Farewell or not, Arsene Wenger is still capable of magical moments
Arsene Wenger showed with a record FA Cup victory that he still has the penchant for magical moments, writes Tom Adams.
If the ultimate job of any football manager is to win trophies, endow supporters with moments of unspeakable pleasure and imprint golden memories in the history of the club they represent then on all counts, on Saturday at Wembley at least, Arsene Wenger can be judged a success.
As chants of “there’s only one Arsene Wenger” pealed out from the red half of Wembley, and Arsenal collected a record 13th FA Cup and Wenger a record seventh, going clear of the mark set by Aston Villa’s George Ramsay over a hundred years ago, you could almost forget that Wenger had endured the most traumatic season of his two decades in charge of the club. Winning a trophy can be a transformative and transcendent act. Cup final day began with Wenger saying that a “lack of respect” shown to him by fans had been “a disgrace”, but it ended with the same supporters who have protested on the streets reserving their lustiest cheer for when he lifted the trophy in the stands of the national stadium.
Per Mertesacker of Arsenal and Arsene Wenger, Manager of Arsenal speak prior to The Emirates FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on May 27, 2017 in London, England.Getty Images
He may have been questioned like never before this season but this feat only further cements Wenger’s place in English football. Maybe he is an anachronism at the highest level, but he is still capable of magic moments. His is a story written into every pore of the national game: its history, culture, tradition and lexicon. Of his seventh FA Cup, he said: “I’m very proud because if no one has done it since 18-god knows when - it is not easy. I’m especially proud of the way we won this season. In the semi-final against Manchester City, in final against Chelsea: you cannot get tougher. Two outstanding performances; this cup was won a with special attitude."
It was, and yet Arsenal have regressed this season, by any serious measure. They are out of the Champions League for the first time under Wenger; they have finished behind Tottenham in the league for the first time; there has been overt insurrection in the stands and covert ructions in the boardroom. All this is true, but Arsenal were still capable of reserving one of their best performances of the season for when it mattered most. After all the abuse and the predictions of his professional demise, Wenger was still able to enjoy his purest pleasure: winning big matches and winning big trophies. This was the most glorious and most wonderfully jarring of season finales.
Wenger supporters hold up a placard in the crown ahead of the English FA Cup final football match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Wembley stadium in London on May 27, 2017Getty Images
The biggest surprise was that it was comfortably deserved. No one could have complained if Arsenal went home boasting a four-goal margin of victory. If the fifth-minute opener from Alexis Sanchez was controversial - it should have been ruled out for handball, if not offside - Arsenal utterly dominated a surprisingly supine Chelsea. Danny Welbeck and Mesut Ozil both hit the woodwork and Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey both had shots cleared off the line. Diego Costa temporarily made it 1-1 on 76 minutes but, 10 men down following Victor Moses’ red card, Chelsea conceded again inside three minutes when Aaron Ramsey headed home.
Ramsey’s evening was Arsenal’s season in microcosm. His has been a stop-start campaign characterised by constant disappointment and underperformance. And yet, like Arsenal, he has been revitalised by the switch to 3-4-2-1 and managed to rouse himself for an FA Cup final again. This was his and Arsenal’s third triumph in the competition in four seasons and his second FA Cup final goal after the winner against Hull City in 2014. It was not until almost two weeks after that nerve-shredding extra-time win that Wenger confirmed he would be staying at the club. An answer may come quicker three years down the line: a decisive board meeting is scheduled for the next few days.
Arsenal's Welsh midfielder Aaron Ramsey (R) celebrates with Arsenal's Spanish defender Hector Bellerin after scoring their second goal during the English FA Cup final football match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Wembley stadium in London on May 27, 2017Getty Images
If a power struggle has erupted between Wenger and chief executive Ivan Gazidis, this win represents some leverage - if not incontrovertible proof of his enduring merit. Even in his post-match press conference, Wenger could not say if the board still had faith in his managerial qualities. “I don’t think I can answer that question at the moment,” he said. “We are adults, we have to accept what will happen.”
One win can redeem a season but it cannot necessarily change a future. Asked if the result would have a bearing on his position, Wenger replied: “It would be a bit ridiculous if 20 years depended on one game, the future of the club depends on one game. We will know more next week.” In a riposte to the elements, vocal or not, calling for his removal, he added: "It’s not about popularity, it is about competence.”
Arsenal's players celebrate after their win over Chelsea on the pitch after the English FA Cup final football match between Arsenal and Chelsea at Wembley stadium in London on May 27, 2017. Aaron Ramsey scored a 79th-minute header to earn Arsenal a stunniGetty Images
But a boardroom in North London should not be the focus. Not just now. Not after an afternoon when Arsenal stopped Chelsea winning the Double. Not when they did what no other club has done, and when Wenger did what no other manager has done. Not when they completely trounced the champions at Wembley.
And what a performance it was. Wenger’s bold team selection was rewarded as a back three featuring Rob Holding, Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal played out of their skins, especially Mertesacker, who was making his first start of the season yet handled Costa almost unbelievably well. Danny Welbeck justified his selection up front by unsettling the Chelsea defence. Wenger even got away with selecting David Ospina ahead of Petr Cech: the Colombian was at fault for Costa’s goal but made some important saves too. When he brought on Olivier Giroud, the striker conjured an assist with his first touch. Everything came up Wenger.
Per Mertesacker lifts the cupGetty Images
There were excellent performances all over the pitch - mirroring in reverse Chelsea’s appalling display. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was assiduous when playing in his fifth position of the season as he slotted in at left wing-back; Granit Xhaka and Ramsey bossed the midfield; Ozil gave his most electric performance in six months; and Sanchez got his obligatory goal, his 30th of the season in all competitions, before being handed what may well have been a goodbye ovation when Wenger took him off in the final minutes.
The issue of Sanchez’s future could run all summer; Wenger’s is coming to a head very soon. It seemed a pointed comment directed at the board when he ascribed the club’s “blip” in the spring to the “uncertainty about my future”, before then hitting out at supporters who ensured that Arsenal, “played some games in a hostile development - I will never accept that.”
But Wenger's faith in his own quality and own work ethic is unshakeable. "I spend every minute of my season with full commitment and never give up so maybe that’s why today I am more proud than normal because myself and the team never gave up," he said. "We finished the game in a positive way." The season too. And maybe even a career which has eked out one more magic moment for his restless public.