As in 2017, Arsenal bucked the odds by defeating Manchester City, then Chelsea at Wembley to conclude their season in glory. Only in 2020, it was in front of swathes of empty seats, as only Wembley, staff from the two clubs and the media were present to watch Mikel Arteta’s players salvage something from what has been a fag end of a season.
Things seem to change more quickly in football these days. There were three Arsenal players remaining from the eleven that started in 2017 (and on Chelsea’s side, only two, although David Luiz had swapped sides). More significant though, was that only four of Unai Emery’s team that started the Europa League Final against the same opposition in Baku just over 14 months ago remained. The fear was that this might see a repeat of that unfortunate evening – with only a marginally less number of Gooners in attendance. Your author’s mind also went back to the last season in which an Arsenal manager was dismissed mid-campaign. In 1994-95 George Graham got his P45, the club finished in mid-table and the season ended with a defeat in a final (to Zaragoza in Paris) and a trip to Chelsea for a meaningless league game that Stewart Houston’s side lost 2-1.
This final, doubtless important to the fans because of the trophy, had bigger implications for the head coach and Arsenal’s decision makers. European football next season adds at least £30 million to the budget, and one imagines there may be more scope now to put a package together that Pierre Emerick Aubameyang will accept. There looks no debate that the club cannot afford to let him go, already into the final 12 months of his contract. He may have just turned 31, but shows no sign of losing his pace. The fact that he scored all Arsenal’s goals against Manchester City and Chelsea underlines his importance to the club.
The game started with an early Arsenal attack down Chelsea’s right, an area that was to bear fruit. Ainsley Maitland-Niles was selected ahead of Saka and Kolsinac, and after not getting too much of a look-in during Arteta’s initial matches, he now looks to be a valuable asset in the squad, arguably an example of how the head coach can work on and improve a player. This is why the club recruited the former captain – it’s a case of needs must given the financial resources of other clubs. Arsenal need to be making a lot more of their Academy produce than they ever did under Arsene Wenger.
Aubameyang’s header from Maitland-Niles’ cross wasn’t great, but things were to improve when he got the ball at his feet. Gooners though, would face early misery as a spell of Chelsea domination followed. Chances were coming too easily, with Mount enjoying a strike on goal, and Pulisic having two – scoring from the first as Frank Lampard’s players cut through Arsenal’s rearguard like a hot knife through butter. The only good thing about Chelsea taking the lead was that it was so early in the game.
Arsenal recovered, partly thanks to the drinks break that allowed Arteta to re-focus his players. Pepe’s wonder strike was ruled offside, but they were in the game and soon after, Azpilicueta was beaten for pace as a long Tierney pass set Aubameyang away. The Chelsea captain had to pull him back and a spot-kick award followed. I think there is a rule that says there is no red card when a foul is committed for a penalty, which would explain why only a yellow was issued. There were nerves ahead of the penalty for your author, remembering it was at the same end at Wembley that Auba took that fateful injury time penalty against Spurs last season, the lost two points due to it being saved ultimately costing Arsenal Champions League football. This effort was far less casual. Even if the keeper had guessed the right way, I don’t think he could have stopped it. Scores level, it was game on and Arteta’s team dominated until the interval.
There is often an element of fortune in the winning of cup trophies. Certainly Chelsea were unfortunate to lose both Azpilicueta and Pulisic to hamstring injuries either side of half-time. Both were key players for different reasons. Had Pulisic not suffered his injury before he (bravely it must be said) got a shot away, he might have been more clinical and given his team the lead. Chelsea started after half time with more purpose, but the match was determined by three key moments that followed.
Halfway through the second half, Bellerin drove forward, and as he lost the ball in a collision, it broke to Pepe, who showed his value to the team in his ability to find Aubameyang with a pass across the area. The Arsenal skipper sent Kurt Zouma the wrong way to allow him the space to get an exquisite left foot dink over the onrushing Willy Caballero. A quality strike that was befitting of what would turn out to be a cup final winner.
One thing that Mikel Arteta has brought to Arsenal is an element of Latin cynicism. Barcelona were doing this for years under his mentor Pep Guardiola, and the dark arts have been part of the game for far longer than anyone alive can remember, it’s simply that they are easier to detect now in an age of video scrutiny. So no question that fouls are exaggerated, and for both of Kovacic’s yellow cards, Granit Xhaka did a fair bit of rolling around. In isolation, the second card was harsh, but it should be remembered that the Croatian committed other fouls after his initial card which may have influenced referee Antony Taylor.
Taylor had reffed the 2017 final between the two clubs, which also saw a Chelsea player dismissed for two yellows, and a 2-1 victory to Arsenal. Go figure. Some things do change though. Three finals between the two clubs over four seasons - each time with different managers picking the team for both clubs. Wenger v Conte and Emery v Sari before Arteta v Lampard.
The third key moment came when Emi Martinez, with ten minutes remaining, grabbed the ball with most of his body outside his penalty area. VAR checked it, and there were inches in it. Were the ball collected outside, it would have been a red card and Chelsea’s disadvantage wiped out for what turned out to be almost another 20 minutes with the addition of injury time. But it was not to be. Although Lampard’s players had a go with ten men and some fresh legs from the bench, Arsenal held firm. Pedro’s removal deep into injury time for a shoulder injury was the final nail in the coffin for the south west London club. They now have a trip to Munich to try and overcome a 3-0 first leg Champions League deficit. Talk about having to go through the motions. Still, they have an owner who has splashed the cash, a stronger squad next season and another go at the Champions League. A youth policy that seems to be working, an FA Cup final defeat isn’t wonderful, but there’s no doubt the prize of this trophy meant so much more to Arsenal, where the owner is quite a contrast to Roman Abramovich.
A couple of things to note about before I finish. It will be strange to see photos of the trophy being lifted in a kit from a different season, but that is what football has become. Arsenal played five matches in their 2019/20 kit to reach this final, and yet won the trophy in the 2020/21 kit. It just feels weird. And as for the trophy non-presentation… well, Prince William watched the game at a garden party for his Heads Up mental health initiative in the company of Tony Adams and others, sitting in deckchairs. Had he been able to present the cup, he wouldn’t have given the Arsenal skipper the base to lift, that’s for sure. I think we can conclude that Auba didn’t spend too much time watching videos of previous Gunners’ FA Cup wins, or he wouldn’t have tried to life the whole shebang. In a final under normal circumstances, the base would end up with the kitman for safekeeping while the celebrations go on.
No matter, the main thing is Arsenal won the silverware, securing European football next season, and giving them some more leverage to agree a deal with their captain and top goalscorer. Critically, in recent weeks, Arteta’s team have demonstrated they can go toe to toe with the sides they need to catch up with, and win. Consistency needs to come, but there is a foundation in the spirit we are seeing in the players, something that dissipated all too quickly under Unai Emery.
On a personal note, it is good that the final editorial after an Arsenal match that I have written for this website reflects on both a win and a trophy. I’ve been writing pieces the day after games going back to at least 2006, maybe even longer. Next season, I assume my successor Layth Yousif will be penning the editorials, although I have no idea whether the format will remain the same. Some people have asked whether I will continue to write post-match thoughts, because they have been kind enough to say they would miss my musings. I haven’t ruled it out, but if you want to be informed of anything in that regard, best policy is to follow my personal Twitter account @KevinWhitcher01 and if the muse strikes me when Arsenal return to action in September, I’ll let you know there. Layth has asked me to write a couple of pages for the print version next season, so there will be the opportunity to reflect on events in the fanzine itself. And please suscribe to next season's issues if you haven't already, given we are unlikely to be able to sell to the normal crowd numbers on matchdays.
This isn’t my last ever editorial, because I will do a 'state of the Arsenal nation' piece before next weekend, but after that, the keyboard is being retired as far as my postings on this here website is concerned. It’s a lot more active with Layth at the helm than I could ever make it, which hopefully means greater profile and engagement. Anyway, the final online farewell will follow in a few days time. Today, we bask in the celebration of another trophy, although lament we couldn’t be there to witness it, or that the players can’t parade it around Islington from an open top bus. It’s been a very strange season, no doubt about that.
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