What. A. Game. For those of us lucky enough to be there, I'm sure we all will have equally vivid memories of all the moments that I have picked out, but for those of you who weren't able to make it, here is what I think is the best timeline of events to show how the game really went. Behold, my 12 key moments that defined Reading's Wembley experience.
06:39 - A Warning From Özil
Within the first ten minutes, Reading opened themselves up to real danger when Chalobah (circled on the right) tracked Danny Welbeck's run into the box, leaving plenty of space in midfield for Mesut Özil to work some £42 million magic. He lid a straight ball through the Reading defence for Alexis Sanchez to run on to, rounding Michael Hector on the half turn. Thankfully, in this case, Hector was able to get a toe on the ball before Sanchez could then weave some £35 million magic, but this was a pattern throughout the whole game: give Özil space in midfield and he will find the perfect ball for Sanchez, always lurking on the shoulder of the defender. More on that later...
08:37 - Reading's First Shot
Reading's first shot came from Obita in the 9th minute of play, when a cross from McCleary found its way the whole way across the box and into the path of the marauding left back.
As far as I can see, Obita has three options when in this position: he can take a touch inside and pass it off to Chalobah; he can try and loft it to the back post to Mackie (who is being played onside by a dawdling Gibbs at left back); or he can take the shot. Taking the shot isn't a bad option, but I wonder if he might have been better trying to chip it for Mackie or Pogrebnyak to nod on. Regardless, Obita's shot was aimed tamely at Szczesny's midriff, but it marked a positive opening period for the Royals.
38:55 - Sanchez Strikes
Take a look at this still from just before the goal.
As we've seen him do countless times throughout his career, Mesut Özil just drifts into space, and nobody really knows how he does it. With Reading's midfield parked very much on Gunter's right hand flank, Özil was left with a good amount of space to play with. That is something which any team would do well to avoid.
Calling for the ball, Sanchez lets Özil know exactly where he wants it. The German World Cup winner duly obliges for the Chilean, and Sanchez wrong foots McCleary before slotting it through Federici's legs with some finesse. If ever there was one, this was a £77 million goal, with a phenomenal lobbed pass met by a great first touch, twist and finish.
What I will say defensively on this is that McCleary should not have been left with the duty of dealing with Sanchez, that shift usually fell to Chris Gunter, who otherwise had a fabulous game. Gunter was dragged out of position by the drifting of Kieran Gibbs (who passed off to Özil to open up the chance), but perhaps McCleary should have tracked the left back instead of Gunter. Gunter would have been more likely to stay on his feet when Sanchez picked up the ball, and thus might not have allowed him to get off a shot one on one with Feds.
This shouldn't take away, though, from what is one of the best worked goals this season in terms of the pass and finish.
53:47 - McCleary Strikes Back
All from a bit of good work from Hal Robson Kanu. His efforts on the wing led to Debuchy losing the ball, and HRK winning a throw in from the ensuing break. Hal holds the ball up before playing a neat ball in the channel for Pogrebnyak to cross to the back post. McCleary acrobatically catches it on the volley, and with a slight deflection of Gibbs, Szczcesny fumbles and lets it over the line. Cue jubilant scenes behind the goalmouth.
Hal Robson Kanu has been our unexpected cup hero this year, with 3 goals and 2 assists, and this was his best passage of play of the day. His hold up of the throw in was good, and the clever lay off was enough to give Pogrebnyak a bit of space to put the cross in. He may be criticised for being absent for large spells of the game, but his contribution at this key moment is not to be underestimated.
61:35 - Hector Gets (Another) Tackle In
This tackle on 61 minutes is a key moment of the game. Reading are on top of Arsenal, and threatening every time they move forward. Just as that head of steam threatens to run out, another cracking tackle from Michael Hector (on the ball above) stops Aaron Ramsey in his tracks, and Hector can restart the Royals moving again with a fine pass to a forward-looking Danny Williams.
Notice how far Hector is away from his fellow defensive line, however, and how Chalobah is effectively filling in for the academy graduate. This was a key tactic all afternoon from the Royals, with Clarke giving Hector the freedom to move off his defensive line, so long as Chalobah was disciplined enough to step in whenever he did so. A lot of credit needs to go to Clarke and Chalobah for allowing Hector to impose himself so well on the opposition forwards.
64:57 - Debuchy Handball
Debuchy did not have a good game in general, but this was his worst offense:
Just inside the box, with Reading on the front foot and 25 minutes to go. Penalty to Reading?
To be fair to Debuchy, he is quite close to the attempted cross from Robson-Kanu, and his arms do seem to be in a fairly natural position (although his hand does move towards the ball). Where I get annoyed, however, is that earlier on in the game, Arsenal were given a free kick against Pearce for a handball where the players were even closer:
If we want balance from the referee, then this should have been a penalty. Was this a key moment? Almost certainly. A penalty to Reading at that point in the match would have changed it entirely, but it seems a case of all handballs are equals, but some more equal than others.
68:34 - Federici Keeps Reading In It
Another near-post corner routine from Arsenal led to another free header. Gabriel's flying header was just tipped onto the crossbar by Federici, a goalkeeping action that should have defined how his day at Wembley went; but more on that later...
83:36 - Ramsey Hits The Woodwork
Aaron Ramsey had an indifferent game, with his constant desire for drifting into the centre from his right wing starting berth leaving Arsenal with very little width to play with in attack. On one particular inward foray, though, he found himself rushing through on goal, with an initial parry from Federici falling kindly back at his feet. The only shot the Welsh midfielder could muster, however, came clanging off the post, sparing Reading heartbreak in the last 10 minutes of regular time.
A lot of credit must go to Hector and, in particular, Chris Gunter, whose very presence on the line was enough to rush Ramsey into a shot at the near post. Without this kind of defensive pressure, Ramsey would have had a simple tap in, so this is as much a case of good defending as it is bad finishing. A huge moment in the game, with extra time seemingly on the cards.
86:27 - A Big Slice of Russian Hope
2 on 1. Pogrebnyak and Mackie up against Koscielny. This is it!
Except it wasn't. Let's take a look at how Reading squandered their best chance to finish the game within 90 minutes.
A slip from Gabriel gives Pogrebnyak the chance to run at the defence, and with Jamie Mackie in support, it looks as good a chance as any, except the final shot is incredibly weak and is straight at Sczcesny.
Mackie, instead of continuing to run off down the right, stretching Koscielny between the two strikers, checks back and around the other side of Pogrebnyak. This isn't an inherently bad run, although it telegraphs exactly where Pogrebnyak is now going to run to. Where this move breaks down is the fact that Mackie never finds a position good enough for the Pog to pass it to him.By running around the back, and onto Pogrebnyak's left, this gives time for Gabriel to recover from his slip and return to his position in defence, and this is ultimately what scuppers the move as Pogrebnyak runs out of viable options. This is more clear when you look at it from a different angle:
Gabriel has recovered and is in position to intercept any ball to Mackie, who is running down the left channel. For the first time in his career, I think we can all reasonably criticise Jamie Mackie for not running hard enough. A little more pace and commitment in the run and Pog would have passed it off for a one on one. Instead, Pog had to continue on a predictable track and lose the chance entirely. Mackie's run isn't inherently bad, it just lacked the commitment and pace to be effective.
Such a key moment, so late in the game.
It wasn't an isolated incident, though, as we found out near the end of the first period of extra time.
104:40 - A Big Slice of Russian Hope: Part 2
This is a much more difficult chance, but one that is equally fluffed from the Reading frontmen. Pogrebnyak (on the ball), instead of trying to get into a position to feed Mackie, goes at it alone and has his shot blocked by Gabriel, who tracks the Russian well.
These were two real moments of hope, wrecked by bad decisions, poor commitment and, it must be said, some good defending. What makes it even more sickening is what comes next.
105:10 - The Sanchez Sucker Punch
This doesn't need much more analysis. It's a goalkeeping error miring an otherwise stellar performance from Federici, but it hurts even more that it was created directly from the missed chance from Pogrebnyak mentioned above. Arsenal moved the ball down the other end of the pitch and scored, moving from defence to attack quicker than you could say, 'gosh that Walcott boy's got pace.'
Could Gunter and Chalobah have done more to stop the shot coming in in the first place? Perhaps. They closed Sanchez down well enough, but not enough to stop his squirming shot finding its way into the back of the net. A cruel way to concede, and the last kick of the half.
119:30 - Mackie Chases The Game
30 seconds left of the game and Arsenal have the ball. A pass back to the keeper is pursued the whole way by a sprinting, and unrelenting, Jamie Mackie, epitomising a tireless individual performance as well as a determined showing from the rest of the team. Sczcesny easily clears the ball downfield, and Arsenal hold onto possession to claim the victory, but a lung-busting run of such doggedness from Jamie Mackie 2 hours after the game had kicked off was enough to inspire a final rally from the 40,000 or so Reading fans inside Wembley.
Perhaps not a key moment in terms of the result, but a key moment for this season and next, as Reading show the kind of desire that the fans and the management will hope to see repeated again and again.
So there are my 12 defining moments of an unforgettable cup tie. It was a shame the result wasn't what we wanted, but an inspiring performance at the home of English football may be just the springboard that this team needs to push on and look forward to brighter times.
All images courtesy of the BBC.