Picking a team strong enough to see off lower-grade opposition without risking a giant-killing has become an art for Premier League managers, and in two long spells yesterday it looked as though Arsène Wenger might have miscalculated.
He rested Thomas Vermaelen, did not use Santi Cazorla and kept Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott in the dugout for almost 70 minutes.
Fortunately, Olivier Giroud, on from the start, is these days looking like the striker Arsenal paid almost £10 million for last summer, and his two goals – making four in the past two games – kept them in an exciting tie until the cavalry arrived and Walcott volleyed the winner.
To be fair, Arsenal had been more than adequate going forward all afternoon, whereas the defence was frequently woeful and suffering from what might be called Villa-itis; namely an inability to defend crosses. Twice unmarked Brighton players scored with headers from whipped-in crosses, the visiting captain, Per Mertesacker, notably at fault on both occasions.
“It’s a gamble you take and it can backfire,” Wenger said of his team selection. “With the number of games we play you can’t use the same 11 in every game. If it doesn’t work you are accused of making the wrong decision.”
Gus Poyet, who has overseen the construction of a Brighton side who play some fine football, admitted he was always concerned that reinforcements would be sent on if the result remained in doubt near the end. The mood in the home dressing-room, he added, was funereal, “as if we lost a final”, but he was rightly proud of his team as well as what the club have achieved since the days of ground-sharing at Gillingham.
“It would be nice every now and then to step back, look around and see what we’ve done,” he said.
Looking round yesterday, the new stadium, with a record crowd inside, was indeed a fine sight. There were 27,113 present and the capacity will rise to 30,000 by next season, when Brighton hope to be in the Premier League; they currently sit in seventh place. Poyet reckons he never had much luck against Arsenal in his Chelsea and Tottenham days. Yesterday the misfortune concerned injuries to his captain and centre- half, Gordon Greer, before half-time, and then Will Buckley, who had been causing the fallible Andre Santos all sorts of trouble down the right.
There was uncertainty at the heart of the Arsenal defence, too, illustrated early on when Ashley Barnes was allowed in to shoot at Wojciech Szczesny, who pulled off an excellent save. From there Arsenal went almost straight to the other end, with Tomas Rosicky supplying Lukas Podolski and Giroud swivelling superbly to score.
Far from being put in their place, however, the Championship side responded with a fine spell that eventually led to an equaliser. The home supporters thought it had come when Leonardo Ulloa, an Argentinian striker recently recruited for £2 million, tapped in Inigo Calderon’s cross, but was given offside. That followed a mistake by Santos, who lost possession, and the defending was worse two minutes later. A short corner was whipped over by David Lopez and Barnes ran past three defenders to reach the ball before the goalkeeper and head in.
Almost immediately Greer limped off, which necessitated a rejig as there was no central defender on the bench, and another change was required at the interval when Buckley was unable to resume. Kazenga Lua Lua came on to play down the left and kept the pressure on with some dangerous inswinging crosses.
But Arsenal made the better chances and were ahead again in the 56th minute, shortly after Podolski’s free-kick came back off the bar. Abou Diaby, receiving from the German, chipped a ball forward for Giroud, whose first touch took him wide of a defender and set up a fine finish for his fourth goal in two games.
Several times he came close to completing what would have been a deserved first hat-trick for the club, and was entitled to be furious with his team-mates as Brighton conjured an equaliser too similar to the first goal. This time Mertesacker, captain for the day, was caught on the wrong side of Barnes’s fine cross, allowing Ulloa to stretch forward for a scoring header.
It was time for Walcott and Wilshere, replacing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rosicky. Giroud went close with a volley and then a scissors kick, but must have felt resigned to a replay until Wilshere’s corner was punched out a little weakly by Casper Ankergren and Walcott side-footed a volley that went in off the defender Adam El-Abd.
“Brighton are a good team and it was difficult for us,” Wenger said. “We had a slow start and they were much sharper than us in the first half. But in a Cup game you need to go through, and we did.”
Brighton (4-1-3-2): Ankergen; Calderon, Greer (Dicker, 37), El-Abd, Bridge; Bridcutt; Lopez, Hammond, Barnes; Buckley (Lua Lua, 46), Ulloa (Mackail-Smith, 73).
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Santos (Gibbs, 78); Diaby, Ramsey; Oxlade-Chamberlain (Walcott, 68), Rosicky (Wilshere, 68), Podolski; Giroud.
Referee: Michael Oliver
Man of the match: Giroud (Arsenal)
Match rating: 8/10