Written by GoonerinExile
I was at Wembley as a 12 year old in 1988 and I remember that defeat clearly, Nigel Winterburn missing a penalty to put us 3-1 ahead, Tony Adams bringing down Mark Stein in the 90th minute to concede the free kick that his brother Brian scored from and won the cup for Luton. 14 years later Tony Adams retired an Arsenal legend, 12 years later Nigel Winterburn left the club as one of the best left backs we had ever seen.
Why do I mention this, well we need to remember this when the media scrum gathers to tell us yet again that our defence is weak and we have a lack of spine within the squad. Yesterday Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny combined to gift Birmingham the winner in the 89th minute. We know they are not weak we know they are capable of brilliance, only a week and a half ago Koscielny was probably our best player against Barca, Szczesny has filled us all with confidence for his persona and his command of the area. Yesterday unfortunately a blip, it just so happened, as so often a mistake does for defenders and keepers, to lead to a goal to the opposition. It was doubly unfortunate that it happened in a cup final and ultimately cost us the game. As it happened I looked on in horror, for anyone else the ball would have probably bounced back on to Koscielny and out for a corner, but for us it just rolled into Martins path, who had to do nothing more than roll the ball into the empty net.
We have probably all accepted now that Arsene Wenger will only ever concentrate on sending his team out the way he wants them to play football, he does not look at the opposition and consider sending out his team to counter their strengths, he wants them to worry about our strengths. We had all hoped that we would start with Nicklas Bendtner in the side to counter the effect of the height of Birmingham at set pieces, that we didn’t was an even bigger concern when Zigic’s name was on the team sheet as a starter, clearly from open play Bendtner would not have helped but he would have helped us deal with the threat created from set pieces. But this was not to be we would have to outplay Birmingham to win the game and hope that our defence could stand strong against the aerial bombardment.
As it was after a bright start from Birmingham and a slack opening from Arsenal the team were lucky not to be down to 10 men when Bowyer was wrongly given offside and Szczesny brought him down in the area. After that initial scare the team started to get into the game, controlling possession, albeit with little end product, but that was difficult against a well organised, solid and spirited Birmingham defence. This is where the brain and guile of Cesc gives the team something different, the ability to pick open defences with a sublime pass or two, not that we didn’t create a couple of chances in this period. Nasri playing in Arshavin a skilful turn later and he had shot at goal saved by Foster.
Inexplicably Arsenal began to misplace passes, from one incident Sagna trying to find Wilshere missed him by about five feet and allowed Zigic to gain possession, the resultant ball into the box forced Koscielny to head the ball out for a corner. From the corner the ball was headed towards goal by Roger Johnson, and Zigic flicked the ball past an onrushing Szczesny.
Minutes later it could have been much much worse, when Gardner burst through the midfield and passed to Zigic, Szczesny spread himself well to prevent a second Birmingham goal and a mountain to climb.
As it was Arsenal had still failed to really impose themselves on the game, it took a storming run from Wilshere to stir the team, after some brief interplay he smashed a shot against the crossbar, with the bar still rattling the ball made its way to out little Russian who after some nimble footwork delivered an inch perfect cross for Van Persie to volley home with his right foot. However the delight turned to immediate concern for us sitting at home who watched as Van Persie’s celebration was curtailed by an injury to his knee.
Arsenal ended the half applying the pressure and searching for a second goal to take us into the lead. The team started the second half in a similar vain but the team were consistently thwarted by Ben Foster who had a stormer in the Birmingham goal when the defence had been breached. Despite the pressure the game was on a knife edge knowing that any breakaway from Birmingham could lead to a goal as Arsenal committed more men forward in search of an elusive winner. So it nearly did when Fahey’s effort beat Szcezney and rebounded of the post.
On 67 minutes it appeared that Robin van Persie could no longer continue, and so it was that Nicklas Bendtner was introduced to the attack. At this time Roger Johnson was showing signs of injury, was he removed as a precaution, no chance he played through it, and just once I would like to see the same from our players, maybe Robin has suffered too many injuries to risk losing him for the rest of the season, but this was the most important game at the time, nothing else mattered, Birmingham have a relegation battle to fight but they didn’t pull off Johnson, nor did he want to come off.
Something else changed at this point for once Arsenal were shooting from outside the area form all angles, Samir Nasri, Rosicky and Wilshere all had efforts from distance, either blocked by defenders or Foster. Wenger sent on Chamakh for Arshavin, as if putting as many “strikers” as possible would bring us a goal by willpower alone. I thought Bendtner had done well when he came on, but to see him removed from the centre forward position after only ten minutes was reorganisation we didn’t need. With Cesc and Walcott injured there was no other attacking option, but clearly Wenger could have chosen any other player to withdraw, perhaps looking to the next game again?
Of all chances the one that could have won the game fell to Rosicky, the ball played to him by Bendtner he had only to scoop the ball past Foster but inconceivably attempted a back heel from more than 6 yards out with defenders on the line this seemed a very strange decision for one with such experience and technical ability. This is perhaps Rosickys biggest failure, he seems to want to do the difficult things, look for the difficult passes, look for the flicks, as a result he is more wasteful in possession than a man 11 years his junior who 95% of the time finds a teammate with his passes, beats men at will, and runs into space, and is constantly available for his team mates, that man of course is Jack Wilshere, more of him later.
Arsenal had 20 efforts on goal according to BBC stats, 12 on target, Birmingham had 11, unfortunately not one of our chances was as simple as the one presented to Martins in the 89th minute the chance that sent the blue half of Birmingham into delirium, and the chance that sent the red half of North London searching for alcohol and flak jackets.
56% of possession 20 attempts on goal, six corners, we pressed and pressed but Birmingham held firm. The BBC commentary team said that the better team won, how the man of the match was Ben Foster then I have no idea, surely he would not have had much to do if they were indeed the better team. Take nothing away from Birmingham they defended well, and always looked threatening on the breakaway, in a cup final there can only be one winner, we have been there before and we will be there again. But in between now and the next final defeat there might also be some wins, there definitely have been since our defeat to Luton in 1988.
As disappointing as the goal was there were other concerns for me, the game seemed to pass Song by, never bossing midfield as we would expect, Robin Van Persie did not see great deal of the ball in the build up play, hindered by Rosicky’s approach of looking for a difficult ball. The team needed to press high up the pitch to stop the easy get out ball to Zigic, the desire to do so wasn’t there, we were second to the knockdowns in out half of the pitch which enabled Birmingham to build pressure which could easily have been avoided. Our best players on the day were Nasri and Wilshere.
I have heard bottlers mentioned already by some of our own fans on this very forum, to bottle the game would have been to not play to our strengths to not play with our normal conviction, to appear to be waiting to lose, as we have done against Chelsea, and Man Utd in the past, that wasn’t the issue today, the team played, they pressed, they tried but unfortunately a moment of madness cost us some silverware.
I’m not going to put in any player ratings today, I think there is no point adding insult to injury. This week we must be strong together we must support our team, for those who couldn’t be bothered to hang around in Wembley when Birmingham scored please hand back in your Season Tickets that is not support, I don’t know what it is but it definitely isn’t support. Support when you win and when you lose, the team need support and positive energy. Birmingham fans waited 48 years for this success, but I guarantee of they’d lost they would have still been in the ground at the final whistle, and applauded their teams efforts. The Arsenal end was empty before the team had even been up to collect their runners up medals, how do you think they feel seeing that.