Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger admitted fifth-tier Sutton United were better than he expected in the Gunners’ 2-0 FA Cup win on Monday, and said the artificial pitch at Gander Green Lane made things difficult on his players.
Arsenal avoided any stumbles and advanced to the quarterfinals after Lucas Perez and Theo Walcott scored, but the non-league side could exit with their heads held high after holding their own against the heavily favoured Premier League giants.
“We did the job,” Wenger told the BBC, before acknowledging that he had been impressed by the hosts’ level of football.
“Honestly, yes. Because it’s basically division five. And when I arrived here maybe 20 years ago, in division five they were not as fit as they are today. They didn’t drop physically at all. You could expect that they would drop much more physically.
“They remained absolutely focused, organised, they had a huge desire in their game. I would say if we were not mentally prepared we would not have gone through today.”
Perez put the Gunners ahead when his attempted cross found its way inside the far post in the 26th minute, and Walcott doubled the lead in the 55th with his 100th Arsenal goal. But Sutton kept the scoreline more than respectable and even came close to pulling one back as former Arsenal academy member Roarie Deacon rattled the crossbar with a fierce effort from distance.
Arsenal, who are still recovering from last week’s 5-1 loss at Bayern Munich in the Champions League, often looked sloppy in possession with a number of simple passes going astray. And Wenger said they struggled to adjust to Sutton’s artificial 3G pitch.
“It’s very different, I must say, on this kind of pitch, and it was not an easy game at all,” he said. “You have to give them credit. Every little mistake we made technically they took advantage of it, and on this pitch, every little technical movement that is not 100 percent you lose the ball. And they played very well.”
Arsenal will now face another non-league side, Lincoln, in the quarterfinals as a friendly draw has given them a great chance to reach a semi-final at Wembley, which could help salvage their season.
They now enter a two-week break on a small high, as well, although Wenger admitted it was hard to enjoy the experience of playing at Sutton’s 5,000-capacity stadium because of the added importance of avoiding another loss after the debacle in Munich.
“No, I didn’t enjoy it really tonight, because we had absolutely just to do the job. And it’s tricky” he said. “I thought it’s important for the confidence of the players as well. And let’s not forget, at Bayern at halftime we were at 1-1 and in the second half it did all go wrong. So even today at halftime we were 1-0 up, it was not finished.”
Sutton’s volunteer manager Paul Doswell, however, revelled in the experience.
“It was a dream to watch my team play against Arsenal,” he said. The quality of the team they put out showed what’s at stake. I’m very very proud.
“We were disappointed not to get a goal for the supporters here but the overriding emotion is so proud. This was our cup final and these players will go down in history at the end of the day.”
Doswell also wish fellow National League club Lincoln well against Arsenal in the quarterfinals.
“The support we had has been amazing. Everyone here is a volunteer, remember that. We’re not a League Two club in non-league, we’re a traditional non-league club.
“Lincoln and Sutton have done our competition very proud. Best wishes to Danny and Nicky at Lincoln. Go and have your day in the sun like we have.”
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