Arsenal – Reading FA Cup Semi-final
I jest, of course, but in the wake of (finally) beating Manchester United at Old Trafford in the previous round and then avoiding Premier League competition in the draw for the semis, many Gooners reflexively believed our path to the final was assured. The match has finally come and now it must be played. In other words, believe it or not, we are NOT through to the final. Not yet, at least.
Reading FC stand in our way and a cursory look at the form of both teams would suggest that it would be a remarkable story if they could find a way past us and into the final. Since winning their replay vs Bradford City they have not notched another victory and they currently sit 18th in the Championship–35 teams stand between the two clubs if the PL table is placed atop theirs. By contrast Arsenal’s win at OT was just one in a run of 8 (in all competitions). In fact, since the low point of the first half of our season, shipping 3 first half goals at Stoke City in mid-December, Arsenal have won 20 out of 24 matches played.
They say, however, that form goes out the window in the cup matches and many will remember how Arsenal struggled in this same match vs lower league competition (Wigan) a year ago, needing a late goal from Per Mertesacker to take the match to extra time and penalties. Others may also remember needing extra time the last time we played Reading in a cup match. That one, in the league cup in Autumn 2012, featured an even worse first half than the one mentioned above, with Arsenal shipping 4(!!) first half goals. It took a crazy 2nd half comeback and then more goals in extra time to advance.
It’s no wonder then that manager Arsene Wenger is emphasizing a strong start in this match. He’s also mentioned that the experience at Wembley from a year ago will also help the team come into the match with full focus.
Meanwhile, Wenger’s opposite, Steve Clarke, has taken a different tack with a one liner exuding confidence but also hinting at a psychological conundrum facing his squad. “When we beat Arsenal, we have to wait four weeks after our last league game to play the Cup final.” Many are focusing on the “when” (not “if”) part of the quote, but I would look at the 2nd part. While Arsenal players would rather (or additionally) be playing tournament football for a place in a final in Berlin on the 6th of June, they will not mind the earlier date (May 30) of the domestic cup final–and, ideally, another parade through Islington the following day. Clarke’s statement is clearly an admonishment to his players to avoid taking the easy path to putting a less than satisfying season behind them prematurely. They are 8 points above the relegation places (with 6 to play) so they still have a measure of work to do. Still, beating a big team at Wembley and making the cup final would be an outsized accomplishment and the perfect stepping stone to a happier summer and real promise for the coming season. We’ll have further mind games next week vs Chelsea, but these, from another former Chelsea man, aren’t bad.
If Reading can get past that (small) psychological hurdle all the pressure shifts back to Arsenal. This article, written by a Reading FC fan–cheers to Gerry for pointing us to it, http://thetilehurstend.sbnation.com/2015/4/16/8419577/reading-fc-v-arsenal-tactics-previewwritten details some vulnerabilities in our squad and the tactics and players Clarke might use to exploit them. It’s a very interesting read and highlights the need for positional discipline and solid defense down our flanks, which is extra interesting as I think it’s in this area where we might see some rotation from Wenger.
There were no injuries from the Burnley match, but Wenger has hinted that a couple of players coming off long term injuries might be available for the semi-final. Mathieu Debuchy and Jack Wilshere sound as if they will be named to the squad (Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby will “be short”), but will they make the first 11? (There have also been hints at slight knocks or illnesses, i.e., “Weng-juries,” for defenders Hector Bellerin and Gabriel Paulista.) I think Debuchy is the more likely starter as he did not play in the midweek Under 21 match. Wojciech Szczesny has been our FA cup keeper and surely will get another go. Kieran Gibbs played at right back at Brighton in the round of 16 but Nacho Monreal got the call at Old Trafford, where he scored the critical first goal, and has become first choice in this position. That one’s a toss-up. Could this also be a chance (finally) for Theo Walcott? There’s been so much speculation around his contract negotiations that it’s hard to know if they are affecting his selection. Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were favored in the previous round, with Walcott warming up but then getting recalled to the bench after the Ox went off with a hamstring strain. How much longer can he go without a chance? Many players have done nothing particularly wrong, notably Welbeck, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini, so, other spots could be up for grabs too. Still, I don’t see Wenger rotating more than a few players from the successful teams which started vs Liverpool and at Burnley. Subs could be more important than usual given that the match could go 120 minutes (and then to penalties), and, for a nice (but harsh) change, some fit players will not even make the first 18.
Predicted first 11:
Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs
Walcott, Ozil, Alexis
(Predicted subs: Martinez, Monreal, Bellerin, Rosicky, Ramsey, Wilshere, Welbeck)
That’s only my best guess and other Gooners may have different ideas. By playing Debuchy and Gibbs (with his ferocious recovery pace), and perhaps demanding greater positional discipline from them, we may be able to afford Walcott on the right and Alexis more focused on attack. Being able to punish Reading on the break would be a real treat and might actually work to inhibit them getting too many players forward when they do have the ball.
Being a former defender himself, Clarke has always emphasized that part of the game. Thus, getting the first goal could be critical as his teams tend to be strong when defending a lead. We cannot afford to go behind as we did in our two most recent trips to the national stadium. Take the match seriously, start brightly–and with full focus–and, finally, be willing to absorb whatever Reading, referee Martin Atkinson and all other fates throw our way and we’ve got a great chance to make the final for a 2nd time running and (a record) 19th time since the competition began.
Go on then..