52,000 Arsenal supporters at Wembley yesterday
Yesterday at Wembley should go down as one of THE great days. Due to the poor performance of the team and the way in which it was won against weak opposition that will not happen. The reason that it should be remembered so positively, however, is all about the Arsenal supporters. Yesterday there were 52,000 Gooners at Wembley. Considering the fact that we are generally very unlikely to ever draw an opponent with such small support as Wigan then you will never again attend a neutral venue with so many of our fans. That number of tickets will probably never be made available to us in the future.
The noise that we generated pretty much throughout the game was incredible. Of course we will get no credit from anyone outside Arsenal for the fervent atmosphere on our three (and a bit) sides of Wembley as it doesn't fit the media narrative for any of the big London Clubs to be showered with praise for its fans - you have to be from Liverpool, Manchester or the north-east for that to happen. The atmosphere in the Arsenal end could not have been any further removed from the Birmingham game a few years ago. The frustration was setting in after Wigan's goal, and there was a reaction to Podolski being substituted (more of which below) but the support was pretty much non-stop and incredibly vocal. I was at the game with family and I will always look back extremely fondly on the day. The look on the face of my eldest son when Mertesacker scored and when Cazorla wrapped it up will live with me forever. It was truly a privilege to share that with him - his first Arsenal win at Wembley. The media (led by Roy Keane on ITV) have made out that we were embarrassing in our celebration of such a win. That sums up the anti-Arsenal nature of these people and I have a two word answer to them: "F*** you!"
The game itself saw us make a very decent start. The Ox miscontrolled when looking to be in on goal virtually from the kick-off and then crossed superbly for a Sanogo header that was well saved by an in-form Scott Carson. Then it all started to get a bit flat from the players. I've said a lot of times that you know we're not playing well when our centre-halves keep getting the ball. The constant square and backwards passing is frustrating and infuriating. We'd shown what we could do with a bit of movement and a ball played forward. I just don't know what gets in to the players at times. The movement of those high up the pitch was virtually non-existent at times, with the notable exception of Oxlade-Chamberlain. On the other hand, whenever Wigan came down our left we were in trouble with McManaman simply too quick and too good for Monreal (always out of position defensively) and Vermaelen (what has happened to him?)
The second half was no better with Ramsey starting to drop off the pace after such a long time out of the game and Santi Cazorla as anonymous as he has been all season. Yaya Sanogo simply looked what he is - out of his depth at this level (his first-touch when one-on-one with Carson before half-time was an embarrassment, as bad as anything Nicklas Bendtner has ever produced). Wigan then got their goal. From the other end of the stadium it looked a good tackle, but having seen it on TV the ball was virtually on the North Circular by the time Mertesacker got there. What was missed in the build-up was a blatant foul on Nacho Monreal that allowed McManaman to get the ball and run at Arsenal in the first place. Monreal going off injured brought on Kieran Gibbs which was to our advantage, but the referee had once again failed to give a major decision our way.
Gibbs added a lot down our left and was bringing Podolski in to the game for the first time. In truth the German had been so quiet you wouldn't really have known he was out there up to then. However, we were 1-0 behind and he is, as Arsene Wenger has consistently acknowledged, the best finisher in the side. With him now getting in to the play, and Sanogo just not getting any change out of second division defenders, what happened next beggared belief. First of all let me say that it was mightily refreshing that Wenger finally did something different and decided to go two up front. But surely you take off the youngster who hasn't scored for Arsenal in any game since his arrival. You certainly don't take off your best finisher, a man with more goals in his career than just about all of the rest of the team put together. Whatever the paucity of Podolski's performance yesterday, at 1-0 down and needing a goal, and switching to two strikers, to take him off was both insulting and bizarre. This was the chance we'd all been waiting for to see Giroud play with another striker, and Podolski to play through the centre with a strike partner. The loud booing of the substitution from the Arsenal supporters summed up the feeling of just about everyone there.
Having two strikers put more pressure on Wigan and pushed them back. Them taking off McManaman did us a huge favour as their only out ball then was Fortune. I thought Giroud made a big difference as the ball stuck a little more higher up the pitch and this brought Chamberlain back in to the game (though Ox kept appearing more centrally which choked up the space and gave us nothing out wide where the spaces now were). There was plenty of huff and puff from Arsenal but little invention. We then started to put proper pressure on their goal. Sagna hit the post, Gibbs had one cleared off the line after a great Carson save and I began to think it wasn't our day. From the resulting corner a shot from Chamberlain was turned in by Mertesacker (I think most of us were expecting an offside flag such was his position at the far post) and it was pandemonium in the Arsenal masses. The relief was palpable and you thought we'd go on and kill it from there. We didn't do that and were fortunate once or twice before the end of the game, and extra-time, that Vermaelen could outmuscle Fortune and that Sagna could get back to deny him when he'd beaten Mertesacker for pace. Powell missed the target for them when well placed, but the best efforts in the remainder of the game were a snap shot on the turn by Sanogo (probably his best moment on the day) and Ox's shot that hit the bar - again I thought things weren't going to go our way.
I must just add some praise at this point for a player I've been getting on at a bit of late. I'm not the only person who thinks Mikel Arteta's legs have gone and that his insistence on passing square and backwards is a massive hindrance to the way we play the game. What I can rarely fault with Arteta is his effort. Yesterday was no exception. I'm amazed he didn't get booked for persistent fouling, but he seems to be one of those players that gets away with a lot of stuff. In extra-time, with Ramsey completely gone (and replaced by Kallstrom who seems to make Giroud look quick across the ground) and Oxlade-Chamberlain totally done by cramp, Arteta seemed to get stronger and stronger. I thought he was immense in the extra 30 minutes and dominated that midfield single-handed. For a bloke who has looked so slow and leg weary in the last four or five months it was quite incredible.
When it went to penalties I feared the worst. I think we all do. Sending up their centre-half first was a bizarre call from Wigan and Fabianski finally wrote himself in to Arsenal folklore for the right reasons with two huge penalty saves. The quality of Arsenal's penalties was outstanding. Carson didn't get close (didn't even go the right way) for any of them. I actually have no recollection of Cazorla's penalty. I remember him walking forward, and singing his name, and I remember him running to Fabianski, but him actually scoring is just not there for me to remember. What I do remember is the celebration when he scored.
I've read and heard that Wigan were "unlucky" and "deserved more". Why? They were damn lucky that Arsenal played badly again. They were lucky the referee missed that foul on Monreal. They were lucky we hit the post and the bar. And as for deserving more, what utter nonsense - they wasted time from the first goal-kick and then played deliberately for penalties in extra-time. If you play for penalties then you deserve to lose on them.
As I said above we Gooners (and the players) and have been given a lot of stick for our celebrations. What are you supposed to do? Why do we go to football if not to celebrate things like getting to the Cup Final? It seems that anything goes when it comes to getting at The Arsenal. What these people don't understand as well is the relief that was involved. We keep being reminded about not winning trophies for all these years. We came so close yesterday to blowing the chance to end that. Is it wrong that we should go mental at getting the result one way or another? It also showed to anyone that was watching that the FA Cup still means plenty to the supporters. Anybody that thinks the FA Cup is unimportant wasn't at Wembley on Saturday. It was a great feeling and I know from experience that it's one that is ten times better if you can actually pick up that beautiful old trophy. Roll on 17th May.