In what will go down as one of the best, most evenly matched FA Cup Finals in recent memory, Arsenal were able to overcome the Premier League’s most dominant team during the season, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, and bag themselves some surprise silverware to close out the season. Arsenal came out ready to attack, pushing Chelsea back onto their heels. The Blues did not seem ready for this, and although the Gunners were denied several quality chances to push their lead out of reach before halftime, Conte’s men had regrouped and stemmed the flow of Arsenal momentum. It wasn’t until after a vile and obvious bit of cheating put Chelsea down a man that the Blues were finally able to equalise. However, this was to be Arsenal’s day, and barely had the commotion and elation subsided from the Chelsea supporters when Arsenal and a magnificent Aaron Ramsey wrestled hope away from the League Champions for good.
It was a magical night at Wembley, but there will be little time to rest for the club’s hierarchy, as thoughts will now immediately turn towards summer business, specifically, the transfer market. Here are the talking points from Arsenal’s hard-fought 2-1 victory in the 2017 FA Cup Finals:
One Arsene Wenger
In nearly every season of his two-decade run as Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger has had to face tough questions. Occasionally the tension between the fans and the Frenchman have approached boiling point, most notably before the 2014 FA Cup victory ended a decade-long trophy drought. That was the last time he was in the final season of his then-current contract, but even then there had been nowhere near as much pure vitriol as he has seen this season. It may have been a surprise, given Wenger’s resistance toward getting sucked into questions where he may be forced to criticise anybody, but it was tremendously satisfying to see him stand up to the fans who have taken their criticisms far beyond what is acceptable.
For a man deemed “over the hill” by many, thoroughly beating two of the world’s most tactically astute managers en route to a third FA Cup title in 4 years is impressive by any metric. Arsenal utterly dominated Chelsea for large swaths of the match, immediately putting the Blues back on their heels after an Alexis Sanchez goal in the 4th minute. If the attackers had been a little more clinical with their finishing and precise with their final ball, the match could easily have been out of reach by the time Chelsea had gotten their legs by the half hour mark.
It is not just that Wenger was willing and able to radically switch the formation to a back three over a month ago, but also the continued growth we have seen from the team in their new alignment that has impressed so much. Week on week, the team have built upon, and added to, this new look. What first looked like a desperately conservative move to shore up a leaking defence, now simply looks like Arsenal at their flowing best. All match long, Ozil was dropping into the midfield, creating a 3v2 in the centre of the park while in possession. There is no denying the emphatic response that Arsene Wenger has delivered to his critics in the last month of the season.
Those Bottling Players
I have asked before, and I shall ask again: does that look like a team that has quit on their manager? There is no denying the slump that the whole team seemed to fall into after the holidays, but there can also be no denying the quality we have witnessed in the last month plus either. Aaron Ramsey looks like the player he was for Wales at Euro 2016 again after enduring a torrid campaign of injury and inconsistency. The solid defensive base of the new formation has unlocked both he and Granit Xhaka’s best qualities in the midfield, with Xhaka excelling in a deep-lying playmaker role behind the more forward thinking Ramsey. Possibly the biggest advantage of the new shape is that it allows both Ramsey and Mesut Ozil to drift into their favoured central area in attack, while also permitting each the freedom to run in behind the defence.
Elsewhere on the pitch, the captain, and season debutante, Per Mertesacker put in a masterclass performance alongside the young Rob Holding and displaced fullback, Nacho Monreal in Arsenal’s back 3. The towering German made several perfectly timed sliding challenges in the box that could have been disastrous had he gotten them wrong. Hector Bellerin is starting to show why he was a winger in his time at the fabledLaa Masia in Barcelona. His pace down the right flank is an absolute weapon, and it seems that the young Spaniard has found his best form again since temporarily losing his place to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a few weeks back. David Ospina put in a fantastic effort in net for the Gunners, despite many fans believing that Petr Cech would have been the superior option for such an important match. Danny Welbeck also put in a good shift in the first half, though he seemed to fade badly in the second half. Replacing Welbeck was Olivier Giroud, who came on to do what he has been doing all season – contribute to huge goals for the club as an impact substitute – which he did once again with his assist to Ramsey for the game-winning header.
Alexis Sanchez was his typical self against Chelsea, in that he was excellent, but it should be Mesut Ozil that feels the most vindication today. Constantly criticised (and we cannot forget, but not always without merit) for turtling in big matches and against big teams since he joined to club. He was a man on a mission to win on Saturday, and anyone watching him make recovery runs and successful slide tackles from a trailing position, in addition to his immense impact on attack, should be left in no doubt about his performance. Besides Wenger’s tactical checkmate on Conte (it won’t ever get old, saying that), the biggest difference between the two teams was that both of Arsenal’s best players showed up to play, while Chelsea’s did not. Sure, Diego Costa (future Chinese league superstar…) got one of his trademark grungy, ugly, poacher type goals, but besides a few textbook moments of centre-forward hold up play, he was a non-factor.
I suppose then, one must come up with a new phrase for the lack of contribution that Eden Hazard made to the cause. Chelsea tried to move him around to get him into space, trying him down the right flank where Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was forced to defend. However, any time it appeared to me that Hazard was making a threatening run, it turned out to actually be Pedro. We all saw the disastrous season he had the last time Chelsea got to wear gold Premier League shoulder patches, so perhaps he was just starting in early in his post-title lethargy.
Not at all surprising in a match put on by the English FA, overseen by referees of the PGMO, specifically Anthony Taylor (4th official, Burnley match. Yeah, that guy.) and played by Arsenal, there were some questionable moments as well as some difficult decisions for the referee to make. It didn’t take long for the first shouts to go up, and in the case of Alexis Sanchez’ opening goal, they came from both sides. Chelsea roared for a handball, as it appeared the ball may have glanced slightly off his arm as he took the ball down on his chest. Arsenal were shouting themselves moments later as the linesman decided to flag Ramsey offside, who was indeed in an offside position, but had made no sustained movement towards the ball. After a short conversation, made longer by a whinging David Luis, Taylor awarded the goal to the Gunners.
The middle of the match was marked by increased physicality as Chelsea began to match the Arsenal intensity. Two cynical Chelsea fouls in rapid succession were both lucky to escape a booking, and Arsenal kept committing fouls in dangerous areas around their own box. During this time, when David Ospina received a knock from Diego Costa and required some time to collect himself, it did appear to me as though Costa’s trailing foot swung forward unnecessarily to make contact with the goalkeeper’s head on the way by, but this view does not seem to be shared with anyone.
If the decision to overturn a linesman and award Arsenal their first goal wasn’t enough, that was nothing compared to what would happen in the second half. Chelsea wing back Victor Moses, already on a yellow card, cut in from the right side to come across the face of the goal and his defender, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. As he did so, he stopped moving his legs and dropped to the turf, crying out for a penalty that the entire stadium figured would be awarded (because it was Arsenal, not because there was a foul). Instead, Anthony Taylor immediately gave him his marching orders for simulation. It was, without doubt, a difficult call to make, but one that Taylor completely nailed. Moses deserves every ounce of ire he receives from the Chelsea faithful, for had the officials been fooled, we could have easily seen a Chelsea victory, as a converted penalty in that situation would have put them up 2-1. They got it right.
Injuries, Suspension Not A Factor
Last weekend, Arsenal’s perceived slim chance in the Cup Final appeared to get even slimmer as they lost Gabriel to a knee injury, Mustafi to a concussion, and Koscielny to suspension. All three had played key roles in the team’s recent uptick in form, so it was expected that Arsenal would struggle to stop the Premier League Champions’ very talented attack. Instead, Per Mertesacker was brilliant, as we already know, and Rob Holding continues to astonish with the level of maturity he has shown since getting more regular game time. His £2 million price tag is looking like a hell of a bargain right now for a club that spent ~£35 million on the other central defender bought in the same transfer window. Nacho Monreal seems very comfortable in a back 3, and he too had a fantastic match, a couple of silly fouls notwithstanding. Not all about the back 3, the whole team has done a better job defensively of late, and this match was no different.
While the players and many fans are basking in the glow of a Cup victory, the hard decisions of the summer are now upon the manager, owner and board. Decisions on the contracts of Wenger, as well as Sanchez, Ozil, Ramsey, the Ox, and more need to be made as well. Manchester City has already moved quickly to dump several squad players to free space for another summer of Guardiola spending. Arsenal should move quickly as they did last season in securing the services of a Granit Xhaka, but should perhaps also try to wrap up the majority of their transfers early as well this season.
For what it’s worth, Stan Kroenke looked totally unconcerned with the rumours of a possible buyout of his majority stake in the club. He cut a relaxed figure with his waxed moustache and loud, American wide lapel pinstripe suit, watching his team roll over Chelsea. Those fans hoping he might be leaving should probably not hold their breath on that front. Why go through years of limited profits and austerity of success if only to just sell it off as soon as the benefits of stability begin to show? Not only will Kroenke not be going anywhere, but perhaps certain people will be able to overlook their colonial prejudices and try and understand what Kroenke is trying to do with the club, turning it into a self-sufficient money machine.
So, have we seen the last of Arsene Wenger? In my opinion, no. I believe that he, Ozil and Sanchez will all sign 2-year deals, and Wenger then states that it will be his last contract with the club. This then gives the next manager the chance to either keep both stars for a year, or to sell either one for money to reinvest into the squad on players the next manager may prefer. Both players will be 30 or turning 30 in two years time, and while both may sustain their play for several years, players seldom hit their peak performance after that age.
It is going to be an exciting summer Gooners!