Arsenal v Manchester City – FA Cup Semi-Final – Verdict
After a thrilling encounter between Chelsea and Spurs the day before, Arsenal v Manchester City had quite a bit to live up to in terms of entertainment.
There had been talk of Gabriel Jesus being fit enough to play some part in the game, this was fuelled by Guardiola stating that the Brazilian would travel with the squad. However, despite the optimistic speculation Jesus wasn’t fit enough to make the Matchday squad. The big news before kick off was that Claudio Bravo had retained his place in goal for City, despite what a significant number of City fans had hoped for. That said, I don’t think it really made a difference to the end result, as I’ll explain later.
Opinions on Bravo aside, Guardiola went with arguably his strongest possible starting XI out of the players fit. Jesus Navas continued at right-back after strong displays there in recent games, and to counter the pace of Alexis Sanchez. The rest of the back four consisted of club captain, Vincent Kompany, Nicolas Otamendi and Gael Clichy. The midfield of Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Leroy Sané, supporting Sergio Agüero up front. Amazingly, this was actually the first time in his City managerial career that Pep had named an unchanged side from the previous game.
Arsene Wenger named a team with three at the back (Holding, Koscielny and Gabriel), four in the midfield (Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Xhaka and Monreal), and a front three of Özil, Sanchez and Giroud.
The match started with both teams looking fairly even in terms pace and intensity. City’s passing, however, was the more crisp of the two. David Silva’s presence in the midfield allowed more freedom to De Bruyne and Sané on the flanks, as it meant the Arsenal midfield were occupied with trying to starve the little wizard of the opportunity play creative passes. However, City’s plans were scuppered when David Silva was crocked by a poor challenge from Gabriel in the 11th minute. The referee didn’t deem the challenge worthy of a yellow card, but it was bad enough for his game to be over in the 23rd minute when he asked to be subbed. His withdrawal saw Kevin De Bruyne move into the middle of the park and substitute Raheem Sterling deployed on the flank.
Unfortunately, despite De Bruyne’s quality, he wasn’t able to play as effectively as Silva in the middle, but this was in part due to the fact that Arsenal’s marking shifted too; instead of having two players central where Silva had been, the ‘extra’ Arsenal defender moved on to Leroy Sané. There were so many times where De Bruyne would look to play the ball in behind the defenders for Sané to run on to, only to find that the young German was being heavily marked by two or three Arsenal players.
De Buyne did manage to find Sané with a weighted through-ball in the 40th minute; Sané latched on to the end of it and swung in a cross which looped over Petr Cech in the Arsenal goal. The ball fell to Kun Agüero who hit it into the goal – the ball crossing the line and hit Petr Cech before bouncing out and being tapped in to the back of the net by Raheem Sterling. However, the linesman deemed that the ball had gone out of play when Sané had played the cross and the referee, following the lead of the linesman, deemed ‘no goal’. The replays showed that the ball had not gone completely out of play and, having forced myself to watch the game back again, it looked to me like the linesman was guessing, because he was a yard or two behind play – something Guardiola also stated during his post-match press conference. City fans will feel hard done to and it irked me too, particularly as the liner wasn’t in the right line to make the decision.
The teams went into the half-time break level at nil-nil. City had enjoyed the majority of the possession and the majority of chances. City had managed 241 passes, with 90% successrate with Arsenal just a mere 79 passes in the first 45 minutes. There were two other talking points from the first half though; firstly should Agüero have had a penalty after Oxlade-Chamberlain caught him from behind? And should Sanchez have had a penalty after being dragged down by Jesus Navas in the 45th minute?
In short, I think they were both penalties and Craig Pawson, the referee, got them both wrong.
The second half carried on in the same manner as the first. The opening goal of the game came in the 62nd minute courtesy of a Sergio Agüero finish. The move started with Yaya Toure taking the ball off Aaron Ramsey on the edge of the City box. The Ivorian played a nicely lofted ball out to Agüero who was on-side just in the Arsenal half. Agüero completely out paced Nacho Monreal, the lone Arsenal defender, and steamed towards the Arsenal goal. A touch to knock the ball forward on the edge of the Arsenal penalty area was enough to tempt, or perhaps drag is a better description, Petr Cech out and buy himself enough space to neatly dink the ball past the Arsenal keeper. It was a cool a finish as you’ll see, one of those cheeky little chips that Messi so often scores with ease. His celebration showed exactly what scoring a goal at Wembley means to him, much like the time he scored against Chelsea in the 2013 FA Cup Semi-Final.
The goal was Agüero’s 30th of the season in all competitions, his 5th in 5 FA Cup appearances this season and his 6th goal in each of City’s last six games. The goal also takes his City career total to 166 , making him the club’s joint second highest all time top goal scorer alongside Tommy Johnson and eleven goals behind Eric Brook.
Arsenal struck back in the 71st minute with a rare goal coming from Nacho Monreal. The lead up to the goal was poor from City’s point of view, a poor passage of play allowed Arsenal to have too much time on the ball. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, playing as the right-wing-back for Arsenal swung a superb cross in from deep on the right; the cross foxed the City defence and the City keeper, Monreal charged in at the back post after being unmarked – the fault of Jesus Navas, Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling (take your pick!) – and thumped the ball home low and hard with his right foot at Claudio Bravo’s near post.
From Arsenal’s point of view, it was a good goal and it came at an important time during the game as it lifted both their fans and the team. However, Guardiola owes his players a dressing down for pretty much everything that led to the goal; City had stopped their high pressing, they got sloppy and invited Arsenal to have a go. Oxlade-Chamberlain should never have been allowed the time and space to get his cross away – for that you can blame Kevin De Bruyne, who was happy to watch. If you’ve read my previous posts on City, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of De Bruyne, but I also think he’s incredibly lax defensively and doesn’t do enough for the team when City don’t have possession. Nacho Monreal should also never have been allowed to steam into the City box completely unmarked – for that, as I’ve said above, you can take your pick from three City players, there was clearly a lack of communication and a clear attention being payed for Monreal to make the run unmarked. Not good enough City. I’ve heard a few City fans blame Bravo for conceding this goal so close to the post, but give over, there was nothing he could’ve done to keep it out, and no, Joe Hart would not have done better. I’m not a Bravo fan, I’m just being realistic.
The Arsenal equaliser did wake City up a little, and it wasn’t long before they were applying the pressure to Arsenal again. Yaya Toure’s half volley on the turn forced Petr Cech to make a great save in the 79th minute; Cech’s finger tips knocking the ball onto the post. There was literally a fingernail in it.
Minutes later City hit the woodwork again. Fernandino’s header smashed against the cross bar following a City corner in the 82nd minute. At this point, it felt to me like this was just going to be one of those days.
As I mentioned in the build up to Monreal’s goal, City’s pressing game started to fade. The City players started to look the more tired of the two teams. This was confirmed when the full-time whistle blew and the majority of the City players slumped to the floor in front of the dugout, whereas the majority of the the Arsenal team remained stood. This was concerning to see and didn’t fill me with optimism for the periods of Extra Time that were to follow, let alone penalties. Leroy Sané and Sergio Agüero in particular, looked the most knackered, for want of a better phrase.
Extra-Time started with both teams continuing to probe for gaps in each other’s defensive lines, but with both team’s midfields dropping back and compacting, there was little doing. However, in the 9th minute, there was a double substitution made by Pep Guardiola, which has since caused a number of City fans to go off on essay-long rants on social media. I’ll be at the time, the crowd inside the ground were perplexed by it too, but without knowing the full story, myself and the City fans around me, put our faith in Pep. You know the substitutions I’m talking about: Sergio Agüero coming off for Fabian Delph and Fernandinho coming off for Fernando. As it turns out, both players were exhausted, but Agüero had also suffered a knock which, looking back you can see he left the field in discomfort and Guardiola has since stated that Agüero was effectively “dead” because of it.
Whilst the substitutions were concerning, as it felt like negative changes by Pep, they were not the cause of what was to follow. A foul on Danny Welbeck between the City penalty area and the corner flag allowed Mesut Özil to swing in a free kick. The ball was bumbled around after Koscienly nodded it down and Alexis Sanchez forced the ball home. It’s this killer instinct, aside from his obvious class, that has got most of the big clubs’ heads turned, as he goes into the final year of his contract. Again, from City’s point of this was poor defending. The making from set pieces has been poor by City for the majority of the season and I’m honestly in serious doubt as to whether or not Guardiola spends any of City’s training sessions working on defending set pieces. Aside from that, you could also say that Gaël Clichy was slow to react as Sanchez poked the ball home, but having watch the goal back, I think it’d be a bit harsh.
City did react to the goal, but their efforts started to look a bit desperate. It looked like the City players were losing their cool a bit and the incident which led to Fabian Delph’s yellow card supports this assumption; he didn’t need to get involved in a shoving match with Granit Xhaka. [That said, from what I’ve seen of Xhaka this season and last year in the Champions League for Borrusia Mönchengladbach, he seems like a bit of a wind up merchant, as well as a cynical fouler, so I’d probably lose my temper with him too.]
Half-time in Extra Time and Guardiola made an effort to wake the City players and fans up. He was clearly agitated by the performance. However, with no Agüero you had to wonder what City were going to do to get an equaliser. Then, Pep – seemingly the only person in Wembley who remembered this season’s rule change!- made FA Cup history by making a fourth substitution; bringing on Kelechi Iheanacho for Raheem Sterling. So, alright, City didn’t win, but they still made FA Cup history!
There were chances for City to level the score in the second half of injury time with Kelechi Iheanacho failing to make the most of two slight opportunities and Hector Bellerin making a superb block to prevent Fabian Delph from scoring. A Kevin De Bruyne shot also went just a fraction wide of the post. However, despite City’s efforts Arsenal rode out the closing minutes and booked their place in the FA Cup final. Thus confirming that Pep Guardiola will finish his first season in England with no siverware – the first season in his managerial career where he has failed to win anything.
Congratulations need to be given to Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, it was a team performance and the win was earned. Will this be enough to silence the Wenger out crowd?
There’s been a lot said following the game about the performance of the officials, the Telegraph have even produced an article which states that the game was too big for Craig Pawson to referee. Whilst I don’t think the Pawson or his assistance performed well, I don’t believe they can be held to blame for the end result. Yes, there was a goal wrongly disallowed for City, but both teams also had penalty shouts waved away; for all of the decisions that the officials got wrong, they cancelled each other out.
As a City fan, I’m more concerned by what has been the story of the season for us:- we played some great football, dominated possession and the rest of the key stats, but failed to win, again. What’s disappointing is that City just seemed to fizzle out as the game wore on. We looked haggard and lost that cutting edge and composure. To sum the game up (and in many ways, the season as a whole) in one word, I’d say: “deflating”. City ran out of spark and steam.
It’s clear to everyone that this City team has now reached its expiry date. Clichy and Toure are over the hill, the defence is shattered. As great as it is to see Kompany back – and he’s so far looked like he’s as solid a defender as he’s ever been – it’s clear that we can’t rely on him to play week-in week-out. Guardiola needs to spend in the summer, bring in a solid centre-half to partner John Stones regularly, so that Kompany can be given suitable rests between games. New full-backs and a first choice goalkeeper are also priorities, but not just that, a midfield colossus to replace Toure and offer something different to Gündogan is required.
Next up it’s the Manchester Derby and City have got to get their heads together in order to ensure that they’ve got Champions League football next season. The injuries to Silva, Agüero and Sterling will worry City fans. However, at the time of writing this, there are reports emerging in the written press that Silva and Agüero should be fit to make the game on Thursday. I’m aware that there’s a number of City fans who’ve “lost their rag” with Guardiola at the moment, probably because of unrealistic expectations that have come with hype, but let’s just calm down. The Derby is a must win, because it’s a Derby, that’s just how it is. It’s not a game that will decide Pep’s future and it’s ludicrous to even suggest it. Anyway, it’s time to put the FA Cup behind us until next season and time to get behind the team for the remaining games.