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.

Advertisements

Alexis injects some life into Arsenal

For all the negativity around the club following the way Arsenal have thrown the season away, and the more empty seats than usual at the Emirates on Thursday night, the atmosphere in the stadium against West Bromwich Albion didn’t have the toxic undercurrent that is has done in recent weeks. It could have been the resigned feeling among Arsenal supporters, and the exhaustion from a tiring outpouring of frustration, but there wasn’t a sense of anger.
It could also have been down to Arsenal scoring early and never looking to be in too much trouble of doing anything stupid during the game. That’s been very unusual in the second half of the season.
Alexis Sanchez was the spark that Arsenal needed to lift themselves and the crowd as he provided two moments of real quality and continued his own good form. With West Brom unsurprisingly set up to be defensive, the onus was on Arsenal to make things happen rather than trying to draw the visitors out to create space in behind the defence. Despite Arsenal having a terrible record at scoring from outside the penalty area this season, Alexis took it upon himself to change that with a superb strike from 25 yards out inside the first ten minutes. A sharp turn created the space for the shot before he found the bottom corner with a low drive.
The Chilean doubled his tally before half-time with another strike from outside the 18-yard box. Aaron Ramsey was fouled around the D on the edge of the box, giving Alexis the chance to whip a clever free-kick into the bottom corner, deceiving the goalkeeper. Ben Foster in the Baggies goal shouldn’t have made it so easy for Alexis as the Arsenal winger managed to score on the side of the goal that the keeper was covering, but he was aided by Per Mertesacker and Olivier Giroud standing on the end of the West Brom wall and blocking the keeper’s view of the shot.
Foster had almost made a worse error moments earlier when he let a Mesut Ozil shot spill through his legs, but one of his defenders had made their way back to the goal-line and was able to spare him from appearing on goalkeeper errors compilations alongside Massimo Taibi. At the other end of the pitch, Gareth McAuley did hit the bar with a header from a corner, but otherwise Petr Cech went untroubled in the first half as the visitors looked like they were already on the beach at the end of the season.
With the game virtually safe at 2-0 due to the lack of cutting edge from the opposition, Arsenal could have boosted their confidence further by running up a few goals in the second period, but the killer instinct just deserted them around the penalty area. With Ben Foster in dodgy form, it would have nice to see the Gunners test him with a few more efforts from outside the box rather than trying to play the extra pass, but they could afford to be a but more expansive having already netted twice. Mesut Ozil was denied by Foster spreading himself low at the German’s feet before Olivier Giroud had a fierce effort blocked by the keeper’s face in the best chances for the hosts in the second half.
Overall it was a much more controlled performance from Arsenal and one without panic. That was, in part, down to the return of Per Mertesacker to the starting line-up. The German has been missed in recent games, especially away at West Ham, despite him being fit and available. I’m sure that Gabriel, in time, will be a fantastic defender for Arsenal, but he’s had a tough few games and has been lucky to have an extended run in the side. Mertesacker’s reading of the game was as excellent as always on Thursday night and he seemed to bring the leadership and authority that has been missing in the team when they’ve thrown leads away recently. He’s a player that some are quick to write off because he’s a bit slow, but that’s just a lazy bit of analysis because he offers so much more to the team to compensate for his lack of pace.
Olivier Giroud was also given an opportunity up front in place of Danny Welbeck, and while there were the usual moments of Giroud frustration that comes with the big man up front, some of his touches and link-up play was sublime and brought the quicker players like Iwobi and Alexis into the game.
The win doesn’t eliminate the regrets and disappointments in the season, but it did at least provide some relief. It gives Arsenal a four point buffer in the top four, which unfortunately, is the Gunners’ only focus for the rest of the season. On paper, games remaining against Sunderland and Norwich should be comfortable wins, but with both teams scrapping for their lives at the bottom, Arsenal will need to show the same focus they did on Thursday. It’s not the end of the season it should have been, but there were at least signs against West Brom that it might not get any worse for the Gunners.

An unsurprising and inevitable defeat

Even if Jose Mourinho isn’t there, should we really be surprised that Chelsea still found a way to manoeuvre themselves a win against Arsenal and have the Gunners finish without a full number of players on the pitch? Absolutely not.
Even against ten men, this Chelsea team still looked a bit shambolic, especially going forward, but having gone into a 1-0 lead in the first half, the one thing they can still do is defend well, and it’s a lot easier to play with everyone behind the ball when the opposition trying to force the game are a man down.
The game can only really be defined by the sending off of Per Mertesacker in the first half. From an Arsenal point-of-view, it was poor defending that allowed Diego Costa to isolate the big German, and it was unusually rash from Mertesacker to dive in as I can only assume that he thought Costa was either offside or that Koscielny was going to struggle to catch him, so he felt he had to do something. When it happened, it didn’t look great in real-time for Mertesacker and I can understand why Mark Clattenburg brought out the red card.
But, having said that, it would also have been completely correct if Clattenburg had booked Diego Costa for diving. It’s sad to see a striker with the talent that Costa has a footballer, feel he needs to cheat his way through games and do everything he can to have a fight with someone. He’s got a clear run on goal but throws himself to the floor to get someone sent off. It’s this sort of thing that people use against Arsenal when it’s argued that the team aren’t cynical enough or don’t have a hard edge to them but, frankly, if having those things means being like Diego Costa, then no thank you. That man is stain on the game.
Inevitably, while Arsenal were still adapting following a reshuffle after the sending off, Costa scored the only goal of the game. The Gunners weren’t switched on enough and still had the red card in their minds, and Chelsea took advantage of that.
After that moment though, it is difficult to fault the overall effort of the team as, for large parts of the second half, the team with ten men were the only side trying to make anything happen in the game as the visitors resorted to just hitting hopeful passes through for Costa or Remy, who were usually offside. Arsenal’s biggest problem was not having a proper centre-forward to occupy the Chelsea centre-backs, limiting Arsenal’s options when they worked the ball into wide areas. I understand why Arsene Wenger hooked Olivier Giroud off to be able to bring on Gabriel to play at centre-back, especially if there had been an injury doubt over the Frenchman before the game, but Arsenal missed him badly.
Theo Walcott was fortunate to not be the one taken off, and the decision to leave him on could have partly been influenced by Walcott wearing the captain’s armband. While it was a nice gesture to recognise Theo passing ten years at the club, I couldn’t help but think that it sent out the wrong message. This was a massive league game, not a testimonial. I hoped that the armband might at least galvanise Walcott, whose contributions have hardly been telling in recent weeks. Unfortunately he gave a pretty uninspired performance in his game as the captain, and with Alexis Sanchez back at Arsenal’s disposal, Walcott has to fear for his place in the starting XI.
The Gunners had a spark when Alexis came on, and there were a few scrambles near the end of the game where on another day the ball would have fallen into the back of the net, but with Mathieu Flamini unfortunately being on the end of Arsenal’s best chances, things didn’t quite happen for the Gunners.
I just hope that the players are able to just write it off as an accident, as with eleven players on the pitch, I have no doubt that Arsenal would have won that game. It was costly in terms of missing out on three points to go back to the top of the table, but it doesn’t have to be costly in terms of triggering a collapse in Arsenal’s form. Wins against Burnley and Sothampton in the next games will go a long way to getting this game out of the system and effectively press the reset button on the title challenge. It isn’t all over because Chelsea somehow scraped a victory against ten men.
As with any game with Chelsea, regardless of the result, I ended the match feeling incredibly relieved that I had a red and white scarf around my neck and not a blue one. There are so many things that make that club thoroughly dislikable.