LONDON — Three quick thoughts from Arsenal’s comfortable — but tense — 5-0 victory over Lincoln City in the FA Cup quarterfinals.
1. Arsenal cruise after first-half scare
All in all, Saturday’s win was a job well done for Arsenal and one that ended a dreadful, harrowing week. Heavily beating non-league Lincoln may do little to calm the speculation surrounding Arsene Wenger’s future, but the FA Cup remains open as an avenue to silverware.
The eventual scoreline was harsh on Lincoln, as it had taken Arsenal until the last minute of the first half to score their first. But once Theo Walcott scored, the second half went on to be a deluge, with Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Aaron Ramsey all notching and Lincoln defender Luke Waterfall scoring an own goal for Arsenal’s third.
Though he was almost certainly not bowed by the “Wexit” demonstration staged outside the ground before the match, Wenger had gone full-bore with his team selection. There were nine players who suffered in Tuesday’s 5-1 humiliation against Bayern Munich. If things were going better on the European and Premier League fronts, perhaps youngsters like Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, previous stalwarts of Arsenal’s domestic cup matches, might have been given another chance.
Arsenal began sluggishly, looking like they required something to freshen them up.
Two missed early chances actually came against the run of play. Aaron Ramsey fired wide after Hector Bellerin’s excellent low pass into the centre, and Theo Walcott hit the post in the 16th minute. There was a collective gasp in the stadium on the half-hour mark when Lincoln forward Nathan Arnold made a stinging burst from the right flank, and his scooped left-foot shot had Petr Cech stretching to save.
The first half was an even contest that in no way suggested the four divisions between the competing clubs. Granit Xhaka was yellow-carded for what his become his trademark: a late lunge of tackle, this time on Lincoln striker Matt Rhead. Laurent Koscielny also picked up a booking, perhaps reflecting the considerable control Lincoln had in midfield, with Alex Woodyard outstanding as an anchorman.
Arsenal were being made to look poor, showing little evidence of a team fighting to prove the haters wrong or prove their manager was still the right man. But then came Walcott’s goal in the last minute of the half, stroked in from 10 yards out with deflected help from defender Sam Habergham. Lincoln had made a series of failed attempts to clear their lines in the build-up, while Wenger’s fist-pumping touchline celebration was one of relief.
That moment took the wind out of the sails of those hoping for what would probably have registered as the greatest FA Cup shock of all. Obviously tired by their first-half efforts, it was Lincoln who went flat as Arsenal eased through the gears to easily win the game Wenger could not afford to lose.
2. Lincoln fade after fine first half
On the Emirates sidelines, Lincoln co-managers Danny Cowley and his brother Nicky were in constant motion, excitably issuing instructions to their players and engaging in heated discussions with officials. The Clock End of the stadium was filled with 9,000 visitors from the East Midlands, fans clad in red and white stripes; the club shop has clearly been overworked, given that Sincil Bank has an average gate of 4,000.
Lincoln fans had been making a nuisance of themselves by causing Covent Garden underground station to be closed off after setting off flares. Could their team do similar to Arsenal? When they had Arsenal defending deep in the opening 10 minutes, during which they enjoyed 62 percent of possession, it looked possible.
There were cheers when their hulking striker Rhead, his belly and bald spot betraying his status as an elder statesman of the non-league scene, pulled off a deft back-heel in the opening moments. There was plenty to applaud in Lincoln’s excellent first half, but regret came in the collapse after the break.
After Arsenal’s third goal, the Cowley brothers took the unusual step of calling their players over for a touchline huddle. There were no complaints from Arsenal’s bench over what was highly irregular behaviour. The contest was done; Lincoln’s players and staff would deserve the rich applause they received at full-time. Cult hero Rhead, substituted 20 minutes from the end, received a standing ovation of his own.
3. Sanchez scores but is quiet
Alexis Sanchez’s £150,000 Bentley Continental cost twice as much as Lincoln’s club record signing and is worth more than all of Lincoln’s players’ cars put together. Among Arsenal fans, he is viewed as priceless.
Before the game, he had been announced as the Premier League player of the month for February, an award voted by fans and one he’s won four times already this season. The player who was dropped last week at Liverpool for “tactical” reasons has a staunch bloc of admirers; at present, he’s clearly far more popular than Wenger himself. The Chilean is seen as the one player who has given his all for Arsenal this season when his colleagues have been flaky and too soft to cope with pressure.
Until his goal, smacked in from 20 yards out, it was actually not much of a game to augment that reputation as the one true torchbearer. Sanchez was quiet, not quite himself, and certainly playing a lot worse than the heights that have inspired so many admirers among the Arsenal diaspora.
He celebrated scoring in a similarly understated fashion, too. After all, it was 4-0 at the time.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.