Arsenal are a funny old team, eh? After labouring in the North London Derby, then huffing and puffing against a Leicester team with bodies behind the ball, they faced a confident Middlesbrough team and simply swotted them aside yesterday.
I have to hold my hands up and admit I didn’t see that coming. I assumed – wrongly it seems – that we would be in for more of the same as the Leicester game. I thought Boro would be organised, hard to break down and we’d have to scrap right until the last minute.
That it was the score line that flattered to deceive the North Easterners, should tell anybody who didn’t watch the game just how comfortable an afternoon we had. Indeed, it felt like if we really wanted to, I mean really wanted to, we could have won that game by about five or six, something Dave had assured me would happen yesterday before a ball was even kicked. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to his narrative; the Blackburn blip a few seasons ago aside, we don’t tend to get beaten in the FA Cup at home, especially to lower league opposition.
You could tell how in control we were within the first five minutes. The tone of the game was set when Santi drifted into acres of space at least three times in the first five. He had yet another exemplary performance in the ‘quarterback’ role sitting deep and picking passes, but Boro’ simply didn’t pick him up at all at times, which set the tone for the day. Karanka said afterwards that he thought his team perhaps underestimated how difficult repeating the feat of the Etihad was, but I think yesterday’s canter was as much down to Middlesbrough not performing, as it was Arsenal playing superb.
We were superb too. I could reel off the names of players who had good games yesterday and it would just look like I’m writing down a team sheet. Gibbs at left back was great. I noted to my colleague Tom yesterday (up in the gods of the Clock End for a different perspective does give you a better vantage point of tactical set up) that Gibbs was playing very wide – almost hugging the touchline – and it gave our players the ability to stretch the pitch a bit more than when Nacho plays. Monreal is worthy of his starting berth at the moment, so I don’t begrudge him that, but Gibbs playing counter-balances our tendency to be a little narrow when Özil is playing on that side and when Alexis drifts as he likes to do. There was a few occasions yesterday when Gibbs was waving his arms about with a heck of a lot of space and perhaps it was telling that it was his run that was key in the first goal. Santi (natch) found him with a delightful pick out and his ball to the near post was perfect for Giroud to steer under Meijas.
So next to Giroud, who bagged both goals and was the quickest to spot the freedom of the penalty box on a corner to double the advantage just a few minutes later, this time picked out by Alexis from the corner. It was quick-witted and clever but Karanka won’t be too happy about the marking for the second goal.
Giroud has been superb since returning from injury. I haven’t looked up the goals tally for him for this season, but if he doesn’t surpass his season’s best at this rate, I’d be surprised. And let’s not forget that’s including the fact he’s missed a few months due to a broken leg. He’s looking every bit the quality centre forward we need and this season has added big-game goals to his repertoire.
But it wasn’t just the Santi, Gibbs and Giroud show, because a number of players had good games. Take Mesut Özil for example, having scored and assisted in every one of his games since coming back from injury (I think – don’t quote me on that!), he showed once again that he’s coming back into force as one of the stars of the team. His movement, ability to retain the ball and link up play was wizardry at times, to which you can only watch and applaud. He was outshone in midfield by the little Spaniard yesterday, but his performance was still sparkling and yet another good game under his belt will have done his confidence the power of good, important as we enter the business end of the season.
A good solid debut was had by Gabriel alongside Koscienly, who won nearly every header all day, and coupled with Chambers looking decent at right back and Flamini marshalling the midfield, we didn’t give Middlesbrough a sniff until the dying embers of the game.
Arsène can be rightly happy this morning. He’s seen us navigate a potentially tricky tie against a team at the top of the Championship, with a quarter final now awaiting, most likely at Anfield or Old Trafford knowing our luck. I don’t see it being anything else other than that. There’ll be a couple of heated up balls in the pot tonight to make sure it happens. Mark my words.
But who cares? We can go to Anfield or Old Trafford and get a result. We are The Arsenal and with the way those two sides have played this season, even one of those toughest fixtures in the competition, we’ll have to do it eventually against one of those teams.
All eyes now turn toward preparation against Crystal Palace. They may be licking their wounds after an FA Cup exit to Liverpool, but by the time the game on Saturday comes around, I’d expect them to be fired up for us and I think we’re going to have a really tough afternoon in South London. More on that as the game draws near.
For now, I’m going to bask in the glory of victory, dreaming of another FA Cup final in the sunshine.