Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger half turned his back with his interrogator’s words still forming in the close Wembley air. He knew what was coming.
Like an overly officious lawyer who asks a bride and groom en route to their first dance whether they have a prenup in place, the BBC’s Dan Walker gave the present a cursory pat before moving on to the future.
The question was posed over whether he would be at Arsenal next season.
Walker wouldn’t be a journalist if he didn’t ask it; Wenger wouldn’t be human if he didn’t show a flicker of irritation in pleading: “Let me enjoy the night.”
By God! He deserved to. An epoch-making seventh FA Cup win, secured via a 2-1 victory over Chelsea in a game as magnificent as the day was muggy, makes him the most successful manager in the competition’s 146-year history. Wenger has as many winners’ medals as Liverpool and Chelsea do in their respective histories. Now he comes to mention it, a lack of respect does seem a little churlish.
Aaron Ramsey’s stooping header, just 129 seconds after Diego Costa had cancelled out Alexis Sanchez’s opener, was enough to win a game that fully tested Arsenal’s propensity to shoot themselves in the foot like few others. The Welshman ensured no one in the Arsenal end felt the need to turn the gun on to themselves, courtesy of a second FA Cup final winner in four seasons.
As a neutral, at full-time, it was hard not to be pleased as the camera panned to Wenger in a moment of solitude. For a split second a double fist-pump was his only company, as he stood silently dignified with his back as straight as a ruler despite his 67 years. Physically and in terms of acuity, he’s probably half the age of many of those who label him over the hill.
A remarkable man in many ways, he looked resplendent in a crisp white shirt, as though he had just stepped off an ironing board. Quite the feat considering he had spent much of the preceding hour and a half in his favourite squat position as if trying to gauge the tide. It tends to turn quickly in north London.
After a campaign that has at times felt like the long goodbye, even Raymond Chandler would accept the strange case of Wenger’s future at Arsenal will not be solved until after Tuesday’s board meeting. Not so supporters, journalists, pundits and all points in between, amateur sleuths to a man.
The zeitgeist for binge-watching box sets is not so different with football, to the point that having to wait for news seems less a slight inconvenience than a denial of a basic human right. Like with Netflix, 15 seconds seems a reasonable period to pause before moving on to the next episode.
The Arsenal Fan TV boys, who had featured in the BBC’s buildup (the national deficit may never recover from a likely shortfall in TV licences paid next year), were probably already on the Wembley Stadium concourse demanding to know the truth about Wenger’s future when Per Mertesacker was lifting a third FA Cup for Arsenal in four years. Life is nothing if not testing.
Those of the belief ennui is no different to slow death may cite the always prophetic writer J.G. Ballard in defence of the incandescent fury brimming at Arsenal for the best part of a decade: ”It seems to me that what most of us have to fear for the future is not that something terrible is going to happen, but rather that nothing is going to happen. … I could sum up the future in one word, and that word is boring. The future is going to be boring.”
Usually, Wenger gives his medals away. A little later, when facing the press in Wembley’s holding cells below ground level, he told them he would keep this one for himself: “For once I have taken my medal, so that means it’s a special night for me.”
It was the type of comment that will be pored over and forensically tested for clues before carefully being sealed back into an evidence bag. Both Wenger and Arsenal’s board have denounced short-termism. Whatever happened on Saturday was always going to be circumstantial, it was said.
“I don’t feel that winning the Cup will necessarily change anything, said Wenger, per Paul Wilson of the Guardian. “It would be a bit ridiculous were 20 years of service to be decided by the result of one game, and neither should the future of the club depend on a single game.”
New beginnings need a starting point, though. Where better than here? Arsenal were as good with the ball as they were without it, as steely as they were stylish. This was not a mirage; Arsenal could easily have been 3-0 up at half-time.
Wenger’s eyes of late have betrayed the hurt he has felt at being so openly criticized. On Saturday, for the first time in a long time, they sparkled as bright as any diamond in Tiffany & Co. In a candid interview with the BBC that was shown before the game, he had spoken of being “treated in a way in that human beings don’t deserve to be treated.” He added: “The lack of respect from some has been a disgrace, and I will never accept that. I will never forget it.”
It was Wenger’s compatriot Marcel Proust who said: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
There was plenty about Arsenal’s performance, for which Wenger must be credited with outwitting Chelsea counterpart Antonio Conte, to suggest he may still have enough fresh ideas to reassure those who claim an exhausted imagination is mirrored by his side. The Frenchman is regularly accused of being antiquated in his tactical outlook, but since switching to three at the back, Arsenal have won nine of 10 matches.
Kudos should also be given for how decisive he was in making a switch pretty much immediately after Chelsea equalised. Danny Welbeck’s withdrawal would surely have drawn criticism had Arsenal failed to win. His replacement, Olivier Giroud, needed just 38 seconds to lay on Ramsey’s winner with a deft clipped cross after he had outdone a weary Gary Cahill with a smart run down the left flank.
Wenger’s argument that he can reinvent himself is, in part, about his attempt to broker a deal that allows him the same autonomy he has enjoyed for over 20 years, but this felt like something seismic.
Although it was a cup final imbued with sadness in light of the Manchester bombing, with a minute’s silence impeccably observed before kick-off, it proved the perfect curtain call for the season. As a contest, it was as absorbing as any played this term. It was the type of game that makes even the most jaded fan a little wistful, forcing a re-evaluation of whether it is the game that has changed or them. Just maybe it is still as beguiling as it always was.
Notwithstanding Victor Moses’ ignominy for being the first player to be sent off in an FA Cup final for an act of simulation, for which he was awarded a second booking, there was a pureness to the final that somehow made it feel like it belonged to another age.
Petr Cech putting aside obvious disappointment at being left out to charge on to the field at full-time and head straight for David Ospina would have melted
Theresa May’s even the coldest heart. Like a yellowed photograph curled up at the edges, the game felt lived-in, an instant classic. Some 34 shots in 90 minutes takes some beating.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then Wenger owes it a debt. The call to start Ospina was his, but injuries and suspension meant he had no real option other than to field a back three that had never previously played together. It included Mertesacker, making his first start in 392 days (and the first time ever in a back three despite a career that includes some 104 caps for Germany), the relative rookie Rob Holding and left-back-turned-left-centre-half Nacho Monreal.
Chelsea’s pre-match meal came accompanied with a side serving of mint sauce.
All three were magnificent. Arsenal’s BFG looked as though he must have been doped up on George’s (Graham) Marvellous (Defensive) Medicine. Astronaut food may turn quicker than the German, but his reading of the game is borderline clairvoyant.
Post-match footage in which he dead-eyes Martin Keown in the tunnel after the pundit had predicted a difficult afternoon for him was cringingly majestic. “They’re calling it the Mertesacker final,” Keown creeped. “Don’t write me off, man,” was Mertesacker’s pitch-perfect retort.
In the stands, Labour leader and dyed-in-the-wool Arsenal supporter Jeremy Corbyn was sending out a similar message of defiance via social media. It’s unconfirmed whether May sent Amber Rudd to be her representative at Wembley.
Remarkably, it was only the second-best thing Keown was involved in on the day. Before the game, the BBC man gave an analysis of the Wenger situation that was possibly the greatest broadcast in the history of television. John Logie Baird’s life’s work has not been in vain.
“Old people die,” he exclaimed on Football Focus, in a revelation that will have had corporation bigwigs pondering whether Professor Robert Winston’s programmes could be freshened up by a new co-presenter. ”That’s how serious it is for him. His life is dependent on staying in management.”
There was a key moment defensively that seemed to define the whole game just after Sanchez had scored his contentious opener.
Costa’s legs took on the properties of a pair of jelly scissors in “accidentally” nearly taking Holding’s head off in a tangle between them on the floor. Arsenal’s 21-year-old defender got up grinning, tapping his head and seemingly mouthing “mental” in the direction of his opponent. Costa’s team-mates did well to keep him on the Bruce Banner side of the Incredible Sulk. For once, it looked as though Arsenal would not be bullied.
Later, the Spain international would exact revenge when holding off the young defender to chest down substitute Willian’s cute chip and fire past a somewhat limp Ospina to score an equaliser for 10-man Chelsea. It was a goal so Arsenal-like in its predictability it will surely in time be donated to the club’s museum. By full-time, however, Holding could be forgiven for joining in chants from the Arsenal end that compared him favourably to Fabio Cannavaro. His win rate is remarkable, with Arsenal having won the past 15 games he has started.
Wenger seemed to have borrowed his tactics from Manchester United’s 2-0 victory over Chelsea in mid-April. Arsenal pressed high and aggressively from the off, with Welbeck both magnificent and key to their victory.
Just like Chelsea did not feel comfortable playing with a high line against United because of Marcus Rashford’s pace, here it was Welbeck putting the frighteners on them. Twice he went as close as it gets to scoring without doing so, as he first crashed the far post with a header from a set piece before Cahill cleared the ball off the line for a second time, having earlier done the same to Mesut Ozil.
With the game stretched from back to front, Ozil and Sanchez were able to persistently find space between the lines. Everything thrown up to Welbeck stuck, with the only thing bouncing off him being Chelsea defenders. At various points in the first half alone, Welbeck’s smart movement and hard running drew each of Chelsea’s back three hopelessly out of position. None of them could live with him.
Ahead of them, the usually indefatigable N’Golo Kante played as though his legs were on strike, sunning it up by a pool while he borrowed someone else’s. Possibly a Chelsea Pensioner’s. The double footballer of the year was at least partly responsible for Sanchez’s goal, as his left foot lost communication with his right to allow Arsenal to nick the ball back after Thibaut Courtois had bowled it out to him.
David Luiz looked to have headed the danger away when Sanchez, with his arm, blocked Kante’s attempt to hook the ball further clear. The Chilean chased after it, as he did everything all afternoon, and with Chelsea’s players appealing for both the handball and Ramsey’s offside stationing, the ball was volleyed past Courtois. It was Sanchez’s seventh goal in five starts at Wembley. He’s such a big-game hunter he has banning orders from zoos nationwide.
Referee Anthony Taylor consulted his linesman Gary Beswick, who had flagged for offside, before giving the goal. It was a remarkably bad decision that, in so many ways, made for a great final. Rare is it you can say a goal was coming after 240 seconds, but Chelsea were on the ropes.
It was a 30th goal of the season for Sanchez, on top of 15 assists. Whether swansong, open audition or simply taking responsibility, it was a remarkable shift. Surliness was conspicuous only in absence, with the only thing he shook on the day being equally pugnacious performances out of his team-mates. He even made Granit Xhaka look like a £30 million player.
Around the 20-minute mark, Sanchez won the ball off Kante in the left-back position for Arsenal. It was symptomatic of his afternoon’s work. You can imagine him growling as he made the challenge.
It seems an odd thing to say about two players so disparate, but there was something Kante-like about Sanchez’s omnipresence. He was popping passes all over pitch with a right foot so attuned to its surrounds it could knock a pigeon off a telegraph pole on hearing it coo. Whether it is through successful contract negotiations or kidnap, Sanchez must not be allowed off the premises over the summer.
All game, he somehow butted together a mix of savagery and subtlety. He was like a superhero made of granite wearing silk pajamas. Chelsea were shell-shocked, punch drunk to the point it wouldn’t have been impertinent to ask whether they were sozzled. Ozil may have been sporting the Andrew Ridgeley highlights, but it was Chelsea’s lot who played as though they had spent the previous fortnight holed up in Club Tropicana, where drinks are almost certainly still free.
Playing an FA Cup final a couple of weeks after winning the title is long enough for legs to grow weary and heads a bit blurry. Chelsea were better after the break than before it, with Conte’s post-match words, when he conceded there was much work to be done over the summer in the transfer market, perhaps also having been given an airing at half-time.
Before the game, BBC host Gary Lineker had pondered whether Ozil was a “flat-track bully,” with Frank Lampard adding: “For me, he’s a bit of a luxury.” That’s the thing with luxury. We’ve sold ourselves the idea that it is something we wouldn’t want to have too much of, as opposed to being something we can’t afford.
Generally, it’s a healthy line to take; it stops us craving what others have got. When we’re talking about football and luxury, however, no one should feel bad about enjoying teams filled with little geniuses on billionaires’ dimes. That’s one of the few luxuries we can all afford.
In the The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact, he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the miraculous also.”
If only the Russian were still around to show any unbelievers video footage of an act so miraculous it can only be a matter of time before Donald Trump labels it fake news. In the 42nd minute of Saturday’s final, Ozil sprinted back to make a slide tackle. Run the video:
Ozil probably should have scored when his deft dink didn’t have enough purchase to beat Cahill on the line. A dropped shoulder that preceded his rattling the base of Chelsea’s post at the death was a prime example of when video technology should be introduced to award goals for sheer chutzpah.
On that point, his dummy on the touchline in added time, when he allowed the ball to run through his legs and buy valuable seconds when his team-mates were seemingly competing in a competition to hit the moon, brought to mind the Ezra Pound line: “Genius is the capacity to see 10 things where the ordinary man sees one.”
There was nothing ordinary about this Arsenal performance, and neither is there anything ordinary about Wenger. Whether this proves a perfect end he insists does not exist or the start of something new, or even a continuation of same old Arsenal, it can wait a while.
For now, the final word belongs to the Frenchman.
“Let’s enjoy the win, not worry about the future and live in the present.
“It is one of my proudest moments because nobody gave us a chance, and we responded with attitude and class.”
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