* “Where was this at Selhurst Park? Where was this at Stamford Bridge? Where was this at The Hawthorns?”
These were the questions that flashed through my mind as Arsenal ran Chelsea ragged during the first half at Wembley. Rarely have we seen a Gunners performance with such energy and intensity over the last half decade. Rarely have we seen Arsene Wenger’s side attack with such fluidity and defend with such resilience when Chelsea inevitably responded after the break. For all the joy in Tottenham and Manchester City’s attack, and the enjoyment the neutral has taken from Chelsea’s dominance in the Premier League this season, there is nothing quite like watching Arsenal when they play like this.
Danny Welbeck led the line supremely, Alexis Sanchez was as busy and beautiful as he could ever be, Granit Xhaka finally produced the big-game display we’ve been waiting for and Per Mertesacker belied his lack of match action to stand tall. Yet it was the sheer hard work that impressed most. At the end of a long, difficult season, this was a group of players who fought tooth and nail for every ball, no matter where on the pitch they played. It was absorbing and exhilarating.
* Wenger has repeatedly stressed that the result of Saturday’s final would not affect his decision whether to stay or go, but this was a call-to-arms from his team, a 90-minute insistence that they can still compete. It does not alter the events of a miserable league season, but this was a wonderful silver lining to that cloud.
“I think this group of players is good enough to come back,” said Wenger last week, speaking about the club’s possible transfer activity this summer. “They have learned a lot and they have gone through difficult periods this season and they have bounced back in a very strong way. I think that will help them, absolutely, next season.” On this evidence, plenty are fighting hard for for their places.
For all the deserved flak Wenger has received this season, it is impossible not to be chuffed for him. Football management is a tiring and all-consuming industry, and nobody deserves personal abuse for trying their best. For all his faults, he has remained more dignified than others might in his situation. The image of him stood arms aloft on the Wembley turf, weary but winning, was a wonderful one.
* And yet there was a blueprint (or should that be redprint?) for this performance, and against this opposition too. Speaking in the build-up to the final, Aaron Ramsey spoke at length about his team’s plan of attack.
“I think the way we started the [home] game [against Chelsea] in the first half was very good,” Ramsey said. “We won the game in the first half really. We were very quick, we counter-attacked well, closed them down, got about them and everything seemed to come together on that day. I’m sure something similar will be required to beat them in the final as well.”
We can call Ramsey the soothsayer from now on, as well as Arsenal’s FA Cup final king. The gambling apps agree too.
* Arsenal even survived their customary attempt at self-sabotage. Diego Costa’s space in the box and David Ospina’s weak hand brought Chelsea’s ten men level in the second half, and caused an entire Arsenal end of Wembley to enter a shame spiral that only ended one way. Arsenal were going to lose against ten men, the worst of the worst.
Yet not content with winning this FA Cup final once, Arsenal won it twice. No sooner had Chelsea’s fans stopped jumping in ecstasy than they were thrust back into agony once more by a sumptuous Arsenal move, ending with Ramsey heading past the helpless Thibaut Courtois.
This one would not get away from Arsenal. Not this time.
* For all the refreshing excellence of Arsenal, this was a shambolic Chelsea performance. The eternal question about league champions is whether they can banish complacency to retain their crown, but Chelsea struggled to retain the winning mood for longer than a fortnight.
Antonio Conte will be incredibly angry at the lackadaisical display from several key players, but none of Chelsea’s XI outperformed their Arsenal counterpart. We will give Arsenal the merited credit for that, but this was a Chelsea at 60%. In a cup final, that is abject.
* For a man under immense pressure, you cannot doubt Wenger’s stomach for making the big decisions. Having started Petr Cech in the semi-final, Arsenal’s manager surprised everyone when he announced on Friday that Ospina would be given the nod in the final. Initial stories reported that Cech was devastated by the news, and that is hardly a surprise.
The call was more shocking given Arsenal’s defensive injuries, and the assumption that Wenger would therefore keep changes to a minimum. Ospina is not a poor goalkeeper, but his performances when replacing Cech have hardly put pressure on Arsenal’s No. 1.
Wenger’s other selection dilemma was who to play at left wing-back, with Nacho Monreal used in the central-defensive three. After a man-of-the-match performance in the semi-final at right wing-back, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might have been preferred to Kieran Gibbs anyway, but the lack of Gibbs on the Arsenal bench indicates that he failed a late fitness test. That left two members of Arsenal’s back five playing in their position or this formation for the first time.
* For Chelsea, another game for which Conte had few decisions to make given the fully-fit squad at his disposal. Opting for Nemanja Matic over Cesc Fabregas and Pedro over Willian were the only two spaces on the team sheet not considered automatic selections.
Just as with Leicester City last season, their title bid has been founded on a continuity of selection and lack of injuries that must make Wenger, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp green with envy. Six of Conte’s squad (Costa, N’Golo Kante, Courtois, Eden Hazard, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta) started 35 or more of their 38 league games. David Luiz started 33 of a possible 34 since his debut in the home defeat to Liverpool on September 16. A lot has changed since then.
* Nice gentle start, then. Everybody get a touch of the ball and play their way into the ga… Oh. Bloody hell.
Nothing like a bit of controversy too. Chelsea were guilty of faffing on the edge of their own penalty area following the first corner of the game, with two players in blue tackling each other in the rush to counter. When the ball was finally cleared, it looped off Sanchez and over Chelsea’s backline. The Chilean ran onto his own touch and slotted past Courtois.
As soon as the assistant’s flag was raised, Arsenal’s players rushed to contest the decision. They felt sure that Ramsey, the flagged player, was not part of the move and therefore that the goal should stand. After a conversation between Anthony Taylor and his assistant, the goal stood.
That was the correct call. There is enough vagueness in the term ‘interfering with play’ to make no decision black and white, and therefore previous examples take precedent. In similar scenarios, the goal is usually awarded.
The officials should also be congratulated for doing everything by the book. The assistant was right to flag once he saw Ramsey standing in an offside position, Taylor was right to play on and then correct again to consult and award.
* Yet that was not the only controversial aspect of the goal. Replays showed that the ball struck Sanchez’s hand to rebound into his own path and score. Chelsea had a case this time.
The laws for handball mention that the position of the hands is crucial in determining whether an offence has been committed. Sanchez’s hands were high above his head when they made contact with the ball. I’m calling no goal, sorry.
— Jacqui Oatley (@JacquiOatley) May 27, 2017
That said, this is precisely why the introduction of Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR) should not be viewed as the solve-all solution to correcting officials’ decisions. You could put 100 neutral people in a room and show them Arsenal’s opening goal from 20 different angles, and after five minutes I think you would struggle to get more than an 80% majority either way.
* If the suspicion was that an early Arsenal goal would give them something to sit back and cling on to, it could not have been more misplaced. They sensed weakness in Chelsea, and overpowered them in the search for more goals.
Matic rediscovered his form of 2015/16 as Arsenal surged forward on the counter attack time and time again. Sanchez shot over from Welbeck’s pull-back before heading against the post himself, with Ramsey somehow chesting the rebound against the same upright. Cahill then cleared off the line from Mesut Ozil’s shot. For the first time in months, Chelsea were all at sea.
* We like Welbeck at Football365, and always have. Despite continuous accusations of bias against your club, we remain impartial on that front, but it is impossible not to have favourite players. Welbeck’s combination of demonstrable hard work, eagerness and his legs’ tendency to either do something wonderful or woeful is incredibly alluring.
For all his success at Manchester United, this might have been his finest performance in a club shirt. The selfless running down the channels, pressing and tracking has never been absent, but his holding up of the ball and bringing others into play was sensational on Saturday. Arsenal’s supporters chanted his name more than any other player, and that came as no surprise. I made him my man of the match.
Welbeck’s has been a difficult career since moving down to London. Injuries have ruined two seasons and the accusation that he saves his best football for his country has been given plenty of weight. If Wenger is indeed looking for a new striker this summer, Welbeck and not Olivier Giroud deserves to survive the cull.
* Having courted controversy over the first goal, Taylor got the final’s other big decision spot on. Victor Moses was stupid enough to dive in the penalty area when under slight pressure from Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the referee was in the perfect position to award Arsenal a free-kick and send Moses from the field for a second booking.
The referee deserves credit not just for making the correct decision, but for doing so at the crunch time of a hugely important match. In that moment alone, Taylor justified his appointment for the occasion.
* Yet we have to talk about Sanchez too, because it is always him at the centre of attention when Arsenal succeed. I wrote a piece in March in which I tried to find some reasons for selling Sanchez this summer, or at least for his departure not being a disaster. Not for the first time, I was spectacularly foolish. It is not just that the Chilean is Arsenal’s best player – although that vehemently is the case – but he so emphatically sets the tone both when his team have the ball or are fighting for it.
Sanchez demands possession. Sanchez drives forward with the ball. Sanchez runs to create space for others. Sanchez demands 100% effort from his teammates. Sanchez works back. Sanchez scored 30 goals in all competitions. Sanchez leaves the field to a deserved standing ovation. Sanchez is given the Man of the Match award. Sanchez has to stay.
* “[I have] never played in a back three,” said Mertesacker on Friday. “When I was young, I started in a back four and that was my position from then on for the last 15 years. Everyone starts from zero with that new system.
“Am I able to play for 90 minutes? I cannot tell you. I haven’t played this year. But I have done this for 15 years, so I expect myself to be absolutely ready, no matter what comes. I am going to go for it.”
Oh he’s able to play alright. Welbeck, Sanchez and Xhaka may have been Arsenal’s best players, but Mertesacker’s ability to perform on this stage after such little football is one of the stories of this season. Who needs pace when your tackling is perfect? Who needs experience of playing in a back three when you can take to it like eine Ente to Wasser?
* We might have avoided Peak Arsenal, but I am pleased to report that we have experienced Peak Francis Coquelin. The Frenchman was presumably told to slow down play and break up Chelsea’s attacks. He did that to the letter by stopping them taking a free-kick and getting booked 30 seconds after coming on. Nailed it.
There is a fair chance that this is Coquelin’s final appearance in an Arsenal shirt, notwithstanding Wenger’s famous loyalty to fringe squad players. If that is to be the case, this was the perfect denouement.
* Finally, the FA Cup is a much-maligned tournament, but this has been a vintage year. Westfields FC, Stourbridge and Lincoln City generated plenty enough magic to please the old romantic, but these are the stories that can be so quickly lost on the wind. It is the performance – or under-performance – of the elite clubs that is used as the yardstick for the FA Cup’s strength. On that basis, the old lady is in rude health.
This year’s final was unusual in that it was a truly showpiece occasion between two elite Premier League teams and two rivals. The last year in which two top-six finishers played each other was 2009. The last time two teams from the same city met in the final was 2002, the year of Chelsea, Ray Parlour, and the height of Arsenal’s powers.
There is nothing quite like a sunny FA Cup final day at Wembley, when supporters wake up sick with nerves and mill within sight of the stadium’s arch from mid-morning onwards. It may be an acceptance of sugary cliche, but when the sun streams onto the marching brass band and the ground fills up with people and pre-match hope for the 136th time, it’s easy to wonder whether there is anything to match this in sport. By the time the opening bars of Abide With Me ring out, there is no doubt left.
With such hype the FA Cup final has regularly failed to deliver, but the 2017 edition was a classic. There were 34 shots in 90 minutes, the woodwork was struck three times and there were goalline clearances, cynical fouls, a red card and the monumental celebrations that can only come when hope meets relief. Lost its romance? Not a bit of it.