Arsenal make hard work of non-league Sutton but win in FA Cup fifth round
SUTTON, England -- Three quick thoughts from the FA Cup fifth-round clash at Gander Green Lane, where Arsenal edged Sutton 2-0 to advance to the quarterfinals.
1. Arsenal made hard work of Sutton
Some respite for Arsene Wenger at last. Arsenal were hit by every misfortune and ill omen in the handbook of FA Cup shocks. They arrived late, struggled with the conditions and were shaken by the physicality of their hosts, but they just about held their nerve to prevail 2-0 over tenacious non-leaguers Sutton United.
Lucas Perez broke the deadlock in the first half and Theo Walcott doubled the advantage in the second. Sutton, like a dog on a postman's leg, refused to yield, but Arsenal had done enough. How Wenger needed this.
Wenger had voiced his concerns about Sutton's 3G artificial pitch last Friday and his fears were well-founded, not least because the home side left the sprinklers on for an eternity before kickoff, soaking the pitch in an effort to unsettle their guests. It worked. In those opening exchanges, Arsenal's players were second-guessing the bounce, taking two touches where one would ordinarily suffice. Nacho Monreal and Alex Iwobi were particularly troubled. But that wet pitch would eventually do Sutton as much harm as it did Arsenal.
The Gunners had barely troubled goalkeeper Ross Wormer until the 27th minute, when Lucas Perez cut inside and hit what may well have been just a powerful low cross. But in a crowded penalty area, the ball hit the wet surface, skidded, accelerated and whizzed into the bottom corner. It provided Arsenal with the relief and the security they so desperately needed.
The Premier League side arrived at Ganders Green Lane only a mere 70 minutes before kickoff, eventually negotiating the thick South London traffic to take their places in their tiny, sparse dressing rooms. When they appeared for their warm-up, they were roundly jeered by the home supporters. But that was nothing compared to the treatment the Sutton players handed out. They flew into challenges, frequently leaving a little bit in on every tackle.
Simon Downer set the tone with a nasty dig at Iwobi and it wasn't long before everyone was getting involved. Granit Xhaka, of course, needed no encouragement to return fire. He was in the book after just 24 minutes.
Arsenal remained vulnerable after the first goal. Rob Holding dawdled on the ball on the half-hour and nearly cost his side dearly. David Ospina inadvertently presented Adam May with a glorious opportunity, only to see May blast into the side netting. There was a scare early in the second half too, when Bedsente Gomis twisted and turned in the box only to see his shot blocked by the sudden encirclement of red shirts.
It wasn't until 10 minutes into the second half that Arsenal scored their second. A neat exchange of passes -- a rare thing indeed here -- culminated with a close-range finish and Walcott's 100th goal for the club. But even then they couldn't relax as Sutton redoubled their efforts. Captain Jamie Collins headed over from a corner. Deacon smashed a shot off the bar.
2. Clever Sutton were full of tricks
The wet pitch wasn't Sutton's only gambit on Monday night. Seeking to maximise every set piece, they used their goalkeeper to take every free kick in their own half. They were not above a little gamesmanship either, with former Gunner Craig Eastmond making the most of a Monreal challenge in the box.
Manager Paul Doswell had made light suggestions that he would be changing his routine for this game, but it was clear that he had left no stone unturned in his search for marginal gains. Unfortunately, while Sutton's players lacked nothing in terms of effort and desire, they just couldn't raise their game high enough to threaten the Gunners until they were two goals down.
When they did break toward goal, as they did frequently through another ex-Emirates alumnus, Roarie Deacon, there was no final ball. When there was a final ball, as there was to Maxime Biamou after Arsenal's second goal, there was no composure in the finish. Jamie Collins came close, but his powerful header was over the bar. In a match like this, Arsenal would have to be very bad and Sutton would have to be very good. Neither description was entirely accurate.
Nevertheless, Sutton's run has been an incredible story and a much-needed shot in the arm for the FA Cup. More importantly, it's served as a reminder of the strength, and the warmth, of the game at the non-league level.
Sutton failed to pull off the ultimate upset, but if this cup run is enough to convince a few hundred more of the local residents to visit Gander Green Lane on a regular basis, then it has been an unqualified success.
3. Where do Arsenal go from here?
The manner of Monday's victory is unimportant. Only the victory counts. Anything else would have been a disaster and it's enough for Arsenal that another one of those has been avoided. Nothing can be taken for granted, especially where the Gunners are concerned, but their only obstacle to an FA Cup semifinal at Wembley is non-league Lincoln City at the Emirates Stadium.
This competition is much derided but it may yet provide silverware, and perhaps a dignified exit from the stage for Wenger.
There's certainly nothing solid that can be taken from this to serve as evidence that everything is all right again. Shortly before their second goal, there were sarcastic chants of "We've had a shot!" from the away end. The sight of Alexis Sanchez midway through the second half was a sign of how seriously Wenger needed this, for there was never a point when Arsenal looked truly comfortable. But all recoveries require a starting point.
Perhaps Arsenal can draw strength from their resilience in testing circumstances. Perhaps they can start to put Munich behind them. Perhaps ...
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.