I’m not really sure how to go about writing this, I’m deeply hungover, and buzzing with excitement at the same time. All the things you want to feel on the Sunday after your club chalks up FA Cup number 14, 7 in the last century, 7 in this one. I’m so gutted I can’t buy all the English papers today!
I made the point last week that the problem with this squad isn’t really talent, it’s character. Yesterday, we saw that in full effect. The players were focused, they were hungry, and they left every bead of sweat out on that field. As Robin Van Persie said after the game, they should be delivering to that level every three days.
The line-up was as expected, we played a 3-4-3, putting Tierney in as one of the centre backs again. Maitland-Niles landed a chance in a final, and the manager put all his faith in a front three of Pepe, Auba and Lacazette.
The game got off to a very bad start, Chelsea pressed us with intelligence and opened us up with ease, Pulisic was causing all sorts of issues for us with his power and intelligent running, he made the break from a clumsy passage of defending in our box that allowed Giroud to flick the ball into the American’s path to give a fairly simple finish.
We had seen this film before. Arsenal looked out of ideas and very nervous. Chelsea looked at their imperious best. We all feared a Baku rerun.
Though this time, we didn’t collapse. We had a solid 5 minutes heading into the drinks break, then Arteta went to town. He, along with Ian Wright according to journalists, had spotted that Chelsea were playing a very high line with slow defenders, the instruction was to get the ball out of defence quicker and exploit the space in behind. Lampard’s team talk compared to Mikel’s was chalk and cheese, our coach dishing out high-intensity instructions, Frank looked like he was dreaming about what he was having for dinner.
After the break, we really hacked into Chelsea’s dominance. We had a brilliant Pepe screamer disallowed for an offside in the build-up, I was gutted at the time, but you still felt the game was tilting our way regardless. Then it happened, Arsenal played out the back, Tierney took up a position on the left touchline, he moved the ball forward then launched a perfect pass into Auba. Our fast striker had the better of Azpi, whose first tug was outside the box, Auba kept his balance, then the second tug came in the penalty area. The ref pointed to the spot, VAR backed him. Auba, after missing an important penalty at Wembley last season made no mistake this time, he sent Willy the wrong way with a powerful low strike.
Things started to go awry for Chelsea, Azpi went off with a hamstring injury, and they didn’t really know how to deal with our threat in behind them. Nicolas Pepe also started to pull strings in ways we’ve not really seen before. He was floating, a little like Ozil would, across the frontline. He was number 10ing… but, he was doing his share of defensive work. He made an absolutely vital interception outside our box in the second half which saved us.
The second half was going to be important, Lampard changed things at The Emirates and we had no reaction. Chelsea came out better. One of the defining early moments of the second half came when Pulisic broke free of our defence, Tierney, fearing opening up space, backed off him giving him a free shot… but the American pulled his hammy and scuffed his opp. I felt for the guy, but my word, what a lucky moment for us.
Chelsea continued to have some good moments, but Arsenal played it patiently, allowing them 59% of the possession, a little like the City game, knowing we have one of the greatest sharpshooters in the game if we found a chance.
The chance came.
Dani Ceballos was first to a loose high ball in our half, he cushioned his pass off his back. Hector picked up the ball and turned on the afterburners, powering through Chelsea’s centre like he was storming the lines, Christensen slid in, but dispossessed the ball to Pepe who had two options, he chose Auba who took the ball, faked right, slid the ball onto his left and chipped a keeper that stood tall because he knew he was being chipped.
WHAT A FUCKING GOAL! That is how you win cup finals. With unadulterated MAGIC.
Things continued to get worse for Chelsea, Kovacic earned a second yellow for an odd foul and took an early bath. Then they started to feel sorry for themselves and you could see the focus was gone. There was a lot of injury time, Chelsea went down to 9 men when they couldn’t replace the injured Pedro, then it was game over.
The final whistle went, the players ran onto the pitch, Emi Martinez, who was excellent again cried. Arsenal had done it, we had turned around our worst season in living memory and capped it with an FA Cup win. Our rookie manager landed a piece of silverware inside 7 months, he boasted the feat of winning both as a captain of Arsenal and now a head coach. I think George Graham also achieved that status, which bodes well, as he was also a master of defence.
So what did we learn?
We are on the right path with Mikel Arteta as the coach of Arsenal FC. It has always been clear to me that he is a generational coach and I think what he’s done at Arsenal in such a short space of time has been absolutely monumental. He came in and picked up a group of players that were deemed untouchable. He has been aggressively turning around a soiled culture. He resisted calls to return Matteo and Ozil to the squad, they didn’t even go to the ground yesterday. He dealt with a pandemic, caught covid himself, got his players to agree to a pay cut, and managed the contract issues that derailed the restart. He has begun to implement an identity, it’s not perfect, but you can see what he’s doing. The tactics he uses are smart and the players understand. We press for the entire game now, but most importantly, we battle.
The results, while muddled at times, point to a more competitive Arsenal. We have beaten United, Chelsea, City and Liverpool. We are better at defending, not perfect, but the structure of the side is vastly improved. Now, we’re trophy winners. The win is huge because now the fans believe and the world of football with pay attention. This isn’t a hipster pipedream now, it’s the real deal, we have wind in our sails and we have to capitalise on it.
Before I leave the topic of Mikel, does anyone still think we missed out on Jose, Carlo, Nuno? Does anyone think Frank Lampard’s one season at Derby was more valuable than 3 seasons learning under the best coach in the world? I didn’t think so. Raul and Edu will get pelters from me for their approach to transfers, but you have to give it to them, Arteta was a bold and visionary hire that took cojones to make. Well done.
The players deserve huge credit as well because this season has not been easy for them. Their response yesterday was exceptional. They all showed up.
Auba, what a day for him. He might be rubbish at lifting trophies, but he is one of the best strikers in the world and he keeps getting better. He has never sulked, never stopped smiling, and he has been absolutely devastating in front of goal.
Emi Martinez was brilliant again. He hasn’t put a foot wrong since coming in for Leno. His huge frame gives him so many advantages in England. He dominates his area, he catches nearly everything, and his shot-stopping has been second to none. How can he not be number one after the run of games he’s had?
Nicolas Pepe was brilliant. He kept his intensity levels high all game, he brought the crazy tricks and nutmegs, he was nearly decisive had it not been for the linos flag. He set the standard, that’s how he has to play every game moving forward.
We should also give praise to our defensive setup. Chelsea really weren’t given a lot yesterday. Luiz had a strong game, keeping Giroud very quiet. Holding was pretty good. Tierney was a beast again. I also thought AMN had a really promising game, he was much more defensive-minded in the second half, but he used his pace and smart runs really well in the first half. Also worth noting that Bellerin had one of his better games, he showed a lot of guts to power through midfield late on, it was such an important run.
Xhaka and Dani boy were strong in the middle of the park. Lacazette was aggressive and persistent in his play.
So, now we have Europe.
The club, from what I understand, is planning to do their shopping as fast as they can, so expect movement over the next 10 days. Willian didn’t play, I believe, because he is close to Arsenal. I hear that there are rumours that the deal he had on the table pre-covid looks quite different to the one we have with him now (less money), which is an interesting tidbit. We’re also seriously looking at Coutinho and you all know that the smoke around Partey has fire attached.
This news comes with the reality that we are going to have to sell players to raise funds because even with Europa, we are skint. That’s why I’m a little nervous about Auba. Let’s see though, Edu and Raul have to earn their money this summer. If you are a contacts kind of guy, then this market should be perfect, because we’re going to need to do a lot of wheeler-dealing to get this squad of players into shape to battle for top 4 next season.
… but we can talk more on that next week. Today, enjoy. This is what football is all about.
Right, on that note, tell me how you are feeling below!