City pay heavy price for lack of technology
Goal-line technology has helped referees massively and allowed us to trust their decisions and therefore respect them – it is a relief knowing a match official’s verdict on is whether a goal is or is not actually a goal backed up by science other than “That’s what I think happened”. But once again controversial incidents in this game brought up the latest issue surrounding how to officiate games of football: video assisted referees.
Manchester City should have been 1-0 up before half time. They scored a legitimate, well worked goal, catching out Arsenal with a quick attack that Sergio Agüero put over the line. Raheem Sterling then made sure as Petr Cech attempted to stop Agüero's shot, but it was not to be and linesman Steve Child ruled that Leroy Sané’s ball from wide had gone out for a goal kick. If only goal line technology extended to covering instances when the ball is above the crossbar, City would have gone in at the break one up and the game would have been completely different. But when does it end, Clive?
That is the debate. How far can we go to eliminate human error? To be sure we must have cameras on the touchline and on every corner of the penalty area just in case we are not sure whether the forward was fouled in or outside it. We need Howard Webb suspended in a clear glass sphere above the pitch, flown around on wires like some omniscient, weirder, football-obsessed Richard O’Brien.
I was able to find out that the ball had not crossed the line by watching a replay on a TV screen – a phenomenal invention of the last century – and knew moments after the incident that City should have had reward for their smart attacking play and gone into the break with a firm grip on a game they dominated.
In the end, the disallowed goal mattered. It changed the outcome of the game, the way both teams approached the second half and had an enormous impact on City's season. Had they reached the final and gone on to win, perhaps this season wouldn't seem like a such a huge disappointment but they didn't and it does.
Tiny margins decide football games but when the mistakes that cause them are avoidable, it is simply unfair –football must embrace the technology at its disposal.
Holding finding role in Wenger's new-look three-man defence
Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, started the match with the same shape he used in victory over Middlesbrough with Rob Holding accompanying Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel in a back three – English football’s hot new trend – and, as they did against Boro, looked… alright.
For the most part, Arsenal’s abundance of defending players were able to keep City quiet, and if you forget that City should have been 1-0 up at half time and ignore that Pep Guardiola’s side absolutely dominated possession, it sort of worked.
But then in the second half, having kept the score at 0-0 and created almost nothing, Arsenal forgot their defensive discipline and were caught out with a long ball over the top for Agüero. He had threatened to do similar early in the match when running in behind Koscielny and was denied a one-on-one opportunity by a last-ditch tackle. These momentary lapses in concentration continue to haunt Arsenal.
Holding has settled into his role well – a task made much more difficult by having the attack-minded Nacho Monreal to his left and Alexis Sánchez offering little defensively further forward – and he seemed the calmest of the three throughout. His distribution needs work, as does his decision making but his positioning really helped the back line keep its shape.
The difference between Guardiola and Wenger
From the first whistle, Guardiola danced around in his manager’s prison (technical area) while Wenger remained seated. Nothing unusual there… or so it seemed until the fourth minute, at which point Wenger stood up, wandered towards the pitch and began issuing tactical instructions and adjusting player positions.
Could this be the dawn of a new Wenger era? A reactive, proactive approach to game management? Spotting weaknesses and opportunities and fixing them before five minutes have passed? And then he sat down again.
There’s no need for Wenger to spend his time screaming and shouting but while Guardiola lives the game, hyper-aware and so close to the pitch he could take part, Wenger’s passive nature reflects many of the players in his team. Sánchez is the antithesis of that on the pitch, urging his team-mates to join in the high press, going for headers he will never win - time and again his team-mates pulled out of these challenges against bigger opponents, as though waiting for an easier battle instead of punching up.
Yet for all the hustle and bustle of Guardiola's frantic gesturing, it was Arsenal emerged victorious. They kept their cool while City players grew ever more frustrated with referee decisions and were moved around to find space, to create chances and score that vital goal.
And in amongst the chaos, Sánchez dug into Gaël Clichy in a penalty box scramble to claw the winning goal.
City’s heads went, Guardiola continued to issue instructions through interpretative dance – it made little difference and eventually even he started staring at the ground as Arsenal dropped back into their defensive shape.
As Guardiola paced the line staring at the floor, Wenger had already moved back to his seat to observe. His side reached the FA Cup final.
Man of the match: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Needed help at times defensively but his assist for Arsenal's equalising goal was absolutely stunning and gave Nacho Monreal an unmissable chance.
When Arsenal had the ball they played down the right - Oxlade-Chamberlain's bursting runs forward provided a threat from wide and the few times he went on little dribbling runs, he really scared City's defence.
The England international's work rate is exemplary - though he might not be the wing-back that Wenger is now turning him into quite yet, this extended run in the team has shown that it is important Oxlade-Chamberlain plays. Without him, Arsenal probably wouldn't be in that cup final.
What Manchester City must do next . . .
They are a side in transition, with the foundations of whatever Guardiola’s side will eventually look like not quite in place yet, but this season has been a big disappointment for City. That might even be an understatement – the promise that the capture of Guardiola held has not really materialised into anything other than a regrettable campaign with a big list of to-dos to deal with in the summer.
Somehow, City need to stop dominating games without winning them. They need top quality full-backs, Gabriel Jesus to rediscover that sparking form he showed before injury and to establish what exactly is their first choice starting XI.
It was unrealistic to expect Guardiola to magically transform City into an all-conquering power house but they will end the season empty handed. It's easy to forget that they were robbed of an opening goal that may well have changed how this game ended, but Arsenal were the ones to win. Champions League qualification was the minimum this time, they need to aim far higher next season.
What Arsenal must do next . . .
The tactics worked to an extent, the players won despite lacking the confidence they need to get back to the top of their game and now they must focus on taking full advantage of their games in hand to reach the Champions League. An FA Cup victory and no top level European competition would be utter failure but just as they came from behind to pull off the win in this semi-final, you would expect Wenger to find the right formula to make sure they get there.
As ever, Arsenal need to know who on earth will be in charge next season. When it is inevitably confirmed that Wenger is that man, his extraordinary record in the FA Cup might help relieve a little bit of the pressure he normally faces. That said, the Premier League must be the focus now – the day out at Wembley can wait.