This season has been dominated by talk of Arsene Wenger’s contract expiring and speculation about his future. Every post-match interview and press conference has been loaded with questions about his future. Every new defeat Arsenal suffered strengthened the possibility that this would finally be the year that Wenger quit. The supporter’s anger grew to new levels, protests against the club were made and Wenger looked increasingly beleaguered, to the point where every amateur body language expert decided he looked ready to pack it in.
Amongst all that, it’s been forgotten that Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have been here before, as recently as three years ago. The 2013-14 season saw Wenger as close to leaving Arsenal as he had ever been. It was one that told a familiar story of Arsenal having a strong first half of the season, boosted by record signing Mesut Ozil and the wonderful form of Aaron Ramsey, but failing spectacularly in the second half. Their title challenge came to a screeching halt at Anfield, where Liverpool blitzed their way to a 5-1 victory. A heroic failure in the Champions League against Bayern Munich soon followed. Then came the 6-0 defeat at Chelsea. With confidence low and injuries mounting, Arsenal proceeded to drop points at home to Swansea and Manchester City and then lost 3-0 at Everton, who were steaming in on a top four finish.
Suddenly, Arsenal went from title challengers to potentially dropping out of the top four altogether. In the meantime, the club were progressing well through the FA Cup, knocking out Spurs, Coventry, Liverpool, and Everton on the way to a straightforward looking semi-final against Championship side Wigan Athletic. With the prospect of playing either Hull City or Sheffield United in the final, there was genuine belief that Arsenal, even with all their frailties, could end the season with a trophy – their first in nine years.
Despite Wenger’s success in the competition, the FA Cup had become a footnote in Arsenal’s pursuit of regular Champions League football since the move to the Emirates Stadium. But with his contract running down, the season going down the toilet and fan unrest at an all-time high, the FA Cup took on a whole new level of importance. It was an opportunity to prove to the fans and to the players that Arsenal could be a winning team. An FA Cup win would go a long way to convincing people that the team was on the right track. It’s a commonly held belief amongst Arsenal supporters that the FA Cup that season was the difference between Wenger leaving and Wenger extending for three more years.
We’re now at the end of those three years and the circumstances are similar. Wenger is in the middle of picking up the pieces of a broken a season; yet another year that promised so much yet fell and cracked after a few bumps in the road. Only this time, the stakes are much higher. The club failed to achieve the bare minimum of a top four finish. Three more years without a Premier League title, despite the significant increase in player investment, has reduced Wenger’s assertions that the team can be successful to meaningless soundbites. He’s lost a great deal of goodwill from the supporters and even finds himself in opposition to certain members of the board. Once again, it feels like the manager is on the brink.
Arsene Wenger needs the FA Cup now more than ever.
An FA Cup triumph over Chelsea would not repair the damage of the season gone by, nor would it indicate that everything is okay and will continue to be okay in the future. However, it would grant Wenger valuable respite, if only for a short while. He would have some leverage to convince the club that he’s still the man to take the club forward. Failing that, he would have a window to leave the club on a high; to be sent off with another trophy and not just a 5th placed finish.
A defeat, though, would leave him in an untenable position, at least in the eyes of the fans. The fans were able to forgive 2013-14’s failures as they were swept up in new-found optimism that the silverware would start flowing again. This time, there’s little room for forgiveness. Few will be optimistic about the prospect of Europa League football and the loss of several key players. The club’s backing may be eternal, but it’d take a remarkable turnaround next season to get the fans back on board.
Arsenal made hard work of their 2014 win. They needed a scruffy late equaliser from Per Mertesacker to take Wigan to extra-time in the semi-finals. Then they had to count of Lukasz Fabianski’s heroics in the penalty shootout. The final against Hull saw Arsenal go 2-0 down in the opening ten minutes. That they battled back to win the game 3-2 must have been the clearest sign yet to Wenger that the much-touted mental strength did, in fact, exist in his squad.
Chelsea present a whole different challenge. This will be a final in which Arsenal are the underdogs going up against vastly superior opposition. Just as they did against Manchester City in the semi-final, Arsenal will need to scrap and battle their way to a win. The only problem here is that heroic failure isn’t an option.
This has been Wenger’s competition. We’ll soon find out if things continue to go his way, or if he’ll be betrayed by even the FA Cup.