If this was the end, it was the perfect final chapter. Should Arsene Wenger bid au revoir to North London this week he will do so having guided Arsenal to their most unlikely FA Cup success of his 20-year spell in charge.
Saturday’s thrilling 2-1 victory over Chelsea was a record seventh FA Cup triumph for Wenger. To put that in some sort of context, that’s the same haul Liverpool have managed in their entire history. Ditto Chelsea.
This was a triumph fashioned against monumental odds. Arsenal had to beat Manchester City in the semi-final and Chelsea in the final to put a gloss on a season that at times has verged on the calamitous.
The victory over City was probably the bigger surprise given it came off the back of a horrendous run of form since the turn of the year.
However, beating Chelsea was undoubtedly the bigger achievement given Antonio Conte’s men arrived at Wembley having won 30 of their 38 Premier League games en route to the title.
In contrast, Arsenal went into Saturday’s showpiece minus a host of key defenders, most significantly the suspended Laurent Koscielny. Hardly ideal facing Costa, Hazard, Pedro, and co. Yet Arsenal deservedly prevailed, showing a defiance and work-rate seen all too rarely in 2017.
Per Mertesacker produced his finest display in an Arsenal shirt, a remarkable achievement given the Gunners’ final game of the season was the German’s first start of the campaign.
Rob Holding, a £2.5m (€2.8m) signing from Bolton last summer, showed Wenger can still unearth a bargain while Nacho Monreal was also outstanding.
Ahead of the makeshift back three, Granit Xhaka displayed a composure and discipline rarely seen in a deeply underwhelming first season at the Gunners while Aaron Ramsey ran himself into the ground, scoring the winner with a trademark lung-bursting run into the box to head home a gorgeous cross from sub Olivier Giroud.
Ramsey’s work-rate was matched by Danny Welbeck, a player who must have covered every blade of grass before making way for Giroud. No mean feat that.
However, the star of the show, once again, was Alexis Sanchez. His warrior display set the tone and while his goal after just four minutes may have been contentious, it was also taken exquisitely.
Where Saturday’s unlikely win leaves Wenger is now the key issue. We won’t have to wait much longer as Wenger has said his future “will be very clear” by Wednesday or Thursday. Judging by the defiant interview he gave the BBC’s Football Focus programme on Saturday he remains determined to stay.
“It is wrong that in modern society it is not a question of whether a decision is right but whether it is popular,” Wenger said. “People with responsibility have to make the right decision.”
The probability is that he will stay but whether that’s “the right decision” has to be questioned.
Saturday’s win, joyous though it was, shouldn’t paper over the fact Arsenal have underachieved massively this season. They fell away in the title race in January and, though they finished the season by winning nine of their final 10 games, for the first time since 1998/99 there’ll be no Champions League football for the Gunners next season.
Assessing where Arsenal are coldly, it’s hard to escape the sense this team is a long way off being a title-winning side. Major surgery rather than slight tweaking is required, particularly if Sanchez and Mesut Ozil leave this summer.
Welbeck may be a willing runner but he simply doesn’t score enough goals while Giroud’s lack of pace and mobility limit him so an elite top-class striker is required. They’re hard to recruit at the best of times, particularly so without the carrot of Champions League football.
Xhaka hasn’t convinced as a holding midfielder while Francis Coquelin is a squad player at best. Koscielny, meanwhile, has a chronic Achilles problem which, one suspects, is only going to get worse.
As he approaches his 68th birthday you have to question if Wenger is the right man for what looks a massive rebuilding job.
When assessing that, it’s necessary to consider the part played by Wenger in the season just ending. After concluding the Premier League season with a 3-1 win over Everton, the Frenchman claimed the “horrendous” atmosphere caused by the uncertainty over his future contributed to Arsenal’s failure to reach the Champions League.
That’s probably correct but it was his actions that created that uncertainty. It was he claimed he would reveal his decision on his future “very soon” after the catastrophic 3-1 defeat at West Brom in March, a loose remark that ensured every subsequent press conference was dominated by his future.
He could have killed the debate by publicly declaring his intentions yet inexplicably chose not to do so.
Then there’s his recruitment. In March, Wenger said of Xhaka: “He doesn’t master well the technique of tackling.”
That bodes an obvious question: Why sign him as a defensive midfielder? It’s worth remembering Xhaka cost Arsenal as much as Chelsea paid for N’Golo Kante. There’s no question who got the better deal.
That’s not said with any disrespect towards Wenger. His contribution over two decades at Arsenal has been colossal. The first-half of his reign was magnificent, capped by the masterpiece that was the Invincibles. Success has been less frequent since, largely as a result of the financial restrictions caused by the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but they have remained the great entertainers.
They did just that on Saturday. In doing so, they gave Wenger a chance, like his great rival Alex Ferguson, to bow out a winner. The hope is he’ll take that opportunity.
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