While the world still continues to battle with everything 2020 throws at it, we can at least take some solace in the knowledge that we won’t have to endure another season like that any time soon. It feels like eons ago since I started this blog, amidst the worst climate I’ve ever experienced as an Arsenal fan. Emery playing 5-at-the-back against teams battling relegation, conceding 31 shots to Watford, playing with a non-existent midfield and a defence that seemed to froth at the mouth at the prospect of inviting pressure and giving away penalties. I don’t even want to recall some of the results or performances because they were so timid and uninspired.. so un-Arsenal.
Yesterday was the perfect culmination to this “extended blip” and a return to Arsenal things – that’s winning trophies and doing things that others can’t. A record-breaking 14th F.A. Cup win, in a season overseen by 3 different managers, with pariahs becoming saviors in Xhaka and Ainsley, and the dead-weight being cast aside to wallow. The scenes at the final whistle were vindication for what Arteta has been trying to implement since he arrived; that belief and commitment go a long way in getting results and when you throw in some world class talent, you can beat the very best.
Yesterday was special for many reasons. First and foremost, it was Chelsea getting a nice and healthy dose of “comeuppance” – Jorginho this season, Marcos Alonso’s clothesline on Bellerin still in recent memory – they’d had it coming.
It’s also something for a manager who’d barely retired to come into a team with 6 months under his belt and win a major trophy. That in and of itself is an achievement but the prerequisites add another lay of gloss, with wins against Sheffield United (that beat Chelsea and Spurs comfortably in the league weeks later) and Man City.
It was a case of righting the many, many wrongs in Baku, and a convenient repeat of our success in 2017 after beating City In the semis and Chelsea in the final once more. Anthony Taylor had a sterling performance that day, come to think of it…
Okay, the start had me worried. Aubameyang heading wide after 2 minutes, followed by Mount running at our back line and forcing Martinez into a save… and then, of course it would be Giroud with his stupid, perfect flicks to tee up Pulisic.
Where Ainsley was effective against Mahrez, Pulisic was able to do as he pleased for the first 15 minutes and he was the focal point of Chelsea’s threat. Our midfield was overrun and there were shades of doubt creeping in, amplified by the traditional cup final rectal clenching. In hindsight, we can probably chalk the slow start up to nerves given how the rest of the game unfolded, so I’m not looking to dwell on what we didn’t do.
Naturally, I was absolutely devastated when Pulisic was struck down by the footballing gods early in the second half, but to our credit, we never looked back after the first drinks break and were the driving force of the match. On the one hand, these drinks breaks seem a bit ridiculous but we really do seem to benefit from them. Now if only we could start games in the same way…
It’s no secret that Chelsea are just as suspect at the back as we are – it just comes in a different form. They have the league’s most expensive and statistically worst goalkeeper (the two aren’t mutually exclusive, which makes it even funnier when you’ve had a keeper like Martinez biding his time for 10 years). His replacement has somewhat of a reputation as a penalty aficionado so it was only natural for Aubameyang to hopelessly send him the wrong way.
The peach-of-a-ball over the top from Tierney, seeing Anthony Taylor shush Azpilicueuta and Alonso.. even just the thought of Chelsea fans’ collective stomach churning at the prospect of a penalty AND a possible red card. It was the stuff of dreams.
All square, we began to impose ourselves and seemed to realise we could run at their back line just as they had done so to us.
The second half saw us pick up where we left off and after Pulisic made way, Chelsea’s threat unsurprisingly waned.
It wasn’t long before Bellerin rolled back the years and burst through Chelsea’s midfield at speed. Pépé collected, Lacazette briefly drew Zouma aside and it was in this split-second that Aubameyang seemed to make up his mind. He revealed afterwards that, knowing Zouma knew him, he feigned shooting on his right to buy the space on his left, and the finish was even better than the feint. That’s 18 G/A for Pépé in his first season in England and 32 for Aubameyang. Considering his service has been mostly starved and he’s been plying his trade out of position for most of the season, that’s not bad.
Chelsea’s desperation had been growing and the cards had been steadily accumulating. I even said to my Dad in the first half that it felt like a game with a red card brewing and while the circumstances were – let’s say “kind” to Arsenal – that is the price you often pay with these brainless officials.
It was only at this point that I began to unclench but we still had to sit through 11 agonising minutes of injury time to seal the deal. It was a shame to see Pedro injure himself badly but then again, his role at Barcelona – other than benchwarming – was to come off the bench and dive, so my heart weeps.
I don’t know whether these last two F.A. Cup performances were Aubameyang’s “thank you and goodbye” or if it represented a renewed belief and commitment to Arteta and the club, but we’ve at least done everything we can to convince him. I hope we don’t have to wait long, one way or the other, to learn his fate but he’s irreplaceable in my book. He’s at the absolute peak of his career so I wouldn’t begrudge him for wanting to play at the absolute highest level, but the potential of a side built around him with some (hopefully) shrewd summer acquisitions is scary.
We’ve at least secured a decent chunk of money through the F.A. Cup prize pool and by extension, Europa League qualification so the board have nowhere to hide when it comes to giving Arteta all of the financial support he deserves. We also have plenty of bargaining chips within the squad to free up resources and give the squad a nice summer detox.
I’ve been soaking up the post-match scenes all day, from Aubameyang’s hapless trophy lifting, to Arteta’s glowing bear hugs and Martinez completely losing it. It was also the first taste of silverware for our up-and-comers and an important step in moulding the likes of the Hale End boys, and Saliba, Pépé and Martinelli into winners.
For now though, we just have to wait and enjoy the moment.