Number 14 holds up number 14
Arsenal loves the FA Cup, but boy does the FA Cup also love Arsenal.
We are the THE FA Cup team. We were before yesterday, we’re even more so now.
What a great win that was, and what a shame it could not have played out in front of 100,000 screaming fans.
We went into the game as slight underdogs despite our heroics in the semi final against Man City.
There was more at stake for us because Chelsea had secured Champions League football and we needed a win to get us into the Europa League.
A similar pressure situation last season played out with us losing 4-1 to Chelsea in the Europa League Final in the arse end of nowhere. In that game we needed to win to get into the Champions League, but we choked badly.
Not so yesterday.
The key difference between the two finals was, of course, the head coach.
Apparently when asked if he suffered from being too indecisive, Unai Emery answered: “I’m not sure. Can I think about it and get back to you?”
Whatever fates conspired to bring us Mikel Arteta as our manager in December last year, I’m just glad they did. Almost from his first game in charge we have looked more organised, more together and more like a team that has a plan.
And all his hard work culminated yesterday in an achievement that can’t be understated. If we had lost I would probably be here trying to rationalise about how a year out of Europe and concentrating on the Premier League might be a good thing.
But let’s be honest. This is a MASSIVE win.
Our hugely promising new boss gets a trophy in his first season. We get European football and the extra £40 million that goes with it. We probably get to keep Aubameyang and our Europa League presence makes it easier to sign the new players we want.
And so to yesterday’s game.
I have been present to see us play Chelsea in two FA Cup finals: once at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, in 2002 and once at Wembley in 2017. Both occasions turned out to be memorable.
For the 2020 final I could not be there in person (nor could any Gooner), but it was just as memorable a win.
Arteta picked a team with few surprises. He went for maximum experience up front (Auba-Laca-Pepe) and most of the other positions picked themselves. Only the inclusion of Ainsley Maitland-Niles ahead of Saka raised a few eyebrows, but AMN had earned his place with his performance against Man City.
Within minutes of the kick-off we could have been one up when a cross from AMN on the left found Aubameyang at the near post, a yard ahead of his defender. Auba failed to connect properly with the header and it went wide.
After that, everything started to go wrong.
Chelsea seized control of midfield and looked hungrier than us and, dare I say it, more skillful. Mount, Pulisic and Kovacic were pulling us apart and running through the gaps in our MF at will.
Xhaka was caught dwelling on the ball, leading to an early chance for Mount. Minutes later the Blues were ahead after a slick move that ended with Pulisic chipping over Martinez.
We looked so ragged in the opening 15 minutes that I can’t have been alone in fearing another Baku.
The one sign of encouragement was that it was not our defence that was at fault (for a change) but our midfield.
Gradually, though, we settled into the game. I would need to watch a replay to figure out whether we started doing something different in midfield or whether we just upped our commitment level as a team (perhaps the more tech savvy among you can explain).
Whatever it was, we began to dominate the game from the 15 minute mark onwards. Pepe was unlucky not to have got himself a cup final goal when his stunning shot into the Chelsea net was correctly ruled out for an earlier narrow offside.
We barely had time to get over that disappointment when we got a clear penalty. A ball over the top sent Aubameyang racing towards goal. Azpilicueta tried to foul him outside the box but Auba was strong enough to keep going so the Chelsea captain fouled him inside the box as well.
VAR ruminated, but it was a bang on penalty. Azpilicueta was spared a red card because of the “double jeopardy” rule (the officials decided he had been making an honest attempt to get the ball, which is pretty debatable).
I could barely watch as Auba ran up, but amid all the pressure of a cup final, and knowing how important it was for Arsenal to win this game, he was as cool as a cucumber and slotted a perfect, unstoppable penalty into the side netting.
We were back on terms and pressing so hard for a second that it was a disappointment when half time came.
The second half started pretty even. At times we sat back and let Chelsea dominate possession, but we allowed few clear-cut chances. Meanwhile we looked dangerous going forward.
In a season during which the gods of football have seldom been kind to Arsenal, they seemed to be smiling on us at Wembley.
Chelsea lost their captain, Azpilicueta, and their most dangerous player, Pulisic, to hamstring pulls and that must have interfered with Frank Lampard’s plans for the game.
But the goal that gave us the lead (and eventually the Cup itself) was down to absolute top class play by three Arsenal players.
Bellerin broke from deep in our own half at speed, leaving two Chelsea players for dead with a brilliant poke-ahead nutmeg as he surged towards the opposition penalty area. The ball was almost out of his control but his bravery in going into a 50/50 saw it pop out to Pepe, whose first couple of touches were pure class, after which he rolled a perfectly-weighted pass into the path of our captain.
Aubameyang’s next moves were sublime. He feinted to cut inside, leaving Zouma doing the zumba in an empty dancehall, then switched back onto his left foot and dinked the ball over Caballero with consummate skill.
What a joy it was to see that trademark somersault celebration twice in an FA Cup final.
The balance tipped further in Arsenal’s favour when Kovacic was harshly sent off for a second yellow (his first yellow was justified, but the second was not even a foul).
Ten man Chelsea huffed and puffed, but we never looked like letting them get back into it, even though my heart was pumping like a piston engine in the last 10 minutes. The most dangerous moment from the Blues was in the dying minutes when Pedro cut into our box along the goal line, but the oh-so-impressive Martinez dived at his feet to smother the chance, leaving the unfortunate Pedro with what looked like a dislocated shoulder.
It was a metaphor for the game. Overall, Arteta’s strategy and the new sense of togetherness in our team combined to smother Chelsea and dislocate young Frankie Lampard’s best-laid plans.
So there you have it.
Our 14th FA Cup win. We love that competition. And that competition loves us.
I think I’m a bit in love with big Emi. He made excellent saves as always (one full length dive to stop a shot from Mount was outstanding) and he actually catches crosses instead of punching them! Late on he dived fearlessly at Pedro’s feet to protect our lead. He even cried in his post-match interview. Make no mistake, we have two Number One ‘keepers at our club now.
What is it with this lad and the Cup Final? He played a blinder against Chelsea in 2017 and did the same yesterday. Fought for everything, made no mistakes and even looked fast at times.
Let’s be honest, we were all worried before the game, weren’t we? Was it going to be Loco Luiz the one-man apocalypse, or Dependable David, the man who kept Man City at bay? Thank goodness it was the latter. The Brazilian didn’t put a foot wrong.
Such an honest player as well as a talented one. If there’s one thing we’ve been missing in recent years at Arsenal it’s players like Tierney who make no fuss, but give every drop of blood, sweat and tears for the cause. I’m sure Nigel Winterburn is proud of him.
Fine effort from Hector and without his skill and bravery the winning goal would not have happened. He’s had an in-and-out season but made a full contribution yesterday.
Justified his selection. He was dangerous going forward (particularly in the first half) and worked very hard on the defensive end. There were stories a few weeks ago saying he wanted to leave Arsenal. I suspect that if Arteta tells him he sees a positive future for him at Arsenal, he’ll stay.
I was tempted to mark him down for his sloppiness in the first 10 minutes, but in truth the whole team was slow getting into this game. After that he was excellent. His control and distribution was as good as we’ve come to expect but I particularly liked his committed tackling and the way he managed to do this without the recklessness that attracts cards.
Terrific outing from Dani. He has become a vital component in linking defence to attack but I also love his tackling and his tracking back, even very late in the game when he must have been running on fumes. Sometimes his effort reminded me of those dogged, all-action midfielders we had in the early George Graham era (Rocastle, Thomas, Davis, Williams).
So unlucky not to be on the scoresheet. He is starting to influence games more and seems to be using the ball more intelligently (signs of Arteta’s coaching paying off?). The up side with Pepe is that there still seems to be plenty of scope for him to improve.
Laca’s tireless work in chasing down the Chelsea defenders and working to keep moves going when we were in possession could easily go unnoticed, but it was a vital element in our win.
Aubameyang 9.5 MoTM
It would have been a 10 for the captain but for that missed header early on. What a player. This will probably always be known as the “Aubameyang Final.” It was his first trophy with Arsenal and will surely go a long way towards convincing him to sign an extension with us.
Got 10 minutes in a cup final, which can’t be a bad thing at his stage of development. Looked sharp and was unlucky that the ref ignored several blatant fouls on him.
Came on for Luiz and had one or two good moments in what was probably his last game as a Gunner.
Came on with one minute to go, but I can’t mark him down when he played in a team that’s just won the Cup!