It wasn’t the best game but it was a wonderful occasion. A reminder that proper football is coming back and why the big six ran off scared…
1) That was a brilliant final. A relatively poor game, in which neither side came close to playing to their potential, but a truly fantastic occasion. A fairytale first-time triumph, earned with one of the great Wembley goals, in the presence of supporters who made a quarter-full Wembley sound like La Bombonera in comparison to what we’ve become used to in the last 14 months.
2) Just prior to kick-off, the presence of 22,000 supporters gave this final a unique feeling, one which will have sneaked up on many people outside Leicester and west London who might reasonably have forgotten that English football’s showpiece was being played today.
Football without fans might not be nothing, but it was highlighted from pre to post-match just how inferior the product is in the absence of supporters. The noise at the culmination of Abide With Me and God Save The Queen really felt like a huge step was being taken on the roadmap back to a proper matchday and even the ironic cheers prompted by wayward shots on Leicester’s goal felt like the return of an old friend.
The three roars that greeted the game’s pivotal moments were sweet, sweet music. The Leicester supporters’ reaction to Youri Tielemans’ thunderb*stard; the relief which initially spilled out after Ben Chilwell’s leveller; then the joy upon it being ruled out. It’s been far, far too long.
Next season and full houses cannot come soon enough.
3) ‘This is hoodoo territory for Rodgers’ we – okay, I – wrote on Monday as it seemed Leicester’s season was unravelling down the final stretch and not for the first time in their manager’s experience.
Brendan and his Foxes have made me look a prize whopper in five days. Leicester took advantage of Manchester United’s scheduling woes on Tuesday to reinvigorate their Champions League push and today, they won their first ever FA Cup.
To say it almost doesn’t matter what happens in their remaining two fixtures is, of course, not true. But banishing Leicester’s FA Cup hoodoo dismisses any concerns over Rodgers’ track record down the final straight. And Wembley glory should inspire them to finish strongly and secure third spot, which might not live long as long in the memory in Leicester but the achievement would occupy a similar level.
4) If questions were being asked of Rodgers, Thomas Tuchel now needs to find some answers before the brilliant work he has done in less than four months at Chelsea goes to waste.
The new manager was chasing glory on three fronts. The FA Cup has escaped him; their top four place remains in jeopardy; and they remain underdogs going to Porto for the Champions League final.
Of course, that Chelsea are in such an enviable position is entirely down to Tuchel. Chelsea were ninth in the Premier League and certainly weren’t destined for two major finals before he arrived at the end of January. They had lost only twice in 25 matches prior to this week – and even in the Porto defeat, they won on aggregate – but two more defeats in four days, in games they dominated but rarely looked likely to make their domination pay, is certainly a mood shifter at Stamford Bridge.
5) Tuchel admitted he was in ‘angry mode’ prior to arriving at Wembley and his mood only darkened during 90 stodgy minutes from Chelsea.
Chelsea dominated the ball, we knew they would, but they mostly toiled with it. And as he reflects, the first German manager to reach an FA Cup final will inevitably look at his own decisions.
His front three were well shackled by Leicester’s defence, pre and post-Jonny Evans’ injury, and while moving Reece James inside – the biggest tactical call pre-match – worked in so much as keeping Jamie Vardy quiet, it cost the Blues their dynamism down the right side.
Only when Callum Hudson-Odoi was dispatched from the bench did they carry a threat down that flank, but by then Leicester were digging in on the edge of their own box and happy to deal with any crosses flung their way.
6) Tuchel feels that Chelsea did enough to win – perhaps he might be more justified in arguing that they did not deserve to lose – but he may just be referencing the tactical battle. Because for all the plaudits received by Leicester, it is difficult to pinpoint how strategically they bettered Chelsea.
In the first half, Leicester were actually quite poor. They looked nervous and they wasted what little possession – only 27 per cent in the opening 25 minutes – they had. The Foxes played so many long balls – you couldn’t call them passes – with only 6 of 21 played by the goalkeeper and back three in the first half finding a team-mate.
Even when they picked out Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho, both strikers struggled to retain the ball. Iheanacho especially looked nervous and unsure of his movement.
Tielemans at least brought some composure, keeping the ball with 21 of his 25 passes in the first half and his long passing was certainly more effective than the hoiks coming from behind him. It was he who created the two moments that best resembled a chance. Vardy failed to make a proper contact with his head when straining for Tielemans’ lofted pass, while it was the Belgian who sent Timothy Castagne scampering down the right to deliver a low cross, for which Vardy peeled off James, but the Chelsea defender blocked the shot.
Chelsea controlled the vast majority of the match, but Leicester dominated the moments. Their triumph was down to a wonder goal, and incredible save, and the resolve that Foxes never quit.
7) About that wonder goal…
While neither side really seizing the initiative in the opposition third, it looked increasingly likely that either a stroke of genius or misfortune would be decisive. And Tielemans was certainly the prime candidate to provide that moment of inspiration.
We can dissect the goal from a Chelsea perspective – the sloppy pass out from James that was intercepted by Ayoze Perez, and the refusal of Thiago Silva to engage Tielemans, who everyone knows can strike from distance – but we must prioritise the majesty of the strike.
Despite a clear line of sight and a satisfactory starting position, Kepa got his top hand nowhere close to Tielemans’ missile.
In this century, for magnificence, it is perhaps second only to Steven Gerrard’s in 2006.
8) And that incredible save…
Schmeichel had already got fingertips to Ben Chilwell’s header to deprive the day’s pantomime villain an equaliser immediately after coming off Chelsea’s bench. But the Dane needed his full hand to deny Mason Mount with three minutes of normal time to play.
To get anything on Mount’s volley was achievement enough. Such was the speed of the strike, Schmeichel had no time to take a step into his dive, instead needing to go full length off a standing start, arcing his body to almost claw the ball away from goal.
It was save showcasing an elastic spine and wrists of steel. Like Tielemans’ goal, has the FA Cup final seen more pivotal saves? Petr Cech’s to deny Andy Carroll in 2012 springs to mind then, of course, there is Jim Montgomery in 1973. Schmeichel here did for Leicester in their first final win what Montgomery did for second-division Sunderland against Leeds.
How has Kasper Schmeichel saved that?! 😱
World-class goalkeeping at such a critical time in the match!
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 15, 2021
9) There was still time for Schmeichel to be beaten. But, VAR…
It has all been said before. On this occasion, VAR performed its job perfectly adequately. The problem is its function is to pick out cat’s c*ck hair offside infractions where one was never suspected, cruelly p*ssing on half of Wembley’s chips.
On this occasion, though, how delightful was the roar of relief from the Leicester end when Michael Oliver drew the rectangle with his fingers?
But the novelty of that perverted joy will wear off early into next season and though Schmeichel will remain eternally grateful for its influence today, the fact he admitted being unable to celebrate Tielemans’ winner for fear of video interference is a more damning indictment on the effect it continues to have on the game in its current guise.
10) By the time of Leicester’s lucky escape, they had been functioning for an hour without the ‘brain’ of their defence.
It would have taken Rodgers and most of his backroom staff to physically restrain Evans from starting at Wembley but the Foxes defender never looked comfortable while carrying a heel injury.
It was a huge boost for Leicester fans when they saw Evans’ name on the team-sheet and a crushing blow when he departed after a nervous half-hour for their side. But Evans’ injury must have contributed to that tetchiness.
Leicester’s biggest fears would have centred around the pace of Werner and the creativity of Mount, even if Evans was firing on all cylinders. While his movement was restricted, so too was the back-three’s ability to get close to Tielemans and Wilfried Ndidi, allowing Mount the space to take the ball, triggering Werner to get on his bike.
Once Evans accepted the inevitable, what Leicester lost in nous they gained in mobility.
11) Evans absence was never felt primarily because of a heroic performance by Wesley Fofana.
The 20-year-old moved into Evans spot and marshalled Caglar Soyuncu and Castagne wonderfully while putting on a defensive clinic.
Tielemans was a worthy man of the match, but Fofana pushed him damn close.
Wesley Fofana's #FACupFinal game by numbers:
4/5 aerials won
1 clean sheet
0 x dribbled past
A defensive masterclass on the big stage. 🏟 pic.twitter.com/6Y53lILs8g
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) May 15, 2021
12) As solid as Leicester’s defence were, we must again question the potency of Chelsea’s attack.
Tuchel went with Werner through the middle and the evidence continues to mount that the German is not a centre-forward capable of leading the line for a side with title ambitions.
All of his worst traits were on display once more. His finishing was poor (four shots, zero on target), his decision-making muddled and once again his runs began in a different time zone to the Chelsea pass.
The huge frustration with Werner is that he always appears on the precipice of coming good. But just when you think he has turned a corner, he reverts to the form for which he has been lambasted this season.
Playing off the left, he will still be an asset to Chelsea. But they cannot rely on him to lead the line next season.
13) Werner was hardly the only player to struggle in the face of Leicester’s resilience. Tuchel chucked the kitchen sink in – though not Tammy Abraham – but none of Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz or Olivier Giroud appeared a threat.
Mount was the only one of six Chelsea attackers to manage a shot on target. None aside from Ziyech offered a key pass.
Tuchel has three days to remedy the attacking ills which this week have threatened to derail their domestic season.
14) Because on Tuesday, Chelsea and Leicester get to do this all again in a game of huge significance which some people suggested could be bigger than today’s cup final.
Those people are wrong ‘uns. But it is not the daftest claim. Whichever side triumphs at Stamford Bridge will go a long way to securing their place in next season’s Champions League. For the loser, Liverpool are coming. Even in the event of a draw, both sides are looking nervously over their shoulders.
Leicester at least can take huge confidence from having beaten Chelsea for a second time this season. How both managers react will be fascinating. Rodgers could tweak his side, with James Maddison able to come in, but he need not make wholesale changes. Tuchel, though, has to provoke an immediate improvement for the next biggest test of his brief reign so far.
15) Maybe defeat today could serve Chelsea well in the long run. Though that was suggested after the Arsenal loss and Tuchel refuted it.
“It’s a bad thing, ” he said. “I don’t need these things to wake up to know how hard it is, I don’t need to lose to know this. We needed to wake up again together but I don’t know why. Now everybody is awake again.”
Or rather they hit snooze. But the sight of the joyous Leicester players must rouse the Chelsea players. Firstly for revenge of a sort on Tuesday. Then for the Champions League final. Not again, certainly so soon, do they want to be the awkward interlopers amid their opponents’ celebration over lifting a cherished trophy for the very first time.
16) There at Wembley too was proof, woefully-needed proof, that not all billionaire owners are snakes, liars and charlatans.
The goosebumps today were never more intense than when tearful Leicester chairman Khun Top hugged the cup, Rodgers and most of the winning team that he and his father delivered.
This was Leicester’s first trophy since the tragic death of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and as his image looked down from the top tier of Wembley, this was certainly a triumph in his honour.
Vichai and his son made Leicester exactly the kind of club that the snakey six felt they had to run away from. One run in exemplary fashion from top to bottom, a hierarchy that continues to show the bigger boys how to recruit, and a club that puts itself at the very heart of its community.
“The jealousy I feel knowing an owner can be like that. It breaks my heart,” said Arsenal legend Ian Wright on BBC, speaking for all Gooners, as well as Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham supporters.
But that’s their problem. This, again, is Leicester’s night and Vichai’s dream.