* Every time it looks like Arsene Wenger might be out for the count, he stumbles back to his feet and barely regains his balance for the next round. An FA Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City will not convince many fans that he can lead the club into the future, but now is the time to reflect on a decisive victory in the present.
For the first time in a long time, this was an Arsenal with purpose, vigour, intensity and, most strikingly of all, a plan. This was a team, not a collection of individuals. The Gunners absorbed pressure in the first half and looked to capitalise in the second, but even when that backfired and City scored, they stayed the course. Arsenal kept their nerve while City lost theirs.
They still sit seventh in the Premier League table, they still might not qualify for the Champions League and this has still been one of the most difficult seasons in their recent history, but this was a result and a performance to savour. Indeed, it was the first time since the 5-2 victory over Tottenham in November 2012 that Arsenal had come from behind to beat a fellow top-six side.
* Wenger and Pep Guardiola both undoubtedly kept a close eye on Chelsea’s win over Tottenham in the other semi-final, but neither decided to follow the blueprint set by the Italian. Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane and Alexis Sanchez all started as both managers named their best forwards in their starting line-ups instead of on the bench.
For Guardiola, this was a first. This was the only time the Spaniard had been afforded the luxury of naming an unchanged starting line-up, with those who impressed in the comfortable win over Southampton being trusted at Wembley. Even Claudio Bravo kept his place.
That City had to wait until the end of April to name their first unchanged starting line-up points to two things: this has been a season interrupted by injuries – although that is no excuse for the disappointment – and the manager is finally starting to settle on a preferred system and personnel.
* As for Wenger, his campaign to prove he can be the face of change continued full tilt. It was on the day of the 2-2 draw with City earlier this month that quotes emerged from Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis stating that there must be “a catalyst for change” at the club this summer.
Wenger’s comments after the win over Middlesbrough were an indirect but completely transparent response. When asked of his tactical switch to a three-man defence, he replied: “The first time in 20 years, and that shows you that even at my age you can change.”
The Gunners had hardly roared to victory courtesy of the change – they beat the relegation-bound lowest scorers in England’s top four divisions 2-1, while Boro had more shots (13 to 12) and more shots on target (5 to 4). If Stewart Downing could cause them problems, lord only knew what Leroy Sane had in store.
* Having already played in Sergio Aguero for the most promising opportunity of the game by that point, it was a shame to see David Silva limp down the tunnel midway through the first half.
The Spaniard remonstrated with referee Craig Pawson as he made his way to the touchline, and rightly so. Minutes earlier, Gabriel had crashed into the back of Silva’s leg with a clumsy, needless challenge. Howard Webb offered the typical defence on BT Sport, saying that Pawson was right in allowing the game to flow.
I might be alone in questioning the continued insistence that bookable offences should not be punished with bookings, but so be it. Pawson created a rod for his own back by not handing a yellow to Gabriel, and lost a degree of control on the game thereafter. By the end of the first half, both sides had penalty shouts wrongly turned down, City had a goal incorrectly disallowed, and Nacho Monreal was the only Arsenal outfielder not to have committed at least one foul. Someone else noticed the trend of systematic fouling too.
* Silva’s injury-enforced substitution was the equivalent of a reluctant lobotomy for Guardiola. City were dominant with their footballing brain on the pitch, but seemed to completely lack individual thought when he was removed. Their style revolves around him so obviously they seem to lack any true direction without him.
It is a situation that Wenger can understand more than anyone. Arsenal are a different proposition with Santi Cazorla in the side, for the Spaniard is so integral to their game plan. After watching Chelsea beat Tottenham – a side who themselves dealt without an injured Harry Kane so convincingly – when resting their two best forwards, it was a striking difference, and perhaps an example of why these two sides are so far behind.
* Before the game, it was expected that Sane would play a key role in City’s attacking endeavours. The German has emerged as one of the club’s best outlets in recent months, and had scored in both of his previous two games against Arsenal this season.
To Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s credit, Sane’s threat was nullified for much of the opening period, but City’s most telling attack did come through their winger. Sane broke down the left flank and pulled a cross to the back post for Aguero to finish. Petr Cech saved that effort – although it appeared to cross the line – but substitute Sterling added the finishing touch.
It took Guardiola’s men a matter of seconds to realise the goal had been ruled out. The linesman adjudged that Sane’s delivery had crossed the line, but one simple video replay showed otherwise. There is no blame to be attributed to the linesman here, for it was a split-second decision; if only there was some sort of technology that could have assisted him.
* There was very little debate concerning Arsenal’s first-half penalty shout – Sanchez was clearly fouled by Jesus Navas in the penalty area as a free-kick was floated in – but there was some questioning over whether City deserved a spot-kick themselves.
Saturday saw a makeshift wing-back commit a quite ridiculous and naive foul in his own penalty area, and while Oxlade-Chamberlain’s slight trip on Aguero was hardly the gift-wrapped present of idiocy that Heung-min Son presented to Chelsea 24 hours earlier, it was still a foul. The debate was that the contact was minimal, but Aguero was shaping to shoot in the penalty area. He is not the sort of striker to waste that kind of opportunity, and even the slightest touch can knock anyone off balance in that situation. The half-time score was 0-0; the deserved penalty score was one apiece.
* It felt throughout like the sort of game that would be settled by either a moment of individual brilliance or an individual mistake. Both these sides are capable of either extreme, but it was Arsenal who blinked first.
A period of concentrated Arsenal pressure had almost seen Giroud open the scoring, and City remained camped in their own half after the subsequent corner. The ball was handed to Aaron Ramsey, and City sensed the moment to pounce. Yaya Toure stole possession from the Welshman, and lofted a through ball over the top for Aguero to chase and eventually finish. The Gunners, in their eternal wisdom, had left Monreal as the only defender against the Argentine.
It was not the most aesthetically pleasing of counter-attacks, but it was damn efficient. City had found the breakthrough in the midst of Arsenal’s most dominant spell.
* Aguero’s finish was masterful, but his second touch almost cost him the opportunity to shoot. As he gathered the ball into his stride he hit it a good five or so yards into the penalty area, the goalkeeper’s domain.
Except Cech was nowhere to be seen. He advanced from his line as Aguero bore down on goal, then retreated just as the forward lost a modicum of control. The keeper came forward again to try and save the shot, but Aguero comfortably dinked it over him. Ramsey’s initial error opened the door slightly for City, but Cech kicked it wide open.
The 34-year-old would make an excellent save from a Toure volley later on, but he has still endured one of his worst seasons in recent memory. The usual calls will be for Arsenal to sign a goalscoring striker or a tough-tackling midfielder, but a new goalkeeper should be high on the agenda this summer, even if only to provide proper competition.
* And so the onus was on Arsenal once more. They had spent most of the first half content to contain City, but started the second half on the front foot. Naturally, they conceded at the moment they sought more control.
But if any side has as much of a penchant for self-destruction as Arsenal, it is City. They squandered the lead twice against the Gunners to draw earlier this month, and held the advantage for a mere nine minutes here.
As it happened, it was Wenger’s tactical switch that was key. Oxlade-Chamberlain burst down the right-hand side and delivered a sumptuous cross for Monreal to finish. The Spaniard had been unable to catch Aguero on the break for City’s goal, but atoned for his lack of speed there with a delightful driven finish.
It was a lovely example of two wing-backs combining to great effect, and showed at least part of the reason why Wenger has chosen to make the change so late in the season. With the comfort blanket of three central defenders, one wing-back is able to push towards the byline while the other waits at the back post for a potential cross. This time around, it worked to perfection.
* A word for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has already enjoyed more transformative performances than most throughout their entire careers. The 23-year-old emerged at the club as a bright forward before transitioning into central midfield, but he looks a natural fit at wing-back.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was one of the few who truly impressed against Middlesbrough in the new formation, but was a delight to watch at Wembley. He not only nullified the considerable threat of Sane, but he created three goalscoring chances – more than all but one player. No player completed more dribbles (6), and Monreal (68) and Granit Xhaka (63, and who was much improved) were the only Arsenal players to have more touches (59).
One should proceed with caution, for this is a player who has endured more false dawns than a Vicar of Dibley impressionist convention, but Wenger’s formational change of heart could reinvigorate the career of one of his famed favourites.
* For a man who loves playing three at the back more than he does his own family, Glenn Hoddle’s expert opinion on Arsenal’s formation might have worried a select few. “I think that’s a slight risk,” he stated confidently on BT Sport before kick-off.
Many would have shared the view, considering the switch meant that Laurent Koscielny was flanked by Rob Holding and Gabriel. One has rarely been given the opportunity to impress, never mind at Wembley, while the other had flattered to deceive since arriving at the Emirates in January 2015.
Both were excellent. Gabriel made three tackles, three interceptions and six clearances, while Holding made two tackles, one interception and eight clearances. If this was an audition for long-term first-team places, both are past the screening stage.
* If that was Yaya Toure’s final Wembley appearance for Manchester City, he certainly did himself proud. The Ivorian has produced some incredible and historic moments for the club at this stadium down the years, and while he is no longer capable of producing such brilliance, he was City’s best player.
It likely says more about City’s season that a 33-year-old who started the campaign being frozen out by the new manager was easily their most influential, most motivated individual in an FA Cup semi-final, but that should take nothing away from his performance. His assist for Aguero was great, while a number of his drives from deep in midfield reminded us of a simpler time when Yaya was king. He should leave in the summer, but he should do so with his head held high.
* With neither side able to find a crucial second goal in 90 minutes, extra-time beckoned. It became a bout between two heavyweights throwing lazy uppercuts in the 11th round in the hope of landing a knock-out punch.
It was a test of who would use their substitutes in the best possible way. After 90 minutes, both sides had made only one change, and City’s was the enforced introduction of Sterling. Danny Welbeck came on for the ineffective Olivier Giroud after 83 minutes, and would change the course of the game.
It’s not that Welbeck was brilliant – his decision-making was once more exposed on a number of occasions – but he helped stretch a City defence already at their limits. As static as Giroud had been, Welbeck’s pace and movement must have been a nightmare to suddenly acclimatise to.
Wenger’s next substitution saw Hector Bellerin replace man of the match Oxlade-Chamberlain, and his pace was also a key outlet. The Spaniard also blocked a shot from Fabian Delph that would surely have found the back of the net. Francis Coquelin was the Frenchman’s third change, completing a job well done in the final minute.
As for Guardiola, it hardly reflects well that his two substitutions after Sterling were Delph and Fernando. They came on in the 99th minute, and City conceded the winner in the 101st. Kelechi Iheanacho was his final change for the last period of extra-time, but he replaced Sterling as they chased an equaliser.
Wenger not only won the tactical battle against a man many believe has laid bare the weaknesses in his methods, but he showed the wherewithal to change the course of the game through his substitutions too. Guardiola failed on both counts.
* That it was Sanchez who struck the winner was fitting, with the Chilean’s thirst for trophies at the forefront of wranglings over his future. He is right to question the club’s ambition, whether that be privately or publicly, but he also has to set an example.
His recent performances have been poor, and while this was by no means his best game, he led the Gunners into battle. His energy levels and tenacity lasted well into extra-time at a point when many of City’s troops had lost the mental fight. As he often does, Sanchez ended it as a physical contest too with his effort in the 99th minute. He has a chance at Wembley to prove Arsenal can stand toe to toe with the Premier League’s best next month.
* “I will be better, definitely. This season was a lesson for me.”
Never mind “a lesson”, this season has been a whole curriculum for Guardiola, who faces up to the reality of not only a first managerial campaign finishing outside the top two, but a first trophyless season.
Those comparing Guardiola’s first campaign to Manuel Pellegrini’s third and final one at the Etihad Stadium are perhaps willingly missing the point, for the Spaniard was appointed to oversee a culture of change throughout the club. But that does not offset the considerable disappointment that has been Guardiola’s debut campaign on these shores.
One wonders whether the Spaniard kept a close eye on proceedings at Turf Moor. United’s comfortable win over Burnley leaves them just one point behind. Thursday’s derby has taken on a ridiculous level of importance as a result.
Guardiola was brought in to help City win the Champions League. For him to not even qualify in his first season at the club would be a disaster. It would not be a punishable offence, for City have invested too much in this particular project to throw it out at this stage, but what would the City owners have said if they were told back in August that by April they would only be competing for a fourth-placed finish?