By Shane Thomas
ARSENAL 1-2 BIRMINGHAM (Birmingham win the 2011 Carling Cup)
When I graduated from university, I remember the moments leading up to the ceremony. Many sentiments were expressed, but one stood out above them all; "I hope I don't trip up the stairs." Well, at Wembley on Sunday, Arsenal were clearly petrified of tripping up as they froze against a brilliant Birmingham performance to lose in the Carling Cup final.
Birmingham were fully worth their victory, as the execution of their tactics were far superior to Arsenal's. Their manager Alex Mcleish knew that his limited but hard-working team had to focus on their strengths. They were well organised, and pressured Arsenal when they were in possession with a zeal that bordered on demented. At times, they pushed the men in red shirts not just back to the halfway line but back inside their own half.
But Birmingham were a lot more than "spoilers" on the day. Their defensive strategy was more about pressuring the ball rather than hard tackling. If anything, the more x-rated stuff came from Arsenal, with Laurent Koscielny lucky to not be sent-off after a dangerous challenge on Lee Bowyer, while keeper Wojech Szczesny would also have got his marching orders after bringing Bowyer down in the box, and was only reprieved after Bowyer was flagged (incorrectly) offside. After the match's denouement it may have been better for the Gunners if neither man had been on the pitch.
Not only did Birmingham defend resolutely but they used 6'7" striker Nikola Zigic intelligently. They eschewed hitting aimless long balls up to the Serb, but often found him via passing through midfield, and then working the ball wide before looking for crossing opportunities. Watch Blackpool play on a good day and you'll see what I mean.
However, all of this wouldn't have been enough for the Blues if Arsenal had found anything near the best of themselves. Despite missing both captain Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott to injury, the XI that Arsene Wenger selected was more than good enough to win the game. But Arsenal's passing was laborious and their pressing was at times non-existent, with Alex Song picking a bad time to have one of his worst games of the season.
How Arsenal pressure the opposition often points to how well the team is playing. In their thrilling win over Barcelona two weeks ago, they closed the Catalans down, which had a major effect on their eventual victory. No matter how good you are, every team has to earn the right to play their game, and Arsenal failed to do so, which left them relying on individual moments of inspiration rather than a collective performance to win the match.
Birmingham, on the other hand, knew that every man had to pull their weight. You can pour scorn on their rudimentary tactics, but rudimentary does not always mean ineffective. They were more than a match for Arsenal and it was no surprise when they took the lead, with Zigic flicking the ball in after Roger Johnson headed a Seb Larsson corner into the 6 yard box. The manner of the goal was also predictable as Birmingham are one of the Premier League's best sides aerially, and Arsenal are one of the worst.
While Arsenal could have no complaints about the scoreline, they deserve credit for finding an equaliser before half-time. After Jack Wilshere fired a shot against the crossbar, the rebound fell to Andrey Arshavin, who found a way past the attentions of Johnson and Liam Ridgewell. He cut the ball back and Robin Van Persie stretched his right foot across the frame of Martin Jiranek to make it 1-1. Van Persie injured himself in the process of scoring, so while Arsenal can be criticised for a number of things, bravery is not one of them.
Many would have expected Arsenal to assert themselves in the second-half and go on to win, like they did in the teams league encounter earlier in the season. But after a promising 10 minute spell for the favourites, the second-half was a repeat of the first. Birmingham - who deserve kudos for not letting their heads drop after conceding that equaliser - denied Arsenal space. Their game plan suffocated the Gunners, and it looked as if Arsenal were going to figuratively pass out.
Their passing continued to frustrate their fans. Indeed, their best opportunites came on the counter rather than from dominating possession. As extra time was looking increasingly likely, goalkeeper Ben Foster was called into action to deny both Nasri and subsitute Nicklas Bendtner to keep parity.
And as the clock ticked to 89 minutes, 88,000 fans witnessed a moment that, for different reasons, they will never forget. Foster (who was awarded man of the match) launched a free-kick towards the Arsenal penalty area. An exhausted Nikola Zigic - who was in truth the game's best player - won the aerial battle for the umpteenth time. As his header drifted into the danger zone, Szczesny came out to grab the ball, but Koscielny ignored his goalkeeper's shout and went to clear the ball away from goal himself. He then inexplicably decided against the clearance. The ball skimmed off his boot, taking it away from Szczesny's arms, it ricocheted off the Pole's leg and fell to Obafemi Martins (who actually won the free-kick that caused all the panic). The net was gaping and the Nigerian tapped the ball in to win the game. The Birmingham fans went delirious, while the Arsenal fans vacated the stadium. By the time Martins had finished with his trademark celebratory somersaults, one half of the ground was empty. I think you can guess which one.
While Arsenal were overwhelming favourites to win, many suspected that the only way Birmingham could upset the odds would be for them to be very lucky and nick a goal from a set-piece. It would be simplistic to believe that this was how the Blues sealed the win. They may not have had the best of the possession or shots on goal, but they gave a much better team performance. They had a game plan and executed it to the letter, while Arsenal played as if they didn't have a plan and were just waiting for a moment of magic.
And that was they ultimate key. Birmingham didn't wait. Not only did McLeish tactically out-manoeuvre Wenger, but he made positive changes from the bench. Both teams ended the game with two forwards, but while Wenger shunted Bendtner out to a wide position, McLeish placed Martins directly up front to play with Zigic.
Victory is like the most attractive woman in a club. It won't chase you. And while Birmingham pursued it like the confident guy you see on a night out, Arsenal ended up like the shy lad pinned to the wall by his own fear of failure.
That was what did for the Gunners in the end. Many pundits have pointed to Arsenal's weakness at goalkeeper and central defence. However, that is slightly reductive as Johan Djourou and Szczesny have been two of Arsenal's best players this season, while Koscielny has also found form after a shaky start to his career in England. Lest we forget the rave reviews he was getting for his display against Barcelona.
The error that led to the game was a failing of mentality. In American parlance, Koscielny choked. While he should have left the ball to Szczesny, once he went to clear it, he should have had the courage of his conviction to follow through with his decision. He didn't, and the price his club payed was huge. The look Wilshere gave Koscielny in the midst of the Birmingham celebrations spoke volumes.
But while the horror show at the end will be the indelible moment of the match, Arsenal's failure was collective. Yet again, they looked lost without Fabregas to lead the side, and it's the manner of the defeat which could hurt the most, rather than the defeat itself.
Eight days ago, I wrote about the effect an Arsenal loss could have on the club for the rest of this season. Well, the nightmare has happened, they tripped up the stairs on what was meant to be the graduation day for this side, and everyone is taking delight in pointing and laughing at them. And while I'm sure they would love to go into their shell and hide, the matches are coming thick and fast, as they are still in the hunt for three more competitions. Does the team dust themselves off and walk off stage with their heads held high, or do they run off stage crying, engulfed in their own embarrassment?
We'll soon find out.
Szczesny - 5, Sagna - 5, Djourou - 5, Koscielny - 4, Clichy - 5, Song - 4, Wilshere - 6, Rosicky - 5, Nasri - 6, Van Persie - 6 (Bendtner - 6), Arshavin - 6 (Chamakh - 5)
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