Ten Thoughts: Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City (AET)

Photo: Football 365

That was more like it, huh? That was as good of a team performance as I can remember from our boys in quite some time.

1. It's obviously going to take more time for the boys to get fully comfortable with the new formation - the number of occasions where City hit the woodwork alone is evidence of that - but there's something to this 3-4-3 thing if the boss decides to stick with it.

What strikes me more than anything else is how often we seem to have extra bodies defending in the penalty area when it's needed. I'll talk more about the City goal in a bit, of course, but over the last 210 minutes of play against them and Middlesbrough, there hasn't been the endless stream of quality chances against due to our backline getting pulled apart and overload situations being created.

It's amazing what can happen when everyone knows their job, and that seems to be more the case now than it had been previously. Gabriel and Rob Holding both looked great yesterday, and I think this is a big reason. Related, it's not like a World Cup winner such as Shkrodan Mustafi has all of a sudden forgotten how to defend. Structure matters, and it looks like we're starting to build it now.

2. Also, even though Pep Guardiola had an extra week to plan for it given that we tried it out first against Boro, the new formation and deeper-lying defensive line was always going to be a problem for him and his team. They're set up to take advantage of higher lines with their pace and their killer through-balls, and Arsenal didn't give them the space to do so.

Again, it wasn't a perfect performance by any means. The turn-and-shot from Yaya Toure in the 79th minute that almost won them the game was a function of poor spacing and marking from our back three. Nacho Monreal let in a few early crosses. They had a goal chalked off in the first half that I'm not sure should have been, once again down to some passive defensive play.

That said, you can't expect perfection ever, let alone the second game that you're playing a completely alien formation. All you can ask is that they restrict chances enough to give our offensive players a chance to win the game, and they emphatically did so.

3. Speaking of that chance in the 79th minute, Petr Cech did unbelievably well to get enough of a part of a fingertip onto that to push it onto the post and away to safety. There are many keepers out there that don't save that, and if that one goes in, we lose. Plain and simple.

I swear that there may not be a more underappreciated player in the league. Yes, he could have possibly done better on their goal, but in the end that's a 1-v-1 and it's hard to attribute too much blame to a keeper in a situation that isn't saved most of the time anyway.

4. Said 1-v-1 came from a quick break from City, but it shouldn't have gone down entirely like that. As I alluded to last week, a system and a formation is only as good as the discipline behind it. On this occasion, it was a free kick deep in the City end, which was cleared and then recycled back in through Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He played it in to Aaron Ramsey, who promptly lost the ball and sent City right onto the counter-attack.

Even here, we should still have been fine. Ramsey has been slated for losing the ball, but in all honesty it was just a timely press and a good win from the City defender. A lot of reaction to stuff like this is 20/20 hindsight of the worst order - losing the ball happens all the time, and it shouldn't have been dangerous from that area.

The problem is that, once again, Monreal was the only guy back to defend, *exactly* like last week. Sure, on an attacking set piece, you're always going to send men forward, including the central defenders. But, when you have three on the field, it is a ridiculous level of overkill to have all three up attacking on that play. One of them should have been left behind, most likely Holding as he's the paciest of the three. You also generally would want the other fullback further in reserve as well, though that's more difficult when it's a more attacking player like AOC.

Either way, a long ball from Toure sent Sergio Aguero away, Monreal left in the dust behind him. The Argentine took a heavy touch that would have let a quicker GK come out to smother, but Cech doesn't have that in his locker anymore. At that point, it was always going in. All you can do there is take away the more obvious far-post finish - if he has the skill to dink it over you going back against the grain like that, well, tip your hat and move on.

He also kept us in the game with that save in the 79th, so it's beyond debate that he was a net positive on the day.

5. Frankly, we were perhaps a bit lucky that David Silva went off injured as early as he did, in the 23rd minute. The Citizens did look the more dangerous team in the early exchanges, and it's not beyond the pale to assume that Silva's range of passing might have opened us up more than they were able to otherwise.

On a day where City, over the course of the 120 minutes, looked oddly lukewarm and subdued, Silva's loss was a huge one for them.

Still, while you never want to see anyone injured on either side, but I did notice that our boys seemed a lot more willing to get stuck in and put in the odd rough challenge here and there. Silva was an unfortunate bit of collateral damage there, but on the whole it was heartening to see our guys mix it up and put in a few tackles. As best as I could tell, that did as much to put off the City players as our formation and (relative) positional discipline did.

6. Our equalizer was as prominent an example as you'll see of how unfair life can be as a goalkeeper sometimes. Oddly enough, Claudio Bravo had a pretty good game. He dealt with every set piece and cross that he had a chance on, and got his team out of trouble with his footwork a few times.

But, the one time he shanks a clearance, we take it right up the other end and score. Who on earth would be a keeper?

The resultant throw-in came back to Gabriel, who shifted it out wide to AOC. The Ox turned on the jets, Gael Clichy furiously backpedaling all the while. I don't know how or why our man was allowed to take so much space and then cross in completely uncontested, but the Ox made sure to not squander the gift. He sent a peach of a curling cross into the back side of the six-yard box, and Monreal was left alone on the back stick to hammer a volley past Bravo and into the corner. What a goal.

By the way, for those of you slating our Welshman for losing the ball, Monreal had that time and space because Ramsey made a brilliant dummy run into the same area, creating an overload on their most inexperienced defender in Jesus Navas.

7. Even before it got to extra time, both sides had chances to win it before the end of the 90. There was the aforementioned wonder save by Cech in the 79th, countered almost immediately by Ozil squandering a potential breakaway by not just taking the shot when it was available. Minutes later, Fernandinho got the better of Laurent Koscielny on a corner to head against the bar, and then straight after the substitute Danny Welbeck should have won it when presented with an open shot in a good location.

It was all breathless stuff, and quite the contrast to the largely gray dirge that was the first half.

One other semi-related point there - we often (me included) lose our minds when Arsene doesn't make subs until late in a match, but on this specific occasion I thought it was a masterstroke. Despite losing the first goal, our guys didn't panic and they stuck to the plan. It was great to see, and I appreciated the fact that the boss recognized that and let them keep on keepin' on. Then, once the game switched gears and the pace ramped up, we were able to bring on someone like Welbeck to tweak our personnel to match the demands of the game. Credit where it's due, the manager got it all right on the day.

8. It was apparent that we were getting stronger and they were weakening as the match wore on, so it's not that surprising that we out-chanced them in the extra time session. Holding should have won it when presented with a free header on a corner, and later Welbeck should have extended our lead with yet another free header.

If it's sounding like City's defense were a bit Arsenalesque by then, the winning goal was truly the avatar of the art form. We played a free kick to the back post, which Koscielny won and sent back into the center. Welbeck couldn't control it, but it unsettled their defense enough for Alexis to steal in and fire home through Vincent Kompany's legs and past the helpless Bravo. We'd be furious if our guys conceded like that, and rightly so. But, all credit to Alexis' predator instincts and finishing ability, though.

9. I don't often incorporate post-match interview soundbites into these reports as I usually write them directly after the match. But, I had some degree of joy in reading about Guardiola's whining that they controlled the game but we "played long balls" against them.

I don't know what you're moaning about, mate. You're the one that picked Gael Clichy in a FA Cup Semifinal.

10. The sum total of all this is, if nothing else, we've given ourselves the opportunity to salvage our season with another FA Cup win. Of course, Chelsea is going to be an unbelievably tough ask. They're a lot more experienced with the 3-4-3 formation, and thus are probably more aware than anyone about where the weak points in it are. Eden Hazard is playing out of his mind. You won't see very many keepers better than Thibaut Courtois. Their wingbacks are dangerous. The defense is well-drilled. N'golo Kante is now the reigning Player of the Year.

But, the beauty of a one-off knockout game is that anything can happen. Hell, remember when Wigan bloody Athletic almost knocked us out of the competition at this very stage a few years back?

At the very least, I think this formation (with some tweaks and small improvements) gives us a puncher's chance - one we wouldn't have had in my view with the old headless chicken routine. We'll still need some moment of magic, be it from Ozil or Alexis or maybe a cameo from an otherwise bit-part player.

I don't assume that we'll win, but I do think it's possible. It's been a tough season, a tough year overall, but stopping Roman's Mercenaries from winning a Double would at least end it all on more pleasing note.  Bring it the fuck on.

PS: Hug your loved ones today. Just trust me on that one.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Manchester City, FA Cup Semi-Final

Wembley Stadium, London
Sunday, April 23
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Craig Pawson
    • Assistants: Simon Bennett and Steve Child
    • 4th Official: Stuart Attwell
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 96 Arsenal wins, 50 Manchester City wins, 45 draws
  • All-Time in the FA Cup: 2 Arsenal wins, 1 Manchester City win
  • Arsenal's Path Here
    • Third Round: Beat Preston North End, 2-1
    • Fourth Round: Beat Southampton, 5-0
    • Fifth Round: Beat Sutton United, 2-0
    • Sixth Round: Beat Lincoln City, 5-0
  • Manchester City's Path Here
    • Third Round: Beat West Ham United, 5-0
    • Fourth Round: Beat Crystal Palace, 3-0
    • Fifth Round: Beat Huddersfield Town, 5-1
    • Sixth Round: Beat Middlesbrough, 2-0
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-L-D-W-L-W
  • Manchester City's League Form: D-D-D-L-W-W
All of a sudden, everything's serious again. Just as we were coasting along with some absurd and sad results, leading to obscurely philosophical match preview from moi, Arsenal went ahead and won again. They're still seven points out of a Champions League spot, but they do have a game in hand, so there's that. And here we are now, getting ready for a cup semi-final.

In all of the nonsense and stupid losses and airplanes over the last month, here we are about to go to Wembley for an FA Cup tie with Manchester City, the very team Arsenal are chasing for fourth. The confidence boost of a win could have tremendous ramifications going forward as Arsenal try to salvage something out of the disaster that was this winter.

We'll know some 20 hours or so before kick-off whom Arsenal would face in the final, whether it's that lot from up the road or that other lot from down that other road. So, let the anxiety begin!

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Mustafi (thigh,) Pérez (thigh,) Cazorla (Achilles)
Doubts: Welbeck (toe,) Ospina (back)

It was a bit surprising when Arsenal unveiled their XI with a back three on Monday night to find that Shkodran Mustafi was missing from the 18-man squad, on his birthday no less! It turns out the German international has a thigh injury, which will keep him out of this match as well.

Elsewhere, Lucas Pérez's thigh injury appears to be a long-term one; he has not featured since March 11 against Lincoln City. Santi Cazorla's season, as we already knew, is over. David Ospina remains a strong doubt, while Danny Welbeck has also become a doubt with a toe injury.

As for whether Arsenal play with three, four, or thirty-six at the back, well, we'll just have to wait and see. As such, I'm just going to throw in the same XI that started at Middlesbrough and see what happens...

Predicted XI: Čech, Gabriel, Koscielny, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Özil, Alexis, Giroud.

Manchester City Squad News

Out: Gündoğan (knee)
Doubts: Jesus (match fitness,) Sagna (groin,) Stones (knock)

İlkay Gündoğan injured ligaments in his knee just days before Manchester City played Arsenal in the reverse fixture back in December, so this will be the third meeting between these clubs this season that the German will miss. Gabriel Jesus, das Wunderkind, has been out since February with a foot injury; he's back in training but lacking match fitness. I would not expect him to feature.

John Stones missed Manchester City's match last weekend at Southampton with "a small problem," but moves into the doubt column here; he's more likely than not to feature. Ex-Arsenal right back Bacary Sagna, who has been sans blond braids for far too long now, looks like a doubt as well, as he was back when the sides met at the Emirates earlier this month.

Predicted XI: Bravo, Navas, Stones, Kompany, Clichy, Fernandinho, de Bruyne, Sterling, Silva, Sané, Agüero.

Current Form

When Arsenal and Manchester City played to a 2-2 draw on April 2 at the Emirates, in marked three league games without a win for both clubs. For City, it was three draws and for Arsenal, it was two losses and one draw. Since then, both sides have won twice and lost once, though under very different circumstances.

Arsenal rebounded from the three match winless run by beating West Ham United at home 3-0. They lost all of that momentum quickly, however, by falling 3-0 to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. A week later, they got back in the win column with a 2-1 win at relegation threatened Middlesbrough.

As for Manchester City, their three match winless run was extended to four with a 2-1 loss at Chelsea. They've recovered, however, with two wins: 3-1 over Hull City and 3-0 over Southampton. This has consolidated their position in fourth place with 64 points; they're four points clear of Manchester United and seven points clear of Arsenal, but both of those clubs have a game in hand.

Match Facts

Manchester City took four of a possible six points from Arsenal in their two league encounters this season. Manchester City won the meeting in Manchester 2-1 back in December. Theo Walcott opened the scoring in the fifth minute for Arsenal, who had lost at Everton earlier in the week. Things looked good for Arsenal for a while, though I will admit that I was on a bus back from Washington, DC from a wedding so I missed the game entirely. Manchester City equalized two minutes after halftime through Leroy Sané, though there were shades of offside; again, never submitted myself to watching the highlights, so I'm not sure how obvious those shades were. Raheem Sterling netted the winner 19 minutes from time.

At the Emirates earlier this month, Arsenal came from behind twice to draw 2-2. Sané opened the scoring in the fifth minute this time, while Arsenal remained a shambles at the back. The Gunners settled in eventually and had an equalizer through Theo Walcott on 40 minutes. They switched off again immediately, however, and City were back in front through Sergio Agüero two minutes later. Arsenal found another equalizer off the head of Shkodran Mustafi from a set piece on 53 minutes and the game ended drawn.

To date, these clubs have only met three times in the FA Cup, with Arsenal winning two of them. Manchester City's win came in 1904, by a 2-0 margin. Arsenal picked up a 1932 Semi-Final win against City, 1-0 at Villa Park, before they went on to lose to Newcastle in the final, as well as a 2-1 win in Manchester in 1971's fifth round, en route to the Double.

The Referee

The referee is South Yorkshire-based Craig Pawson. Arsenal are two-for-two in matches with Pawson in the middle this season, winning 1-0 at Burnley back in October (through a questionable late goal, to boot) and 5-1 at West Ham in December. Manchester City have only seen Pawson once, for a 1-0 loss at Anfield on New Year's Eve.

Back in December, just as Pawson was assigned that clash between City and Liverpool, former referee Howard Webb stated that Pawson should not have been allowed to work that game after a series of high profile errors earlier in the month, first for only showing yellow to Marcus Rojo after a two-footed lunge on Wilfried Zaha and second for showing red three days later to Jamie Vardy for lunging at Mame Diouf, despite being off-balance after a shove from Glen Johnson. Pawson, of course, then worked the Liverpool-City game without incident.

In eight previous matches with Pawson in the middle, Arsenal have a record of four wins, two losses, and two draws. For Manchester City, in six matches, they have two wins, one loss, and three draws.

Around England
  • Saturday: Bournemouth v. Middlesbrough; Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth
  • Saturday: Hull City v. Watford; KCOM Stadium, Kingston upon Hull
  • Saturday: Swansea City v. Stoke City; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Saturday: West Ham United v. Everton; Olympic Stadium, London
  • FA Cup Saturday (late): Chelsea v. Tottenham Hotspur; Wembley Stadium, London
  • Sunday: Burnley v. Manchester United; Turf Moor, Burnley
  • Sunday: Liverpool v. Crystal Palace; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Out of Action: Leicester City, Southampton, Sunderland, West Bromwich Albion
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and a Canadian radio station broadcasting out of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat for all the greatest hits from the '70, '80s, and '90s.