Cazorla downs battling Wigan in FA Cup shoot-out

Santi Cazorla scored the winning penalty as Arsenal came from behind to beat holders Wigan Athletic in their FA Cup semi-final clash at Wembley.

Jordi Gomez had given Wigan a second-half lead with a penalty after Per Mertesacker chopped down the impressive Callum McManaman.

Arsenal rallied after the penalty and Mertesacker redeemed himself by equalising from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s scuffed shot.

After a goalless extra-time there was to be no fairytale defence of the crown for Wigan as they missed two penalties in the shoot-out, allowing Cazorla to calmly slot home to record a 4-2 shoot-out win and send his team to the final in May.

The win lifts the pressure on manager Arsene Wenger after he selected a weakened starting-line up following a torrid 3-0 loss to Everton, placing faith in a young and energetic side.

Arsenal’s pace caused Wigan big problems and they should have taken the lead after five minutes when Yaya Sanogo powered a header straight at Scott Carson from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s volleyed cross.

Oxlade-Chamberlain quickly asserted himself along Arsenal’s right-hand side and his pace almost created an opening as he chased a chipped ball, but an alert Carson stooped to turn the ball away for a corner.

For all of the Gunners’ early possession they created little in the opening quarter of the game as Wigan’s 3-4-3 formation set about stifling their opponent’s creative midfield.

It was left to Aaron Ramsey, making his first Arsenal start since Boxing Day, to rustle up some quality in a congested midfield.

His incisive pass to Sanogo was skewed away for a corner which presented Bacary Sagna with a good chance from an acute angle after Thomas Vermaelen’s knock-down, but the Frenchman could only lift the ball over the Wigan crossbar.

The Latics had hardly ventured into Arsenal’s half and a dismal Gomez cross that drifted out of play was a fair reflection of their start to the game.

However, Uwe Rosler’s side gradually worked themselves into the game and looked more dangerous with McManaman in possession – a point justified when the young winger briefly got in behind the slow Arsenal defence only to waste his opportunity with a heavy cross.

Arsenal were also proving to be profligate with their opportunities and Sanogo was again guilty of wastefulness when he blazed over from 20 yards after another threatening run from Oxlade-Chamberlain.

McManaman had easily been Wigan’s best player in the first-half and, after earning a shooting opportunity with his pace, a rifled shot was followed by a tame effort from Marc-Antoine Fortune who worked Lukasz Fabianski for the first time.

Moments later Sanogo’s poor finishing continued as he spurned the best chance of the half.

The inexperienced French striker was sent clear by Lukas Podolski’s clearance but a shoddy touch enabled Carson to close on him quickly and dispose of the danger.

For all of Sanogo’s impressive link-up play during the half his goalscoring ability has been in question and Arsenal might have led had his chances fallen to the benched Olivier Giroud.

Arsenal began the second half at a breathless speed, but it was actually Wigan who were the more menacing as a spell of pressure – including a weak penalty appeal after a nudge from Ramsey on James McArthur – induced jitters in the Arsenal defence.

The cup-tie was suddenly wide open and Wigan were the first to profit when McManaman held off Nacho Monreal before cutting inside and drawing a foul from the sliding Mertesacker to earn a penalty.

Arsenal were livid as they believed Monreal was fouled but, after a four-minute delay to treat the Spaniard’s groin injury, Gomez  confidently swept the ball home from the spot.

Rosler, who couldn’t bear to watch the penalty, reacted by replacing the excellent McManaman and Josh McEachran with Nick Powell and Jack Collison respectively.

Rosler’s counterpart Wenger also made a change at this critical phase of the game by hauling off Podolski for Giroud and switching to a 4-4-2 formation.

Arsenal consequently began to mount growing pressure on the Wigan defence and were desperately close to an equaliser when Sagna hit the post with a header from Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cross.

Seconds later a chipped cross was flicked on by Sanogo which released Kieran Gibbs on goal but he was denied by a fabulous save from Carson before Stephen Crainey hooked clear.

Eventually Wigan buckled and Arsenal equalised with eight minutes remaining.

Sanogo’s strength was again a key factor as he laid the ball off for Oxlade-Chamberlain whose mishit shot was turned in by Mertesacker at the far post as the German made amends for conceding the earlier penalty to take the game into extra-time.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo combined again to create the only meaningful shot of the first extra-time period, but the Frenchman could only fire at Carson after a neat swivel.

With just ten minutes of extra-time remaining, Arsenal struck the woodwork for a second time when Oxlade-Chamberlain unleashed an outswinging shot from 20 yards that crashed against the angle.

Wigan still looked a threat on the break, and a mazy run from Powell past the tired Arsenal defence might have produced a winning goal but the on-loan Manchester United man dragged his early shot harmlessly wide as the match headed for penalties.

Wigan’s Gary Caldwell and Collison had dreadful penalties saved by Fabianski, enabling Arsenal to open up a 2-0 lead when Mikel Arteta and Kim Kallstrom slotted home.

A Giroud penalty was sandwiched between successful Jean Beausejour and James McArthur spot-kicks but Cazorla was left with the decisive strike and he made no mistake to send Arsenal through to the final as they look to win their first silverware since a 2005 FA Cup win.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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Bayern Munich – The world’s first hybrid football team

Over the last few years the concept of all things hybrid has spread across the world. We now have hybrid cars – both on the road and in motorsport – there are hybrid road bikes and even ‘phablets’ which are a cross between a smartphone and a tablet.

There has, however, never been a hybrid football team – until now.

Bayern Munich, the German, European and world champions, are arguably the first tangible example of such a thing in the sporting, not technological, world.

A couple of seasons ago, Bayern were eclipsed in the Bundesliga by the burgeoning force of Borussia Dortmund.

‘Die Schwarzgelben’ had revolutionised German football with their aggressive defensive pressing –  ‘Gegenpressing’ – and their razor-sharp attacking play which regularly made fatal incisions into Bayern’s defence – most notably during a 5-2 German cup final win in 2012.

Dortmund’s powerful arrival onto the German footballing scene provoked a reaction in Munich. Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes finally had the barometer that would help elevate his side and convert their huge potential – setting them on the path to becoming the world beaters they are now.

Heynckes’ response was to recalibrate Dortmund’s ‘gegenpressing’ – using it in a way that would suit Bayern. The results were devastating.

The following season Bayern defeated Dortmund in the German Supercup and later went on to win the treble – including a last-minute win over their arch-rivals in the Champions League final at Wembley.

Yet, it was Bayern’s performance in their semi-final against Barcelona – then comfortably held to be the best team in the world – that drew the most attention as they crushed them 7-0 on aggregate.

In the first leg they swamped their Spanish opponents, asphyxiating them with a brutal display of counter-attacking and finishing them off with startling lethality in a 4-0 win.

Barcelona’s Camp Nou had long been a fortress – particularly in European football – but Bayern flattened it in the second leg, cruising to a 3-0 victory.

The Bavarians sent shockwaves through the footballing community – especially the Catalonian one – and from there they have built upon that success.

Heynckes left Bayern last summer but was replaced by Pep Guardiola – a man who had been the chief architect of Barcelona’s rise to the top of the game.

Guardiola has not hindered Bayern’s progress though – he has sharpened it.

In just eight months at the helm he has developed the German giants into an all-conquering machine and the theme of hybridity is the ideal way to describe their style of play.

A key feature of the modern Bayern is the seamless transition from defence to attack.

Guardiola has drilled a sublime one-touch passing game into his new side, which serves to speed up the way Bayern shift the ball from their penalty area to the other.

Full-backs David Alaba and Rafinha have a licence to raid forward – particularly Alaba who is rapidly developing into the most potent left-back in the world.

However, it is when Bayern are faced with a wall of 11 players in front of them that they are at their most fluid.

Their defence, midfield and strike force all combine in each venture forwards, with an interchangability that is unprecedented in the modern game.

So much so that some photographs of Bayern’s offensive shape this season show a 1-8-1 formation – an almost incomprehensible form for a football team to sustain.

That ‘midfield’ eight usually comprises Alaba, Rafinha, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Phillip Lahm and Thomas Mueller.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice Lahm’s absence in defence. Only a few years ago Lahm was seen as one of the best full-backs in the world, but Guardiola has transformed him into a free spirit that roams across midfield.

Effectively, Lahm acts an important cog between defence and midfield but, such is Bayern’s constant fluidity, the diminutive captain can pop up on either flank to assist wingers Robben and Ribery with attacks.

In Schweinsteiger, Bayern have the typical box-to-box midfielder – himself reformed from a flamboyant winger in his early career.

His partner in central midfield is contract rebel Kroos, whose growing influence during Bayern’s games has seen him linked with several top clubs in Europe.

Then there is Mueller – one of the most underrated players in world football at the present time.

Mueller has the ability to play as a striker – indeed that is where he started in his early career – but in recent seasons he has acted on the edges of an attacking three.

That Mueller is also an extremely hard-working midfielder enables his side to spring forward in numbers while also knowing that he will return goalside quickly if his side loses the ball.

This takes a huge amount of discipline and drilling on the training ground, and Guardiola must take credit for that.

What Guardiola has created is, in effect, the all-round football team.

In cricket, there are all-rounders, in cycling there are rouleurs and now in football there are hybrids.

Bayern’s influence on world football is now so strong that teams in England are dropping players whose talent only extends to one area of the game.

This is best evidenced in footballers such as Juan Mata and Mesut Özil.

Mata was allowed to leave Chelsea by Jose Mourinho in January. The Spaniard’s attacking quality was not in doubt, but his willingness to defend was.

Mourinho is keen to have the same all-round, hybrid player that Guardiola has created at Bayern. Consequently, players such as Ramires, Oscar and Eden Hazard were preferred to Mata for their greater work without the ball.

The same is true of Özil at his new club Arsenal. Although Real Madrid didn’t let him leave because of his lack of defensive diligence, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger dropped the German due to his ‘tiredness’.

After noticing Özil’s complete disinterest in tracking back, many critics saw this as a veiled signal to Özil that his work rate must improve.

As talented as Mata and Özil are, they are not the complete all-round footballer. They could even be considered a weakness if they do not perform to their high attacking standards because they offer little in defence.

This is where Bayern have excelled. They have changed the type of player needed to perform at the highest level and have quickly set up a squad containing players who are comfortable and capable of playing in several positions.

What used to be the utility player, a rare breed, is now a necessity.

Even goalkeepers are being asked to play as sweepers – good examples of those are Bayern’s Manuel Neuer and Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris.

Having such a goalkeeper allows teams have an extra layer of defensive security, and that is just one part of how the modern game is developing.

Defenders are midfielders, sometimes even attackers, midfielders are starting to flourish in any position across the width of the pitch and strikers are doing defensive duties too.

This hybridity will continue to reign in football for years to come and until then Bayern are the team to beat – just as Barcelona were when their tiki-taka football dominated the game.

The question is which team will be able to take football onto the next level and render the concept of hybridity a thing of the past?

Have Arsenal had an easy start to the Premier League season?

Arsenal are flying, or so most people believe.

Top of the Premier League with a four-point gap to Chelsea and currently sitting in first place in their Champions League group with a game to play, they could not have asked for much more going into the busy Christmas schedule.

However, there is a cold reality which lies stealthily beneath the hullabaloo of their superb beginning to the new season – they have had an easy start.

Gunners fans may scoff in disgust at that statement, but looking at the thirteen games Arsenal have played so far, they have come up against limited opposition.

Since the opening day, when they lost 3-1 at home to Aston Villa, Arsene Wenger’s side have played Manchester United, Liverpool and rivals Spurs, losing 1-0 away to United and beating Liverpool and Spurs at the Emirates.

Compared to the two Manchester clubs, for example, Arsenal have played just three ‘big’ sides, whereas City and United have each played Chelsea, Spurs and each other.

United have additionally played Liverpool and Arsenal, meaning that they’ve already faced the five teams that are realistically expected to challenge with them for the title.

Looking more closely at Arsenal’s results reveals another clue as to why their start should be considered an easy one.

Of the 13 matches played so far they have played against 9 teams currently in the bottom half, including those in each of the lowest five places, meaning their start has been vastly overrated.

The form of Aaron Ramsey and his fellow midfielders has largely helped to gloss over these informative statistics, together with an encouraging performance in the Champions League.

Arsenal have also been heavily reliant on Olivier Giroud for goals and, added to Ramsey, the pair have been responsible for 15 of the 27 Premier League goals the North Londoners have scored to date.

Despite all the criticism of their start, Arsenal must be praised for improving their side in several areas.

Ramsey’s emergence as a goalscoring midfielder has been coupled with the arrival of Mesut Özil, who has created six goals and scored twice since his £42.5m move from Real Madrid in the summer.

The signing of Özil may have been widely heralded as one which has transformed the Gunners, but it is actually in defence where they have improved the most.

Mathieu Flamini’s return to the club has enabled attacking-minded midfielders such as Ramsey, Özil and Jack Wilshere to forge forward, knowing that Flamini will unselfishly sit deep and protect the back four in their absence.

Arsenal’s shaky defence, a key reason for their vulnerability and profligacy last season, has suddenly become watertight – they have kept five clean sheets this term.

To underline their advancement, on December 3 in the 2012/13 season Arsenal were languishing in tenth place with 21 points, and trailed leaders Manchester United by 15 points after just 15 games.

This season, exactly one year on, they sit on 31 points having played two games less with a gap to United of nine points. What a difference a season makes.

Perhaps the biggest asset to Arsenal’s displays so far has been the ability to claim maximum points against teams from the bottom half.

In seasons past Arsenal had become renowned for dropping points against teams who they would ordinarily have expected to beat, and were mocked for doing so.

This season, they are being praised for the fluidity and quality of their football (as they always have been), but now they have the defensive foundation to fall back on, enabling them to beat ‘lesser’ sides.

Their centre-back partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, once considered maladroit and unreliable, has kept Thomas Vermaelen out of the side with a series of imposing displays, while goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny has benefitted from a more mature attitude, dropping the casual arrogance he once paraded.

So, while it is easy to be fooled by Arsenal’s excellent recent performances, do not forget that they have made smooth progress during an easy start.

Three of their next four games are against Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton.

If they are still top of the league after a Christmas fixture list bearing obstacles as testing as those, they will have every right to receive the flattering acclaim they are garnering now.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

The Transfer Silly Season

When it comes to football transfers, few leagues are as captivating as the Barclays Premier League.

With the hugely entertaining Confederations Cup now several weeks past, the players involved have returned to their clubs and others have jetted off to their new ones.

It was widely thought before the 2012/13 season ended that most business would be done after the Confederations Cup finished – and those premonitions have been emphatically proven in England.

In recent weeks there have been a flood of deals concluded, thwarted and hijacked. Some clubs are beginning to feel the pressure too – notably Arsenal.

Having only signed Yaya Sanogo on a free transfer from Auxerre in this transfer window, manager Arsene Wenger has been keen to dispel the accusations that the North Londoners are featherweights in the transfer market.

The money is clearly there for Wenger to spend – the club have turned in successive years of profits – and he has confirmed this by bidding £35m for unsettled Liverpool striker Luis Suarez.

This first approach was robustly swatted away by Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, but it did not deter Wenger, who sanctioned an improved £40m + £1 bid for the Uruguayan this week.

That triggered a release clause in Suarez’s contract which permits him to talk to the Gunners, but Liverpool want a figure in excess of £50m with Rodgers, somewhat justifiably, believing that Suarez is worth as much, if not more, than his compatriot Edinson Cavani, who was snapped up by PSG for a cool £55m.

Yet if Suarez moved to Arsenal, it would go against all the clues he has given as to where his future lies. He has publicly admitted his fondness for Real Madrid, but they have not made an offer yet.

That could be because Madrid are busy trying to lure Gareth Bale away from Spurs. A figure in excess of £85m is rumoured to be the price tagged on Bale’s services, but Spurs chairman Daniel Levy is reluctant to sell – for two reasons.

Bale has quickly become the face of the club – he features on almost every promotional banner and marketing strategy the club unveils, and secondly his value to the team is colossal.

21 goals and 9 assists in 33 games last season proves why he is coveted so fervently by Madrid, who have spent heavily as usual this summer.

Midfielders Isco (€24m) and Asier Illarramendi (€32.2m) have both signed deals at the Bernabeu, and a further outlay of €98.5m on Bale would be more than the €93.9m they paid for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

Bale is the closest player on the planet, in terms of free-kick technique and running with the ball, to Ronaldo and it would be interesting to see how they would both fit into the same team.

Spurs fans will be hoping Bale doesn’t move but Spanish newspaper Marca, renowned for its close ties to Los Blancos, ran with a story on its cover this week with Bale rumoured to have agreed a six-year deal with his pursuers.

Marca have previous, which is why Spurs fans should be worried. They correctly broke the enormous Ronaldo and Kaka transfers and would not publish such a story without specific knowledge of the deal. There is no smoke without fire, and Spurs are likely to lose the Welshman unless they pull off something miraculous.

Bale has also been linked to Manchester United who, like Arsenal, have had a very quiet summer.

United have failed with deals for Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas – the latter the subject of two rebuffed bids of £25m and £30m – and have also seen fellow target Kevin Strootman opt to join Roma instead.

A £12m move for Leighton Baines has also proved fruitless and United fans have reason to worry with unknown Uruguayan right-back Guillermo Varela and Wilfried Zaha the only new signings so far this summer.

With United clearly on the hunt for a central midfielder, any approach for another midfielder could also be futile with the subject of that hypothetical bid being their third-choice behind Thiago and Fabregas.

United would do well to blood some youngsters though. Nick Powell looks mightily impressive at 19-years-old and is tipped to become an England regular in the future, while Tom Cleverley established himself in the first team last season with a string of composed performances.

But it hasn’t all been about incoming players at Old Trafford, as Wayne Rooney will testify.

The 28-year-old has been linked with Chelsea ever since returning manager Jose Mourinho made a bid of £30m for the England striker. That deal, United said, included the pick of Juan Mata or David Luiz, but that is likely a mischievous attempt to publicly unsettle Chelsea’s two most influential players.

Chelsea have bought well this season, adding German striker Andre Schürrle and Dutch midfielder Marco van Ginkel to their squad in deals totalling £27m. Highly-rated Belgian loanees Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne have returned to Stamford Bridge and their presence will be similar to new signings.

Manchester City meanwhile, favourites alongside United and Chelsea for the title, have bought swiftly and impressively, signing midfield duo Fernandinho and Jesus Navas and strikers Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic for a combined £90m.

In signing four high-quality players, new manager Manuel Pellegrini has avoided what his predecessor Roberto Mancini did last season and bought well to improve the team.

While City have been very proactive in the transfer market, they have been outgunned by Sunderland, who have signed nine players so far as boss Paulo di Canio looks to refresh the team and exert his influence on the squad.

Southampton too, have bought with power, signing centre-back Dejan Lovren for £8.5m and Victor Wanyama for £12m. Some critics have pointed to what seem to be inflated fees for the duo but the signings are a signal of intent from manager Mauro Pochettino, who has been impressive since taking over from Nigel Adkins last season.

There will be more outrageous rumours, ballooned fees and surprising sales before the transfer window shuts in five weeks, but with the total amount spent by Premier League clubs currently bubbling at just under £300m, England’s biggest clubs will be keen to continue to splash the cash to show they can compete with Europe’s superpowers in the transfer market.  

If they don’t the danger of this great league becoming full of selling clubs, much like the scenario now seen in countries such as Holland, will loom ever larger – and that, for a league which boasts of being the best in the world, could be lethal.