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.