When the razzmatazz of a cup final is over, it’s a mixture of relief and jubilation or abject failure and disappointment. The FA Cup, which I generally regard as a far less important trophy had suddenly assumed far more importance this season, perhaps due to the pandemic and subsequent absence of football or possibly Arsenal’s patchwork quilt of a campaign. The Arsenal vs Chelsea FA Cup game was a crucial final for both sides and it would be a fabulous endorsement and achievement in a debut Premier League season for both the new managers.
The sides met on a Wembley pitch without the customary pomp and noise but the faces of the players were the same as ever. Full of ambition, desire, and pride as they emerged from the tunnel into the beautiful London sunlight.
From the whistle, it was Chelsea that looked full of energy and intent as Arsenal placed the wagons in a circle in an attempt to hit them on the counter. They didn’t do it very well because instead of pressing Chelsea in the attack, they sat back and conceded too much space and that facilitated the first goal after just 5 minutes.
Chelsea swept forward into a sea of space and with the Gunners’ defenders sticking rigidly to their instructions of holding their shape, they forgot to meet the oncoming tide and allowed the ball to reach the in-form feet of ex-Gunner Olivier Giroud. The Frenchman’s cute little backheel found Christian Pulisic, who dinked through the string of red shirts which included Luiz, Holding, Bellerin, Tierney, and Xhaka to apply a sweet finish.
“Oh no,” I thought “not another Baku!” Yes, that unpleasant Europa League 4-1 thumping is still firmly in the mind and my nightmares. The Blues were the only team playing for the first 10 or 12 minutes of the Arsenal vs Chelsea FA Cup final. They kept possession well, fashioned decent chances and looked compact but credit to Arsenal, they didn’t look as if their composure had disappeared along with the crowds.
Strangely enough, they started to get some momentum (20) and Ceballos dug a trench in midfield to supervise operations until the final whistle. The Spaniard has been patchy in an Arsenal shirt and had to start over after an injury. Since his return, his partnership with Xhaka has been immense, they combine well and appear to have an understanding of each other’s game.
This performance was the midfielder’s best so far, lovely weighted passes, excellent distribution, and vision with a willingness to progress the game at every opportunity. He had runners all over the pitch to execute Arteta’s basic but beautiful plan of exposing the space behind Chelsea’s high pressing defence.
I said before the Arsenal vs Chelsea FA Cup game that Lampard’s side could be exposed with balls down the flanks or over the top towards the strikers and so it proved to be. Pepe had a superb curling goal disallowed for offside, but Arsenal were warming to the task and looked more capable of a goal before the half was out. Aubameyang had chased everything that came his way, whilst Lacazette, who had an excellent day at the office, peeled off in the opposite direction to stretch the back three.
Arsenal equalised (28) with Arteta’s plan in full swing. Tierney, who is becoming some player, pumped the ball forward and a battle of the captains began. Aubameyang was on his toes early with the usual instinctive anticipation, but César Azpilicueta was slow to react and always looked a poor second.
Going towards the box, the man in blue resembled a jealous octopus, grabbing and feverishly trying to get back on terms, but Aubameyang employed another gear and cut inside. Once in the box, the Chelsea captain tried one lean too many, and the Arsenal striker went down.
It was a clear penalty, the ref knew it, the viewers knew it, Frank Lampard knew it, but it seemed to take an age before Anthony Taylor could announce that technology and some bloke up in the gods agreed with him. Aubameyang coolly stroked the ball past Willy Caballero and the striker turned away displaying his trademark smile.
From that point, the game was Arsenal’s, up until half time. My ears were certainly malfunctioning because the commentator mentioned that Chelsea were in control. They were initially, for ten or so minutes but not at this point. Pepe was a menace and Maitland-Niles had some fine contributions via a few blistering runs as a left-winger.
Ceballos was ensuring Arsenal owned the midfield and Luiz, who delivered a wonderful performance, marshalled the trio of defenders whilst putting the squeeze on Olivier Giroud. As the game progressed, Holding and the Brazilian phased the Frenchman out and nullified any threat. Chelsea’s in-form striker would see the rest of the contest from the stands with the cameras seemingly addicted to his perfect hair. His facial expressions said that he somehow knew that there would be no repeat of the Europa League final 2019. See, I can’t get it out of my head!
Chelsea had their fair share of misfortune losing three players to injury. Cesar Azpilicueta and Christian Pulisic went off with hamstring issues and Pedro popped his shoulder in his last game for the club but by far, the cruelest blow for Lampard was the dismissal of Mateo Kovacic in the 73rd minute for the slightest of touches on the toes of Granit Xhaka.
It probably hurt, hard to tell from the safety of my sofa but I’m not sure it merited a triple salchow. However, it was the second occasion the Chelsea man has made contact with the same Arsenal player. The first looked far worse and if I was handing out reds, he may have gone for that rather than the innocuous toe tickle that took him to the changing rooms.
Chelsea had been the better of the two sides in the second half but Arsenal were proving to be impenetrable by saturating their own area with Red and White shirts. Then, in the 67th minute, with Arsenal fairly comfortable without the lions share of possession, Bellerin blitzed forward into the Chelsea half, colliding with Andreas Christensen. The referee thankfully played the advantage with Pepe in possession who provided a pass to Aubameyang.
The striker had plenty to do still and if this was to be his swan song for the club, it would linger in the memory for a lifetime. Zouma surely had this covered, but we watched as the striker took a solitary touch to work out what the next move was.
He dropped his shoulder and instead of cutting inside, he went to his left releasing a quite staggering and subtle dink over a bemused Caballero. That was it, but the Arsenal vs Chelsea FA Cup game seemed to go on and on with 7 added minutes which were easily exceeded. However, it became increasingly clear that the eventual outcome wasn’t in doubt.
The Arsenal side congratulated each other at the final whistle and even the injured Mustafi and Martinelli were present to enjoy this remarkable and unexpected trophy success. What a reversal of fortunes under Arteta. He had all sorts of things to contend with during his short reign including the Ozil standoff, the Guendouzi nonsense, and the Maitland-Niles issue.
He’d inherited a dysfunctional team that played as individuals but by the final whistle here, he had constructed a wonderful side with an exuberant spirit, that through the elements of its ordinary parts had managed to excel and even managed to entertain.
It turns out that Arteta is the man, after all, you can hear his passion, you can sense his love for the club. No manager has had to do more in such a short time to rectify a situation, dare I say since a certain unknown Frenchman arrived to begin his 22-year association at the club. We are a million miles from that era of success and Arsenal’s owner, Stan Kroenke, needs to invest but you have to celebrate this achievement. It’s so well deserved.
Arsenal’s cup: Arsenal have featured in 21 FA cup finals, that’s 15% of the entire total of the competition and they’ve now won it an incredible 14 times more than any other club. Mikel Arteta becomes the first player/Captain/manager to hold the trophy aloft.
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