If this was season-saving Sunday for Manchester City and Arsenal, it is Pep Guardiola who will be counting the cost of failure. For all the hype over the arrival of the world’s best manager into English football, Guardiola has never had it so hard. A reported summer transfer budget of £200m has been mooted, and on this evidence every penny of it will be needed.
For Arsene Wenger, FA Cup salvation once more. This competition has been Arsenal’s face-saver before, and it may well be again. For those supporters of a pessimistic nature, Sunday evening may be the perfect time for Arsenal to announce the new contract that most suspect was signed and sealed weeks ago.
The biggest argument against Wenger’s new two-year contract is the suspicion that talk of change is far easier than making it reality. The leaks of transfer war chests are intended as a distraction from Arsenal’s slump from Premier League title challengers to also rans. Arsenal can promise change, but that requires Wenger to do the same. He is omnipotent and omniscient at this club.
At Wembley, we at least saw positive signs that a change can come. Wenger chose to stick with the three-man central defence that he trialled for the first time in 20 years at Middlesbrough last Monday. If it creaked at the Riverside, it mostly stayed firm against a far more proficient attack. If any formation can make Gabriel Paulista play as well as on Sunday, it is worth perseverance. Rob Holding also deserves huge credit for his role as the defensive aggressor, making two more clearances than any other player on the pitch.
The biggest beneficiary of this new shape is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the best player at Wembley in another new role. His stamina, pace and desire have never been in question, and playing at wing-back maximises each of those characteristics. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross for Nacho Monreal’s equaliser was sensational.
It was not just Arsenal’s three-man central defence that surprised at Wembley, but their appetite to snap into the tackle. During the first 45 minutes they conceded 12 fouls, just four fewer than they have committed in an entire Premier League match this season. That included causing injury to David Silva – who was substituted – and significant pain to Sergio Aguero. By full-time, the number had reached 20.
Crucially, Arsenal divided those crimes between them, rather than Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka hogging them and thus picking up bookings and risking red cards. Of those 12 first-half fouls, Nacho Monreal was the only outfield player without a mark next to his name. It was a strategy of tactical fouling we have never seen from Arsenal.
“It’s not especially any particular player but it looks to me that some players make repeated fouls and it doesn’t matter how many fouls they make but they get a card when it’s a spectacular foul,” Wenger said as far back as 2009.
“It’s the little fouls in the middle of the park. It breaks up the game from when you are attacking three against three, four against four and then you get a free kick and it’s ten against ten again. All the work you have done is nothing. We call it a tactical foul. I think I will try to talk to the FA about it. It’s the same for Manchester United, Liverpool and for everybody.”
Eight years after expressing his distaste for tactical fouls and his intention to tell the teacher, has Wenger embraced the game’s ‘dark arts’? His early Arsenal tenure was plagued by on-pitch ill-discipline, but back then it was the number of red cards that drew censure. For Arsenal, ‘clever’ has perennially referred to their aesthetically pleasing attacking rather than cynical breaking up of play.
What Wenger has never denied is how effective the tactic can be. In that 2009 interview he referred to the practice being commonly used at international level, but it is now a staple of many successful teams. Good guys don’t always finish first.
The Premier League’s most effective exponent are Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham. Spurs ranked fourth last season for fouls committed, but it was the strategy of spreading fouls – and yellow cards – around the team that was most obvious. Interesting too was where Tottenham committed those fouls. They ranked first in the league for free-kicks given away in the opposition half.
The theory is simple. Breaking up play as soon as you are dispossessed stops the opposition exploiting space on the counter attack and creating the overlaps that can be so effective in chance creation. Roughly speaking, the higher up the pitch a free-kick is conceded, the more likely a referee is to be lenient in awarding cards.
If Tottenham are the Premier League kings of cynicism, Arsenal are their antidote, or at least were until Sunday. This season, they have committed an average of 10.4 fouls per league games, more than only Hull City and Bournemouth. In 2015/16, only Roberto Martinez’s mild-mannered Everton committed fewer.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that; there are plenty of ways to skin the footballing cat. Yet the accusation against Wenger’s Arsenal is that they too readily display a soft underbelly in the most high-profile matches, particularly away from home. On that charge, the proof is in the sour-tasting pudding.
Wenger still has much to do to convince his hoard of critics that he merits even more faith than he has enjoyed until now, and that includes an FA Cup final victory against the likely Premier League champions. Yet, for once, his Arsenal team displayed a big-game strategy to follow rather than avoid. Supporters can finally walk with their heads held high; those Fan TV cameras can stop their rolling footage.