Arsene Wenger has said that the outcome of Saturday’s FA Cup final will have no bearing on whether he signs a new contract, but it is hard not to come to the conclusion that the match with Hull City holds significance far beyond simply the bonus of a cup in the cabinet. Win and a positive spin can easily be put on a mixed campaign and spur hope for next season. Lose and all the same questions over the lack of silverware and failures in big games that have plagued Wenger and the club will return with renewed vigor.
Few people with any connection to the sport can fail to know that it has now been nine years since Arsenal last lifted a trophy. In the 2005 FA Cup final Patrick Vieira struck home the winning penalty to give Wenger his seventh trophy in less than nine years at the club before the Arsenal captain departed for Juventus a couple of months later and took a vital gritty, winning mentality with him.
The words trophy drought are constantly mentioned in connection with Arsenal, but they are something of a misnomer. While Wenger has been ridiculed for saying that qualification for the Champions League represents a trophy, it is a view that has much credence. Not only is it a greater barometer of a team’s ability to finish in the top four rather than to win either of the two domestic cup competitions, the rewards for doing so are now far greater. In truth, the domestic championship and the Champions League are the only competitions by which Europe’s top clubs now measure themselves. The rest is a mere bonus.
Arsenal have achieved their main goal for the season by making it 17 years in succession dining at Europe’s top table. Yet Saturday’s final is more important for Arsenal than it would be for perhaps any other club. Arsenal led the Premier League this season for more days than any other team, yet fell away in drastic fashion when the pressure was on and the opponents tough at the business end of the campaign.
Heavy defeats at Liverpool, Chelsea and Everton proved hugely damaging and were not in keeping with a side in Arsenal’s position and with their ambitions. On each of those occasions, the opposition came up with game plans especially tailored to exploiting Arsenal’s weaknesses. Arsenal and Wenger had no answer.
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Wenger deserves massive admiration for the broad-stroked philosophy he introduced to Arsenal that has served them so well in terms of creating an attractive way of playing that encourages the emergence of talented young players. Yet, of late, he has failed to adapt to one-off situations and tailor his approach to do what is necessary to simply win a match.
A Hull side under Steve Bruce, who have done tremendously well to stave off relegation with something to spare in their first season back in the top flight, but who are clearly limited, are unlikely to pose the same kind of tactical or personnel conundrums as Arsenal encountered in their heavy defeats. But it is none the less an encounter where the pressure on Arsenal to deliver will be immense and where winning is almost all that matters.
As anyone with the misfortune to watch the 2005 FA Cup final knows, Arsenal’s last trophy win was not pretty. In Vieira, Arsenal had a player who could do the ugly things in a game and a manager in Wenger who was prepared to do what was necessary to win in the absence of his most talented player, Thierry Henry.
But ever since, it has appeared that Wenger would rather lose and lose heavily than modify his free-flowing approach. He may not need to do anything different on Saturday, with Arsenal having been superbly efficient at beating the lower-ranked teams in the Premier League this season.
This match, though, is different. The cost of not winning on Saturday could be hugely significant. Wenger has said that he will sign his contract no matter what, but all the doubts over Arsenal going into big games would be even stronger next season were they to come up short. Following on from their last final, where they lost against another major underdog in Birmingham City three years ago, the mood around the club would be far lower than had Arsenal simply exited at the third round.
In contrast, a win at Wembley would provide a huge boost. Coming out on top in a must-win game could give a vital psychological boost to the Arsenal squad and perhaps even reinvigorate Wenger, who has looked increasingly jaded during this testing campaign. Simply the symbol of Arsenal as winners again could be extremely powerful going forward.
Prediction: While there have been other, more fundamental, issues in the second half of the season, there is no doubt that the loss of Aaron Ramsey through injury, combined with that of Theo Walcott, was a major blow. Ramsey’s return has provided a major boost at the end of the campaign as Arsenal finished with five straight Premier League wins. The dynamism the Welsh midfielder helps out and brings out the strengths of the slow but technically good Olivier Giroud. Ramsey also offers a recipient to the through ball of Mesut Ozil, while also opening up space for Arsenal’s record signing.
That extra runner going forward could well prove crucial against a Hull side who will likely look to sit back and pack the middle of the pitch. If Arsenal’s nerve can hold and they have the mentality to see out the almost inevitable difficult moments then there is every reason to think that they will finally claim that much-craved trophy.
Arsenal 2-0 Hull City
Arsenal: Arsenal have doubts about the fitness of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is still struggling with a groin injury, and Thomas Vermaelen, who has had stitches in a cut on his knee.
Hull: Bruce’s only fitness doubt is over James Chester, who has yet to return to full training following a hamstring injury. Hull will be unable to call upon cup-tied strikers Shane Long and Nikica Jelavic.