Except for Thierry Henry’s goal against Leeds, the start to 2012 has been thoroughly forgettable and could ultimately have a long lasting effect on the second half of our season. With 45 minutes to go in the last match of January, although it didn’t seem possible, things had got worse. Aston Villa had undone us from a short corner and then picked us off on the break. Given how we’ve gone out of the FA Cup in recent seasons with a whimper away to Manchester United and Stoke City, I wasn’t expecting any sort of comeback and was going to have to accept that we’d have given up a chance of a trophy to concentrate on the league.
Most of us won’t know who said what in the Arsenal dressing room at half time, although to turn the match on its head in 16 minutes was a superb effort from the team. A lot of them have come in for a lot of criticism of late, most of which has been deserved, however this match was a reminder that some of the guys in this side are made of sterner stuff that recent Arsenal teams. It was also an indication that the team can be ruthless if needed and are determined to end the trophy drought.
The first half performance wasn’t bad, but it lacked intensity. Everything seemed slightly subdued. The players seemed to be waiting for something to happen to turn our bad run around. It would have been easy for the team to feel sorry for themselves at half time. We were in a similar situation at the end of last season against Aston Villa and lost 2-1 as we didn’t show enough determination in the second half. We did show determination on Sunday. Often when chasing the game, we’ll end up playing a number of meaningless passes around the opposition box and not create anything, but against Villa, we went more direct, but still in an Arsenal style.
Players were suddenly taking responsibility and not waiting for things to happen, they were making them happen. Instead of playing simple sideways passes, midfielders were looking forward and trying to utilise our pace out wide. Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and others were running at players and committing defenders to make space for team mates. Everything was being done at pace, meaning Villa weren’t given the chance to organise their defence and limit the space. We all love our passing, but the more direct running and forward passes played to the strengths of the players on the pitch and made us look very dangerous.
After looking tired in recent weeks, Aaron Ramsey seemed to get a second wind and made some great runs into the box, one of which caused the penalty. Tomas Rosicky was also important for the team in driving us forward as, particularly in the second half, he was constantly looking to move forward when he had the ball. Instead of playing the easier pass, he was willing to try the more risky through ball and was prepared to run back and try and win the ball again if it went wrong.
The whole team were working hard in the second half to win the ball back and not allow Villa to settle. The third goal was a good example of the hard work, direct running and players taking responsibility. After we lost the ball, Oxlade-Chamberlain did well to win it back, and instead of turning back just to keep possession, Laurent Koscielny immediately looked to get forward and create a chance. His one-two with Song was slick and then his buccaneering run drew a deserved penalty. He forced Bent to track the run and committed defenders, forcing Bent to make the rash challenge.
In a second half where, as well as playing well, we were going to need a bit of luck to go our way to complete a comeback, it seemed a good time for our recent run of missing out on penalties to end. Both were clear fouls, but to get two seemed nothing short of miraculous following recent weeks.
With a lot of pressure on the spot kicks, both were clinically dispatched by Robin van Persie. He’s now scored 25 goals in all competitions this season. To have reached that mark by the end of January is sensational. With any chance of us signing another striker before the end of January virtually gone, it goes without saying that we need him to stay fit if we’re going to get back into the top four.
Walcott’s goal definitely had a large slice of luck about it, but his good run made it possible. Hopefully it was the stroke of luck that gives him some confidence back to start performing consistently well again. He was much improved in the second half, and with the competition in the squad following the emergence of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott should know that he needs to improve to keep his place in the side. He showed signs of that on Sunday.
To add to the positives of the second half, Bacary Sagna and Mikel Arteta came off the bench to return from injury. Obviously we could moan about and debate the issue of not signing a full-back for ages, but we’re clearly not going to get someone else in so we can be grateful that Bac is back. He is one of the best right backs in the league and will add a lot to our push for the top four.
The team seem to be taking the FA Cup seriously this year, and with a trip to Sunderland or Middlesbrough waiting in the next round, we have a fantastic chance of making it to the quarter finals. Making the top four will still be the priority, but I don’t want to see the team throw away their chances in the FA Cup as we have done in recent seasons. We had a horrible experience of Wembley last season, so let’s make up for it. It’s our most realistic chance of silverware so hopefully the players will show the same desire and determination in the next rounds as they did in the 2nd half against Aston Villa. Even though they conceded two penalties, I don’t think Villa threw the game away, we just won it well. The way Arsene Wenger has come under pressure in recent weeks has been well documented, but he deserves as much credit as the players for the comeback.
The cup seemed like a release from the horror of our current league form. It should be a catalyst for more league points as the players have proved to themselves that if you close teams down, look to run at players and constantly look to move forward, you can dismantle a team very quickly. As we did when recovering from our start to season, we have to each match as it comes and just focus on giving everything in those 90 minutes and worrying about the bigger picture later. The team can’t assume that one good result means we’ll be ok. However if they show the same commitment, desire and application of skill as they did in that 2nd half, we’ll give ourselves the best chance possible of getting back in the top four and adding the first piece of silverware to the Emirates cupboard. All of that must continue at Bolton on Wednesday.