threat in behind. Birmingham's pressing was aggressive, fair and very effective. Arsenal players didn't look interested, at times, in getting on the ball and playing their football.
Birmingham took a deserved lead. Sagna gave the ball away with the latest of many poor Arsenal passes. The Blues forced a corner. From it, Djourou went wandering instead of marking the towering Zigic. Johnson won the header over Koscielny, and the big man did the rest, nodding the looping ball into the net from close in. Arsenal, characteristically enough, went to pieces for a spell after conceding. Birmingham threatened a second. Szczesny had to save at Zigic's feet. Arsenal were failing to deal with his aerial threat.
Then, an undeserved equaliser. Wilshere was one of few Arsenal men not buckling under the pressure of expectation. He drove forward on the break. Arshavin eventually found him with a pass from the right, and Wilshere's shot from the edge hit the crossbar and looped out. In the same passage of play, Arshavin got the ball again, beat Ridgewell and crossed for Van Persie, who somehow conjured an agile righ-footed volley on the spin, finding the far corner. Another brilliant goal from the Dutchman, but he took a knock in the process which bothered him until his eventual second half withdrawal.
So Arsenal had, for the second time, got out of jail. Surely they would not mess things up now.
The second half began promisingly enough. Van Persie released Sagna to the byeline, and he measured a ball to the edge of the box where Rosicky was steaming in. The Czech struck on the half volley and the shot went just wide.
Birmingham responded. Fahey struck from the edge of the box, Szczesny well beaten, the inside of the post rattled.
As the half wore on, Birmingham dropped deeper, and the threat of Zigic faded. Arsenal finally imposed themselves for a spell, but still failed to create a gilt-edged chance. Mostly, there were shots from the edge of the area. One such, from Nasri, was batted away by Foster. Arsenal continued to attack with a Birmingham player down injured, and Bendtner, on for RVP, saw his deflected shot clawed away impressively. Rosicky had a backheeled attempt blocked by the on-form netminder. Nasri hit one straight at him.
As the half-chances came and went, and Foster kept out the shots, you started to feel that maybe Birmingham's name was on the trophy. Martins came on to provide Zigic with some company. As the 90 approached, the Blues launced another hoof, Zigic beat Djourou to flick on. Martins stood still and the ball was bouncing through to Szczesny. I'm not sure if he should have even had to shout, but if he did do that, Koscielny heard him too late. The Frenchman pulled out, mid-kick, of what was already an unnecessary clearance. The ball rebounded off his confused keeper, and the loose ball fell comically to Martins, who couldn't miss.
Four minutes were added, but Arsenal failed to mount a meaningful attack. The game was up; they had failed on the big stage yet again. Birmingham celebrated wildly and it was hard to begrudge them their success. They had got the tactics spot on, used Zigic well. They were brave, and correct, to push high and deny Arsenal time to settle. They were denied an early penalty. I was happy for Stephen Carr, one of the outstanding full backs in the Premiership. Birmingham plainly had character in spades, the one attribute that Arsenal most glaringly lack.
You have to say, it was apt.
Not particularly unexpected, either. When a massive game is lost late in that manner, you should be surprised. With Arsenal, that's not the case. Defensive mistakes have become routine in recent seasons. Although there has been a brief period of semi-solidity, the CC final saw a return to black slapstick comedy. The first goal was the kind Arsenal concede all the time. But the second was one of the worst we'll ever see. Koscielny was highly impressive against Barca, but the constant aerial barrage against Birmingham clearly frazzled his nerves. There was no need for him to even go for the ball, but I guess he thought Martins was chasing it, and that his keeper hadn't come out to claim. Maybe Szczesny needed to shout, or shout earlier. Maybe Koscileny just should have hoofed now, asked questions later. Maybe the keeper could have been more assertive.
In any case, it's the kind of mistake you just don't see big teams make. But a lack of communication between Arsenal defenders is, at this point, a sad trademark. Something that clearly seperates them from the kind of teams that win things. The goal brought together two fatal flaws that have stained the years since Arsenal's last trophy. Defensive ineptitude, and the absence of experience. Szczesny looks set to be a very good goalkeeper, but he's a rookie. So too, despite the hefty price tag, is Koscielny.
Equally worrying is the unavoidable proof, throughout the game, that Arsenal lack the big game mentality. They looked terrified in the first half. Second period, they improved, and could have scored, but none of the saves Foster was forced into, with the exception of that deflected effort, were amazing, and Arsenal didn't make any great chances. I think they missed Fabregas mentally, but also on a simple, footballing level. None of Arsenal's other attacking midfielders are as incisive, either in their passing or in their running off the ball. Nasri seemed to lack the swagger that has made him so impressive this season. Arshavin was typically erratic, but surely shouldn't have been taken off, especially not for Chamakh, who has been hopeless in recent weeks. Rosicky flitted in and out in his now familiar ineffective style.
Birmingham defended narrow, and Arsenal failed to respond to that by getting wide and making crosses. With Bendtner and Chamakh on the pitch late on, this should have been an obvious tactic, but maybe at that stage Clichy and Sagna were too drained to get forward often enough.
I had said beforehand that victory could be significant. I am sorry to say I think defeat will be equally significant.
Everyone assumed, since West Ham knocked Man Utd out, that Arsenal would win the Carling Cup. They will not often be presented with opposition like Birmingham in a game of that magnitude. That is no disrespect to Birmingham. But Arsenal tend to struggle to beat the likes of Chelsea and Man Utd. So this was a huge opportunity to end the fallow period.
If they cannot beat Birmingham in a Carling Cup final, how do you think they'll do in the Nou Camp? Do you think they can win an FA Cup quarter final at Old Trafford? Do you think, even if United drop points in the league, that Arsenal are able to take advantage? I think they'd bottle it. I think they will lose in the Nou Camp and lose at Old Trafford. As has happened in recent years, I think the season will fall apart in the space of a couple of weeks.
If Arsenal had played convincingly, and won, I would say it was the first piece of silverware this season, promising the possibility of more. Since they lost, and because of the way they did, I can't help feeling it was actually the last chance to win something this season.