This odd season of English football continued today, as Birmingham City persisted and stole the Carling Cup from a more ambitious-yet snakebitten- Arsenal side, 2-1 at Wembley Stadium.
Arsene Wenger lost Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas in their midweek match against Stoke City, so the 4-2-3-1 formation contained Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky instead. Since Wenger prefers Arshavin’s contribution from the left, Samir Nasri set up in the right wing, while Rosicky took the central attacking midfielder position.
Alex McLeish fielded a rather narrow five in the midfield and Nicola Zigic as the center forward, a sign that he was willing to clog the pitch and stifle the Gunners’ passing attack.
As one would expect, Arsenal was the more attack-focused team, but they had their struggles against Brum’s tight marking. Whether it was a part of McLeish’s tactic or his own nature, Lee Bowyer very often pressed off the 5 man midfield, primarily at Alex Song and Johan Djourou. This often disrupted the flow from the holding positions. Arsenal did have some success, but it came after Brum’s midfield joined an attack. Upon regaining possession, once Rosicky or Jack Wilshere received the ball behind the pinching Bowyer and Gardner, space opened up and it allowed them to counterattack well. Early on, the saving grace for Brum was their center backfield, with Martin Jiranek and Roger Johnson adeptly thwarting a number of promising attacks.
With a team the size and strength of Birmingham, especially with Zigic as the nine, the direct attack is always an option. The first goal was the culmination of Bowyer’s pressure and Zigic’s presence in the 29th minute. As Arsenal tried to build an attack from the back, the high pressure caused a miscommunication between Sagna and Wilshere. The ball was possessed by Brum. The resulting buildup led to a conceded corner off an aerial in the 6 yard box intended for Zigic. The corner from Larsson was directed towards goal by Johnson and rerouted into the net by Zigic.
This seemed to shock Arsenal to an extent. Brum took the play for the next 5-10 minutes. What seemed to get Arsenal back in the game was the beginnings of stall tactics from the Blues. Bowyer took his second or third writhing knock since the goal, and you could feel the anger from Wenger and the Gunners, even from across the Atlantic. Arsenal was able to start a counterattack off of the following free kick. After Wilshere stung the crossbar with a shot, Arshavin eventually gathered the ball. He darted around Liam Ridgewell, and centered a pass for Robin van Persie. The Dutch international volleyed the ball past Ben Foster to equalize.
The Gunners had an interesting remedy for the lack of Fabregas. It was thought that Abou Diaby might have been asked to fill this role. Instead, Rosicky was plied there in this match, and it appeared that this was mainly to mark Barry Ferguson. Upon gaining possession, especially in the second half, Rosicky and Nasri nearly swapped positions. This seemed to help the flow of attack in the second half, where Arsenal dominated both possession and attempts on goal. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint tactically where Arsenal went wrong in this match. On paper, they should have won. But in each instance, one thing or another went wrong for the Gunners. Chances by 70th minute sub Nicklas Bendtner and Samir Nasri were matched by Foster saves. Other chances lacked the finishing touch to give Arsenal that precious second goal. In many cases, it was clear that Arsenal missed Fabregas, and Rosicky was not the answer.
But the lightning strike came innocuously from a formation switch by Birmingham. Recent acquired on loan from Rubin Kazan, striker Obafemi Martins entered the match for Keith Fahey. Whether this was to help a tired Zigic, or to make a late push to win, it worked in a serendipitous fashion for McLeish. A Foster free kick in the 89th minute found Zigic at the edge of the area, but the ball bounded in a harmless fashion towards Szezesny. The following seconds were a combination of surreal and unjust. Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny both tried to make plays on the ball. The center back distracted the keeper, and Szczesny fumbled it right into Martins’ path. Without the second striker, there would have been no pressure on the Gunners to gain quick control of the situation. As it was, Martins easily scored the deciding goal, and fortuitously became a newfound hero in this season of disappointments for Brum.
It was an all-too-common feeling for Gooners alike. For the poise that the young Polish goalkeeper has shown in his first season of first-team action, it all came unraveled in the blink of an eye, much like it has time and again in different facets of the game. Much has been made in the last few years of the need for a solidified goalkeeper, and I still think Szczesny has shown much promise. One can hope that Szczesny puts this fluke incident behind him and continues his development.
For Birmingham City, this is not only a title, but also a ticket into the Europa League. It’s an accomplishment for the embattled McLeish, who has taken many knocks for a negative style of football. It could be an interesting twist should Aston Villa continue to ascend into the seventh spot. Brum is far from relegation safety, and many could end up wishing that the other Second City team had gotten the chance, especially with the additions they’ve made.