Despite being in better form than at the same stage of last season going into the FA Cup semi-final, Arsenal still managed to put their fans through the ringer again with a nervy performance at Wembley against a Championship side. Having needed penalties to see off Wigan in 2014, fortunately Arsenal didn’t have to go through spot kicks against Reading, with a lucky 2-1 victory secured in extra time.
While Arsenal weren’t as poor as they were against Wigan, there was still a slightly strange lack of urgency when the Gunners got the ball. Reading were, understandably, compact in midfield and happy to flood the area in front of their back four to try and limit the spaces for Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Alexis Sanchez to operate in. This meant it should have been more important for Arsenal to try and attack quicker when they won back possession.
It was something Arsenal did brilliantly when they took Liverpool apart a couple of weeks ago. They pressed high up the pitch, and when they won the ball, things were done at pace with the Gunners looking forward whenever they got the ball. At Wembley, the forward pass was often declined, allowing Reading to get themselves set and organised defensively.
The lack of intensity was bizarre given the form Arsenal have been in during the recent run of wins in the Premier League. The tentative showing last year should have been a lesson for Arsenal to not be complacent, and the hope was that the Gunners would start well and attempt to blow Reading away with the quick passing. Frustratingly, that didn’t happen.
As much as Arsenal’s own lack of pace in the game, the difficulties Gunners had were partly down to Reading. Arsene Wenger admitted after the match that the intensity from Reading surpassed the level he was expecting from them. With nothing much happening for them in the Championship, this game was Reading’s season. It was vital in Arsenal’s campaign as well, but everything Reading have done in recent weeks was building up to their Wembley visit. Through their effort and determination, it showed in Saturday.
Along with the struggles against Wigan, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Arsenal weren’t at their best. Even though Arsene Wenger has been successful in most of his FA Cup semi-finals, Arsenal haven’t played brilliantly in any of them. Wolves in 1998, Middlesbrough in 2002, Sheffield United in 2003 and Wigan last year are all examples of not playing well but getting the result in the semi-final. It could be the fear of not wanting to make a mistake, but there does seem to be something that inhibits Arsenal in semi-finals sometimes. As it turned out, it was an individual error from the opposition that Arsenal benefitted from on Saturday.
It’s frustrating to not perform in these games as they would be a lot easier to watch as a supporter, but the result is all that matters, and Arsene Wenger’s record at this stage of the tournament is impressive.
When the team isn’t quite functioning as it should, you hope that the big players in the squad can make the difference at key moments. That was exactly what happened against Reading as Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez were responsible for the main flashes of quality to scrape the Gunners into the final. With half time approaching, Ozil drifted into space about 30 yards out from goal and clipped a beautiful pass over the top of the defence for Alexis. The Chilean controlled the ball well, swayed away from the covering defender and calmly slid the ball under the goalkeeper. The assist was brilliant from Ozil, but Alexis still had plenty to do when he received the ball. While many would lose their heads in a semi-final in a similar situation, Alexis stayed cool. Him and Ozil both showed what you get when you buy top quality players, as they delivered at a crucial moment.
Reading came back into the game well after half time as Arsenal seemed caught in two minds over whether to attack or hold onto the lead, as happened at Burnley last week. The Royals deserved the equaliser, although it was disappointing to see Wojciech Szczesny misjudge the ball as it came off him and went over the line from McCleary’s shot. The deflection didn’t help, but the Pole didn’t put in a performance to displace David Ospina as the first choice keeper at the club.
The Gunners blew some chances as Gabriel was denied by a fantastic save from Federici, the Brazilian then headed over from a good Ozil free-kick, before Aaron Ramsey smashed the ball against the post with the keeper on the ground. After the Gunners had regained the lead, Olivier Giroud also hit the post, so despite not playing brilliantly, Arsenal still had dangerous moments and hit the woodwork three times. On another day, despite the iffy showing from Arsenal, things could have been settled before the extra half an hour.
Extra time was needed though, and once again, Alexis Sanchez stood up to make a difference. He engineered some space cutting in from the left hand side and shot towards goal. The Chilean did well to get a shot on target given the number of defensive bodies in front of him, making it slightly harder for the Adam Federici to get a clear view of the ball. But, the goalkeeper will now how much of a mistake he made to allow the ball to squirm through his legs and over the line. It was cruel on the goalkeeper, but from an Arsenal point-of-view, it’s hard to care too much. This is top level football, and while it’s brutal to take for Reading, these things can happen.
I don’t think Arsenal should get too concerned about over-analysing the game as semi-finals can so often be slightly strange matches. The team will know they need to play with more intensity in the final against Aston Villa, and if the cup is lifted by Arsenal again on 30th May, the scratchy semi-final victory will be forgotten.