Birmingham 2-1 Arsenal: Martins scores late tap-in to win the cup

February 27, 2011

The starting line-ups

Birmingham blunted Arsenal, and took their chances to record a huge Carling Cup final shock.

Alec McLeish chose to field a 4-5-1 system from the start, despite favouring 4-4-2 in the league recently. Keith Fahey started on the left, Sebastian Larsson on the right, with Nikola Zigic alone upfront.

With Theo Walcott and Cesc Fabregas out, Arsene Wenger’s only decision was between Tomas Rosicky and Nicklas Bendtner. He chose Rosicky to play in the middle, with Samir Nasri moving out to the right.

The game hadn’t settled down before Birmingham threatened – Lee Bowyer darted through the defence and was brought down by Wojciech Szczesny – but was wrongly flagged offside and Arsenal breathed a sigh of relief.

Birmingham cautious

That was a rare occasion Birmingham threatened in open play in the first half. Their game early on was about settling in, competing in the midfield and keeping it tight. The use of three central midfielders meant they weren’t outnumbered in the centre of the pitch, and this was the zone where McLeish’s side did their best work.

On paper Barry Ferguson was the deepest of the three midfielders, picking up Rosicky. Ahead, Lee Bowyer and Craig Gardner broadly picked up Alex Song and Jack Wilshere, but as Arsenal’s midfield rotated, with Rosicky sometimes coming deep and Song and Wilshere taking it in turns to go forward, Birmingham’s midfield trio was happy to do the same – sometimes Garnder became the deepest midfielder, occasionally it was Bowyer.

Narrowness

In addition, Birmingham’s wide players played very narrow, meaning they often looked as if they were using five central midfielders. By packing the centre of the pitch, Birmingham forced Arsenal into misplaced passes and Wenger’s side never really got that aspect of their game going, despite a good surface. Arsenal’s full-backs were forced narrow when out of possession in response to Birmingham’s lack of width, which meant that Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna’s first movement when Arsenal won possession was often a run straight out towards the touchlines to stretch the play.

That was the extent of Birmingham’s tactics early on – stopping Arsenal. There was no obvious strategy in terms of goalscoring, other than launching balls towards Zigic. Still, that tactic worked perfectly – the Serb forced a corner after Arsenal gave the ball away cheaply, and from the resulting corner nodded the ball in.

Arsenal sloppy

Arsenal didn’t get going upfront in the first half. Rosicky was quiet, and failed to provide a link between midfield and attack. That was partly his poor performance and partly Birmingham’s doing, by crowding him in the centre, but when the wide players pushed forward to make it a 4-2-1-3, Arsenal had problems getting the ball forward. None of their attacking four had a particularly good game individually – Wilshere was probably the standout player in the first half – but Robin van Persie’s equaliser was a brilliant strike out of nothing, and it was 1-1 at half time.

Second half

The general pattern of play continued in the second half, though Arsenal seemed to defend higher, to get Zigic away from the penalty box as much as possible.

McLeish showed more intent to get a goal, however. He brought on Jean Beausejour for Craig Gardner, with Fahey coming inside. This offered slightly more width in attack, though it’s difficult to remember Beausejour doing anything notable on the ball.

Arsenal gradually started to play and had a good spell of pressure around the hour mark, forcing Ben Foster into some great saves – Rosicky got involved and Nasri was more prominent, and those two looked much brighter. Arsenal’s passing was better, they kept the ball for longer, and did more in the final third. It seemed to be only a matter of time before they went ahead.

Changes

Substitutions were crucial, however. Wenger replaced van Persie, who was injured scoring the goal and didn’t seem to recover from the knock, and brought on Nicklas Bendtner. Soon after, Arshavin made way for Marouane Chamakh. These changes meant Arsenal were less comfortable on the ball, though. Bendtner and Chamakh are not as good passers as van Persie and Arshavin, and Arsenal were less threatening and assured in possession.

Those changes might have convinced McLeish that he could throw on another striker. Fahey was removed, Obafemi Martins was brought on upfront. With Arsenal having moved high up the pitch in response to Zigic’s threat, Martins’ pace behind was set to provide them with another problem – and it did, but only after he’d put his side 2-1 up. A disastrous cock-up at the back was responsible, with Laurent Kosicelny and Szczesny to blame, handing Martins an open goal.

Arsenal chucked the ball forward late on, but it was Birmingham’s day.

Conclusion

McLeish’s tactics in the centre of the pitch worked well for the majority of the game. Statistics show that Arsenal had more possession, more shots, more shots on target – but that was to be expected, and probably would have happened whatever tactics Birmingham used. The difference in class between the two sides on paper was minimised, and only briefly in the second half were Birmingham significantly under pressure.

McLeish also deserves credit for steadily increasing his attacking threat – a winger and a striker on for two midfielders takes guts (especially considering that the performance in the midfield was why they were doing so well), and whilst the winning goal was a disappointing way for a final to be won (or lost, if you like), Birmingham deserved a bit of luck after the early offside/penalty incident.

Birmingham 2-1 Arsenal: Martins scores late tap-in to win the cup

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