Arsenal FC: How Birmingham City Stole the Show in the Carling Cup Final
In a memorable cup final at Wembley for all sorts of reasons, the world watched as Birmingham City stole the show against perennial underachievers Arsenal.
Like the pre-2008 Spanish national team, the Gunners again failed to deliver when it mattered most, being infected by the corrosive tentacles of mounting psychological pressure.
Of course, Arsenal had many chances to win the game and didn't quite deserve to lose in the manner that they did, especially considering the performance of the excellent Jack Wilshere and the fact Ben Foster was forced into several saves. Also, had Tomas Rosicky's volley in the second half been a few inches closer to goal, it would've most certainly been a different story.
However, the fact remains that Birmingham City won the match, and deservedly so, taking into account the Blues had a penalty that wasn't called and Wojciech Szczesny should have been sent off within three minutes. Also, had Keith Fahey's piledriver against the post been an inch closer, Birmingham would've had that 2-1 lead much sooner anyway.
However, the main reason City deserved to win has to be the tactical genius (in this match anyway) of Blues boss Alex McLeish, who has now won nine trophies in his managerial career.
His tactics against Arsenal were perfectly formulated and very well executed by his players.
Will Arsenal win a trophy this season?
Poor Man's Peter Crouch
Ahead of the match, Alex McLeish took the gamble of lowering the morale of his attacking options in the shape of Cameron Jerome, Obafemi Martins (initially), Kevin Phillips and Matt Derbyshire by going with only one centre-forward in his formation.
Serbian giant Nikola Zigic led the line for Birmingham City, with the gaffer hoping his summer signing's colossal height and brutal strength would work in winning headers, providing knock-downs and scoring goals.
And it proved to a shining example as to why something as simple as team selection is as much value as hours of tactical work on the training pitch.
Targeting the weaker Laurent Koscielny, who didn't have as much experience in the physicality of the Premier League as Johan Djourou, meant Zigic was able to hold the ball in the final third, press the Arsenal defense and bring the midfielders into play.
It allowed to McLeish to reap the rewards of a more refined "long ball game," bypassing the midfield and getting the ball straight to the attacker, causing a quicker and more effective threat to the Gunners' back line.
His height also made him difficult to mark from set pieces, and considering Arsenal have been proven to struggle from set pieces, it was the perfect chance to use that asset to get goals—much like Birmingham did when the big Serb headed home their opener.
It was a good bit of homework there from Alex McLeish, using who some call a "poor man's Peter Crouch" to golden effect.
Hunt 'Em Down
Apart from the five minutes at the end of the first half and a 20-minute spell in the second half, Birmingham City were very good at pressing the Arsenal midfield, namely the attack-minded players like Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin to an extent.
They also pressed down the Gunners' "double pivot," i.e. Jack Wilshere and Alex Song, when they needed to, and had regained enough fitness levels to do so.
It was a brilliant ploy by McLeish, forcing the Arsenal midfielders into misplaced passes and sloppy mistakes, allowing the Blues to break up attacks and start counter-attacks of their own.
However, far more importantly than that, McLeish used the tactic to get at the minds of the Arsenal players, who went into the game expecting a win. Djourou, Wilshere and Bacary Sagna amongst others, all told the media prior to the match about how they'll use their Carling Cup win as a springboard for further success.
It would appear that whilst trying to guard against complacency, Arsene Wenger's men fully expected to turn up at Wembley, let their quality and game style do the talking, and go home full of confidence with a winner's medal—it'd be like just another Premier League match.
Alex McLeish, it seems, tapped into this and let his players know their opponent's probable mindset.
And therefore, when it came down to the action on the pitch, Arsenal's idyllic version of events was disrupted by Birmingham's incessant pressing, frustrating the Gunners and making them work much harder than they would've liked for a win.
As the Arsenal players' body language demonstrated in the closing stages, they were deeply annoyed at having to cover such ground in order to beat an opponent they easily dismantled in the league.
Even with the help of their psychologist Jacques Crevoisier, the Gunners were unable to resist as Alex McLeish's tactics infiltrated their minds.
And as Szczesny and Koscielny proved, that led to some very deleterious mistakes.
Hit 'Em Quick
Hunt them down, then hit them quick, especially in the second half when they tire out a bit. That seemed to be McLeish's secondary plan going forward.
It was always going to be a risky ploy against the likes of Robin Van Persie, Arshavin and Nasri, committing men forward and leaving the back line threadbare, but it worked thanks to the effectiveness of subs Obafemi Martins and Jean Beausejour.
The counter-attack, amongst other things, was another good decision by Birmingham boss McLeish in the psychological warfare on that glorious Wembley pitch.
Dragging the Arsenal players back, providing another attacking dimension to threaten their defense and playing their own game against them, meant the Blues again could really get at Wenger's men, frustrate them and put more pressure on the inexperienced centre-backs and goalkeeper.
Birmingham's switch to a counter-attacking plan with more forward-minded players in the second half not only hindered Arsenal's own game plan and frustrated their team, but also instilled more confidence into the Blues as the match wore on.
Roger Johnson, Martin Jiranek and Ben Foster were all given a massive thumbs up by the Birmingham bench, being deemed capable enough to adequately deal with the threat of Nasri, RVP and Arshavin. Going forward, the likes of Lee Bowyer, Craig Gardner, Sebastian Larsson, Barry Ferguson, Stephen Carr and Keith Fahey were all able to get forward without worrying too much about being caught out in midfield on the counter.
It evidently gave Birmingham City more confidence as the game went on, and increasingly rocked the Gunners. Thus in hindsight, it seems inevitable there was only ever going to be one winner from the Wembley encounter—and it wasn't to be the team located a couple of minutes down the road.
What a Catastrophe!
Of course Birmingham were aided massively by Arsenal's increasingly weakened mind state as the game progressed. Well, that and the comic blunder at the end (most likely caused by the aforementioned psychological pressure).
Such psychological warfare on the Wembley minefield, won by the Blues, lends its weight to the catastrophe theory in sports psychology, whereby an increase in arousal (technical term for 'stress') leads to heightened anxiety and after a while goes one of two ways—either the athlete or team improves and goes on to win the event, or they implode and it all goes pear-shaped.
Looking at Arsenal's performance on Sunday in the Carling Cup Final, it seems clear Birmingham City pushed them to their breaking point.
With the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League still left to play for, can Arsenal avoid another catastrophe?
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