Yes, it was that good

I thought that waiting a few days might mean I was able to write about the FA Cup final in a more considered manner. In the euphoria of such a victory, it’s easy to work in hyperbole and over-exaggerate something as the greatest or the best. But four days after Arsenal’s epic 2-1 victory over Chelsea, it doesn’t feel like heat-of-the-moment exaggeration to say that it was one of Arsenal’s best ever FA Cup final performances. It really was as good as it seemed on Saturday.
Before the semi-finals, it looked like a long-shot for Arsenal to win the cup knowing they’d have to beat two of Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea. But playing at Wembley and playing in this tournament does something to Arsenal. Whereas they often look nervous and uncomfortable in big European games or big away games in the Premier League, in the FA Cup, Arsenal play like the top dogs. Recent successes in the competition has given the team a belief that they’ll find a way, especially at Wembley. There’s no scrambled minds thinking about European qualification or away goals, it’s just straight knockout. While Arsenal can be incredibly frustrating, on a given day they have the quality to beat anyone.
And that anyone on Saturday was the team chasing the double, the team that are the deserved champions of England and the team that has perfected the in-vogue 3-4-3 formation. It may have only finished 2-1, but the score-line flattered Chelsea. Arsenal were dominant and aggressive and imposed their game on the opposition, making it impossible for the Blues to get into a rhythm during the 90 minutes. The lauded N’golo Kante struggled to get near Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, while Eden Hazard did a Theo Walcott-esque disappearing act.
Everyone who played was superb. Everyone did a job defensively and put a shift in, but equally looked vibrant and lively in attack. All of Arsene Wenger’s big selection decisions paid off with Danny Welbeck up front and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain filling at left-wing back. But the biggest (quite literally) was to pick Per Mertesacker at centre-back. When everyone played so brilliantly, it seems almost unfair to single out one man, but the BFG is deserving of some serious praise.
Even a big Mertesacker fan, like myself, was concerned about him starting the cup final. Forget mentally, it was going to be a huge challenge physically for him to last the whole game having not started a match for 13 months and having played less than 40 minutes in the whole season. He was also starting in a system he’d never appeared in before, alongside a youngster he’d not started a game with before and a left-back doing a job at centre-half. All of this just makes his performance even more remarkable and, for me, makes it one of the greatest performances by a captain in any FA Cup final. His reading of the game was first class, his stifling of Diego Costa went a long way to blunting Chelsea’s attack, and his organisation was vital in a make-shift back-line. I was so chuffed for him as he is someone who has always been an easy target for unfair criticism. He’s a brilliant defender and a brilliant man to have as club captain.
Along with everyone playing well, Arsenal were going to need a bit of luck to go their way to win the game, and it did with the opening goal. Anthony Taylor got the offside decision right, but there was definitely a strong hint of handball in the way Alexis Sanchez blocked Kante’s clearance before finishing. Anthony Taylor then unexpectedly endeared himself to Arsenal fans even more by correctly sending off Victor Moses for two yellow cards, the second coming for a dreadful dive. Having Anthony Taylor as the referee was another reason for a lack of confidence going into the game given some of his previous performances refereeing Arsenal, but overall he was excellent on the biggest day of his career.
Despite playing so well, Arsenal missed some great chances and having been pegged back to 1-1 against ten men, could have been overcome by nerves and fear again. But they roared back into the lead brilliantly with 11 minutes to go. Another one of Arsene Wenger’s decisions paid off as Olivier Giroud came straight onto the field and chipped a perfect cross across the box with his first touch. Aaron Ramsey arrived perfectly to nod the ball into the net and spark bedlum in the red half of Wembley. It was one of those moments that will live forever with every Arsenal fan that was there. And for someone who is often criticised, it’s hard to complain at a player who has now scored two winners in FA Cup finals. Take a bow, Aaron.
The win secured a place in the record books for Arsene Wenger as he became the most successful manager in FA Cup history. Seven FA Cup wins is a ridiculous achievement, and one that I can’t see being beaten for a very long time. It also moved Arsenal ahead of Manchester United as the most successful team in the FA Cup ever with 13 trophies. It might not be the Premier League or the Champions League, but the FA Cup matters. It has given me the best moments of the season as a fan with trips to Preston and Southampton alongside the Wembley games. Being a football fan is also about making memories, and there’s no doubting that Arsenal fans made a damn good one on Saturday, and that was because of the FA Cup.
Of course since the final, there has been confirmation that Arsene Wenger is staying at the club for another two years. After the defeats to Bayern Munich, West Brom and Crystal Palace, Arsenal looked like a broken team. Unless Arsene Wenger ever writes his reveal-all autobiography, which would probably be the greatest football book of all time, we’ll never truly know what happened in that period that derailed the team so dramatically and so damagingly. It looked like he had reached the point of no return, and while I was desperate for him to be able to turn it round, I couldn’t see how that was possible and, for the first time, felt like this summer could be the right time for a parting of ways.
But football changes quickly, and after the magnificence of the performance on Saturday and the upturn in form, albeit too late to get into the Champions League, Arsene Wenger staying seems like a decent option. Certainly in terms of trusting the board to actually have the know-how to pick a successor, Wenger staying is definitely the better option. For fans of other clubs moaning that Arsenal don’t know how lucky they are as the vast majority of clubs would kill to win three FA Cups in four years, they’re right. It does seem ridiculous for fans to moan about the manager in that situation. But for those who follow the club closely and passionately, the club is in a unique and baffling situation. Nowhere else at the top level does the manager possess so much power in the footballing side of the club, and isn’t really held accountable by those supposedly in power above him. For the size of club that Arsenal are and the money the club has coming in, they have under-achieved this season, and haven’t made any genuine progress in the league for years now. It’s a situation that has been allowed to fester and came to a head all too obviously this season.
While the outcome might not be what some were hoping for, at least there is now clarity that Arsene Wenger will be the manager next season and the club can get on with doing business in a hugely important summer. Existing players need contracts sorted, some need to be shipped out, and important additions need to be made. Alongside the announcement of the new contract for the manager have been quotes from the owner and chief executive about the ambition being to win the league. In the set-up of the staff to assist Arsene Wenger, and in the transfer market, Arsenal now have to show that that ambition really is there, and it isn’t just a sound-bite to please supporters. Actions must speak louder than words.
Ultimately, the only way to truly unite the fan base again is by performances on the pitch, as Saturday proved. In a difficult and challenging season, there have been a few times when I’ve wondered exactly why I put myself through supporting Arsenal as it’s not been much fun and there’s been a toxic undercurrent among fans. But why do fans keep doing it? For days like Saturday, when Arsenal provide you with emotions and joy you just can’t find anywhere else.

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Southampton seen off as Arsenal show signs of life

Even in bad seasons when title challenges have fallen away, Arsenal have generally ended campaigns well to consistently secure the place in the top four. This season has been particularly bad and most fans had resigned themselves to Thursday night football, but just maybe Arsenal are beginning to get on one their end-of-seasons runs to sneak into Europe’s top competition.
Realistically, it’ll require three wins from the last three games, and with a trip to Stoke included as one of those, the chances remain low. But the fact Arsenal have given themselves a chance at all of catching Manchester City or, more likely, Liverpool is a surprise. The 2-0 win on Wednesday at Southampton followed up the win over Manchester United and keeps the hopes alive.
As against Manchester United, Arsenal had to wait until the second half to score the decisive goals, and both of them stood out as the moments of real quality in the game. The Gunners are still adapting to a new way of playing and still trying to build confidence, and Southampton realistically don’t have much left to play for this season, so it made for a relatively quiet game for the most part, before the goals.
The first was worked really well by Arsenal from the back and through the midfield in just a few passes. Rather than looking to the wing-backs, Granit Xhaka played a good ball forward to Mesut Ozil, who cushioned a lovely pass into the path of Alexis Sanchez as the Chilean burst into the box. He showed composure to leave two covering defenders on the ground before finishing past Forster for his 20th league goal of the season. 
After scoring the winner in the FA Cup semi-final, Alexis has been quiet and there have been frustrations about him giving the ball away too many times. But there’s not many others in the league who you’d rather be on the end of an Ozil assist than Alexis Sanchez. Whatever the league position at the end of the season, I’m resigned to likelihood of him leaving, but hope I’m wrong. He can be infuriating, but in games such as Wednesday night, he can make the difference in tight situations.
The clinching goal came in the last ten minutes as Olivier Giroud fulfilled the super-sub role brilliantly again. Moments after coming off the bench, he got on the end of Aaron Ramsey’s header across the six yard box to nod home and secure the points. The build-up had been good with the cross from Alexis picking out Ramsey making another late run from midfield into the penalty area.
Ramsey followed up his good performance against Manchester United with another solid showing on the south coast as Arsenal finally seem to have found a consistent midfield pairing for the first time since Santi Cazorla’s injury back in October. Ramsey has a lot of freedom in the new system and is always willing to run beyond the opposition defence to stretch the play. He’s also getting a run of games without an injury, which has always been an issue for him. Unsurprisingly, he’s looking a lot sharper because of it.
Granit Xhaka alongside the Welshman had another good game as he ticked the play along nicely. His role in the team has seemed confused for a lot of the season, especially since Cazorla’s injury. Depending on who he has been playing alongside, he’s either had to be the more creative partner or more defensive partner, which hasn’t helped him settle into the team in his first season. With Ramsey now being the man usually attacking, Xhaka’s role has become a lot clearer and he is playing better. He’s also adapting to the league and does seem to have learnt from his tackling errors that brought red cards earlier in the season, even though they were harshly given. While there’s still a lot for Arsenal to work on in the new system offensively because of being a man down further up the field, the more consistent partnership in central midfield has been one of the definite benefits of switching to the 3-4-2-1.
There was a worry that with Laurent Koscielny missing through injury, Arsenal’s back three might fall apart given how well Koscielny performed against United, especially when effectively acting as a sweeper behind the other two centre-backs. But Shkodran Mustafi made an excellent return to the team in the middle of the three. His form, along with the team’s, fell off a cliff as the season went on, but the extra centre-back makes it a lot easier to cover if the German goes to press high and doesn’t make a tackle or interception, as happened too often when playing as a two. But on Wednesday night, he was more disciplined and did well alongside Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal, both of whom were solid again.
But as much as Arsenal did generally defend well, they were still indebted to Petr Cech for a few excellent first-half saves to keep the scores level. The Czech keeper has found some great form recently and made a vital one-on-one block from Gabbiadini and tipped over well from a powerful long-range effort from Redmond. There’s been some talk of a return for Wojciech Szczesny next season, something I’d be keen to see after his excellent season for Roma in Serie A, but Cech has rediscovered his form well recently after an indifferent season by his high standards.
Overall it was a job well done for Arsenal. After the defeat to Spurs, it felt like the Gunners would have to win all five of their remaining games to have a chance of squeaking into the top four, and so far it’s two from two. Arguably the toughest test of those five, Stoke City away, is next before two homes games. This run of form could still be too little too late, but Arsenal have finally got into the late-season groove and are clinging onto the chance of salvaging something from the wreckage of a dreadful second half of the league season. 

Gunners graft to go back to Wembley

It wasn’t always pretty, it wasn’t always fluent and easy on the eye, but it felt like we got our Arsenal back on Sunday. One win doesn’t solve the issues that have risen from a turbulent second half of the season, but in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, Arsenal looked like a proper team again.
The players worked hard for each other, they covered the ground, they were disciplined and organised and showed a level of commitment and will to win that has been so obviously lacking in recent months. It does lead to questions as to why it has taken such a dreadful run of results to bring about the change in attitude, but I guess it’s a case of ‘better late than never’. It might be too late to get into the top four in the league, but not too late to win some silverware.
There’s still a lot of questions surrounding the manager, as there should be after the recent run of form, but there is no denying that Arsene Wenger got it right tactically against Manchester City. Sticking with three at the back worked as it seemed like Pep Guardiola expected the Gunners to revert to a back four. Sane, Sterling and De Bruyne couldn’t get much joy in wide areas, and when the ball came inside, Arsenal were disciplined in holding their shape defensively to shut off space for Sergio Aguero.
It meant the Gunners relinquished a lot of possession in the game, but with a team that was low on confidence going into the game, it was the correct decision from the boss to make sure they were defensively solid and hope that with the likes of Ozil and Alexis on the field, there would be the attacking quality to create enough chances when they did get the ball.
While the Gunners did create enough to win the game 2-1 after extra time, it was defensively where they really impressed. Gabriel looked suited to playing in a back three as he wasn’t left exposed and his time spent at right-back earlier in the season served him well when tracking out into wide areas. He also did a great job of getting under the skin of City players with a few robust, but not reckless, challenges. Despite those tackles, he didn’t let his emotions boil over and do something stupid, which we’ve seen before. It was undoubtedly up there as his best game for the club.
On the other side of Laurent Koscielny in the back three was Rob Holding, making his first trip to Wembley Stadium itself, let alone just playing his first game there. For £2 million, Arsenal have got themselves one hell of a player. Holding was confident when on the ball, but a proper defender without it by winning headers and blocking shots. He didn’t look overawed by the occasion and slotted in brilliantly into a system he won’t have played in very often.
In front of the back three, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey had to put in a shift to cover the ground at Wembley. Having three centre-backs effectively takes the attacking midfielder out of how the team has previously lined-up, so there is extra onus on the two central midfielders to compensate. City dominated possession in the middle of the pitch for most of the game, but with Xhaka able to play longer passes and Ramsey willing to burst forward to support the striker, Arsenal were able to counter-attack effectively when they did get the ball. Defensively, the two were quick to get back into formation when they did lose possession and both hounded City’s midfielders when they approached the final third of the pitch.
While it was an excellent team performance, the real stars were arguably the Arsenal wing-backs. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain followed up his good showing at Middlesbrough with a superb display of pace, trickery, crossing and good defensive cover. Having thought he’d found his position in central midfield a few weeks ago, the Ox has made a compelling case to make that position on the right his own, should Arsenal stick with the system. On the other side, Nacho Monreal was equally as good. Of Arsenal’s left-backs, Kieran Gibbs is the obvious choice to play as a wing-back as a keener attacker, but Monreal showed he is willing to bomb forward and support the forwards when necessary. His defensive work was also superb, regularly stopping crosses and giving City very little joy when attacking down the right. While both wing-backs were excellent, no-one could have expected the two to combine the way they did for Arsenal’s equaliser.
Having gone 1-0 down, there was a real concern that Arsenal would crumble again. All of their good defensive work was undone somewhat by one piece of miscontrol from Ramsey, one ball over-the-top from Yaya Toure and one counter-attack finished by Sergio Aguero. But Arsenal finally showed what they are made of with a spirited response. Ten minutes after going behind, Oxlade-Chamberlain whipped in a superb cross from the right aimed for Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey. It went over both, but out of nowhere, Nacho Monreal arrived like a train to thunder a right-footed volley past Claudio Bravo.
It was a forward run you wouldn’t expect Monreal to make, but it was almost as if he had a ‘sod it’ moment and just gambled. The timing of run and finish was absolutely perfect, and suddenly Arsenal believed.
The Gunners had to ride their luck with a dubious disallowed goal in the first half, Yaya Toure’s shot being tipped onto the post by Petr Cech and Fernandinho crashing a header off the bar, but as the game went on, you just got a sense that it could be Arsenal’s day. After all the horrors of recent weeks, there was a team wearing red and white who looked hell bent on doing everything they could to get through to the final.
After Danny Welbeck shot across goal and Rob Holding headed over, Arsenal took the lead in extra time. There was an element of fortune about the ball dropping to Alexis Sanchez after Welbeck mis-kicked in the box, but when it did reach the Chilean, his control and instant finish was too quick for Kompany and Bravo to react in front of him. It was Alexis’ only shot of the game, but was ruthlessly finished.
Arsenal had a few chances to wrap it up on the break in the second half of extra time but chose the wrong passing option, and while they limited City chances pretty well, the best opening came to Fabian Delph as Arsenal almost got caught short at the back, only for substitute Hector Bellerin to race back and make a vital block into the side-netting.
The celebrations on the final whistle had a lot of joy combined with suprise that the Gunners had turned in such a committed performance. Arsenal made themselves hard to beat, and were a nasty team to play against on Sunday. Earlier in the season, when things have kicked off a bit between players, Arsenal have often left one player to fight their own battle. I thought it was telling in extra time when Fabian Delph had a disagreement with Gabriel, the Arsenal players swarmed around their man. I’m not advocating Arsenal trying to start fights every game, but it was great to see the team rally round each other and look much more of a collective than City did.
You couldn’t help but be warmed by the reaction of Arsene Wenger at the end of the game. He’s a manager that isn’t known for his outpouring of emotions, but the joy and relief on his face was evident. Whatever fans’ perspective on the manager might be, no-one can ever doubt how much he cares about Arsenal Football Club, and how much every defeat hurts him. He came up with a plan on Sunday and it came off and his players, finally, put in a performance that backed up their words about wanting him to stay. The win might be enough for Wenger to sign the new contract, but could also delay the decision further because of not wanting to disrupt the build-up to the final at the end of May. This summer is probably still the right time for him to step aside, but Sunday was proof that it won’t be the unmitigated disaster some are making it out to be if he does continue to manage the team next season.
Arsenal now have a blueprint performance to refer to for the remainder of the season. The top four is unlikely, but if the team play each game with the same attitude and desire they showed on Sunday, it’s not impossible. More than anything though, it feels like Arsenal are a team again.