Wait, stop me if you've heard this one before - FA Cup 4th round, away to Brighton, unnecessarily nervy 3-2 win? You have? Well yeah, it was only two years ago that we beat these same opponents at this stage of the competition. Yesterday's overdose of industrial-strength FA Cup Magic meant that winning today was the sole objective, the path to Wembley now mostly clear of other clubs of our size.
Job well and truly done...no matter how it got there.
Arsene Wenger fielded a strong lineup, that still managed to give Alexis Sanchez and Per Mertesacker the rest that both so badly needed. Wojciech Szczesny started in goal, but the one other surprise was that Francis Coquelin was back on the bench after his snarling masterpiece of midfield destruction against Manchester City.
It didn't look like we'd need him, though, as our boys had the ball in the Seagulls' net inside of two minutes. Calum Chambers stormed down the right wing, no blue shirt within 14 postal codes of him. He crossed to Theo Walcott at the top of the box, and he too was bafflingly left unattended by the Brighton backline. He had time to kill the ball, take another touch, and lash an unstoppable shot across former Fulham man David Stockdale and into the net.
Now, I've seen teams react to an early goal against where they immediately come to life and look to hit back right away. But, the home side spent the entire first half in a bleary sleepwalking daze, shambling around like the walking dead while Arsenal held the ball at will. It wasn't too long before the Gunners doubled their lead, looking at the time like they'd already put the tie to bed.
Tomas Rosicky made it all happen, which was unsurprising given the fits he gave Brighton all throughout the first half. I don't know how a man that age has a motor like that, but he used it to devastating effect throughout the full 90 minutes. The play that ended in our second goal looked at he time like nothing was on - almost every blue shirt on the field was back in defensive positions. However, Tommy bisected the entire defense with a wonderfully-weighted through-ball. Mesut Ozil anticipated it perfectly, took a touch, and slotted it coolly past Stockdale. It was a great finish, but the fact that Stockdale did the panic-dive in the wrong direction helped as well. You have to say, that's why the man is playing for Brighton.
The home side's heads well and truly dropped at that point, and if we're being honest, Arsenal should have killed this game dead right then and there. Instead, our boys seemed content to pass the ball around as if they were toying with Brighton. What a mistake that almost ended up to be.
They did give us one warning shot before the interval, though. I didn't see who beat Kieran Gibbs to send the cross over (I was watching on a stream that looked like it was beamed in from one of Saturn's moons), but Nacho Monreal missed his header and Laurent Koscielny got his pocket picked on his attempted clearance. Chris O'Grady won it and fed Baldock at the corner of the penalty area in acres of space. It was a tough angle, but you have to test the goalkeeper from there. Thankfully, he skied it over.
Still, it was dreadful defending all around, and unfortunately it was a sign of things to come in the second half.
Speaking of, halftime is always the worst enemy of a side that is on top and cruising in a match, because it lets the opposition take a second to catch their breath and reassess the game. It also allows the manager to break out the hairdryer, which is what you sometimes need in that situation. Needless to say, the Seagulls came out firing for the second half, and they only needed four minutes to claw their way back into the match.
They never should have had the chance, though. A Brighton counter-attack was mostly dealt with, Rosicky just had to get it away anywhere - up the field, in the stand, behind his own net for a corner, anything. He instead chose to hoof it high in the air, their guy won the header, then O'Grady muscled off Flamini like he wasn't there, Koscielny was too late to cover, and their man had an easy goal. Teams that are switched on and playing like the game isn't over don't concede goals like that.
That said, to Arsenal's credit, they didn't immediately cave in like we've seen in the not-too-distant past. Brighton did have more of the ball from that point on, but the Gunners righted themselves more or less immediately. We can also thank Michael Oliver (a referee I've had my issues with in the past) for calling a pretty good game - he didn't buy Inigo Calderon's risible dive in our penalty area, and later on he applied the intentional handling rule correctly in not giving them a penalty when Chambers had the ball struck into his hand from about five centimeters away. I swear, no one knows this rule. It's amazing.
Anyway, you had the sense that the home side weren't dead yet, and things especially got flipped when Chris Hughton replaced the appalling Bruno Saltor with Solomon March in a like-for-like switch at right back. The young Englishman tore into Gibbs from the off, and all of a sudden we looked much less assured at the back. Unquestionably, the kid was their best player on the day...thankfully he didn't start!
Instead, Rosicky reinstated our two-goal lead with a magical bit of skill. Another barnstorming run into the Brighton penalty area set their backline into panic, and they had no answer for his gorgeous back-heel flick to Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman - out of sync and utterly anonymous otherwise, played it back to him in a perfect one-two, which the Czech master volleyed emphatically past Stockdale and in. Pick that one out.
I'll be honest, I thought that was Brighton done and dusted at that point. There was even one hilarious moment where Baldock got a yellow card for lashing out at Rosicky, clearly in frustration as Tommy had literally ran circles around him. That Warner Brothers moment doesn't normally happen to a team that is going to get back into a game, but here I have to question the substitutions that Arsene made.
First, Chuba Akpom came on for Giroud. Yes, Giroud was not on the same wavelength as his mates and didn't have that good a game, but Akpom was horrendous when he came on. We could have put the game away on several occasions if he had been able to pick out open teammates on either side of him. It was like he played with blinkers on, and it could have cost us. The other one was Alexis Sanchez - who we were supposed to be resting - on for Walcott. Maybe Theo couldn't play the whole 90, but Brighton couldn't go full-bore at us for fear of his pace on the counter. Now, maybe Arsene couldn't know that Alexis would have his worst performance so far for us (seriously, he was dreadful...but he's also earned the right to have one or two of those), but that gave Brighton license to bomb everyone forward. It's not like Akpom was going to make them pay or anything.
Sure enough, they scored again - of course they did. I again didn't catch who played him in, but once again our center got torn apart by a simple ball in between them. Baldock ran onto it and impressively chipped the ball over the advancing Szczesny.
Fifteen minutes to go, Brighton within a goal and their crowd back into it. Was everyone out there bricking it as much as I was?
Oddly enough, as nervy as it was, they never fashioned a serious chance again. Akpom should have scored in the 80th minute, instead denied by a brilliant foot save by Stockdale. Sanchez almost put in a free kick five minutes later, but O'Grady did his job in the wall, his touch just taking it onto the bar and away. Even with the last kick of the game, Ramsey should have volleyed in at the back post after yet another brilliant run and cross from Rosicky.
Despite those near misses, the Gunners maintained possession beautifully and killed off the game on a weekend where so many of our contemporaries weren't able to. That's the thing - as ugly as this was (and it was in bowling-shoe territory by the second half), we won the game.
Manchester City didn't. Chelsea didn't. Southampton didn't. Tottenham didn't. Manchester United and Liverpool have needless replays to deal with.
The mighty Arsenal? We're in the hat for the fifth round. This weekend, that's an absolutely brilliant place to be. As for Brighton, they fought hard and to their credit didn't try and kick us all over the field. Anyone who actually tries to play football is all right by me - good luck to them and hope they stay up.
The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:
Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7, Monreal 6, Koscielny 6, Chambers 7, Ramsey 7, Flamini 6, Rosicky 9, Ozil 7 (Coquelin 8), Walcott 8 (Sanchez 5), Giroud 6 (Akpom 5)
Man of the Match: There can be only one. Tomas Rosicky is a golden god.