Wednesday, May 31, 2017

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.