So young, yet Arteta is already proving to be the master puppeteer
As Mikel Arteta strode down the Wembley tunnel, banging the silver lid against the FA Cup and shouting “Vamos” to his Arsenal players when he entered the dressing room, there felt more than a touch of the Pep Guardiola about him.
This was a young manager fully in control and at the centre of everything that Arsenal are doing. Arteta positioned himself at the heart of the trophy celebrations; he told Ainsley Maitland-Niles to hurry up as he waited to follow him for a media interview, and he danced around with the Cup in the dressing room as the players jumped behind him.
Arsenal will feel they have a generational manager leading them. At 38, Arteta is the youngest and most inexperienced head coach in the Premier League, but arguably the one with the greatest potential. The FA Cup final was just his 28th match, but he carries himself with the air of a far more experienced and mature manager.
Arteta will know all about the precariousness of the profession he is now in, as not long after the final whistle was blown at Wembley it was announced that Eddie Howe – Mr Bournemouth – was leaving the relegated club.
Arteta’s first game, having been Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City, was away at Bournemouth last December, scraping a 1-1 draw with a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang goal. The striker showed his worth again in the final with two more goals. Inevitably the dominant theme was whether Arsenal and Arteta had done enough to make Aubameyang, out of contract next June, sign a new deal.
In the months since Arteta’s first fixture, so much has changed for Arsenal, even if they finished eighth in the Premier League, their lowest placing since 1995. It was hoped with Arteta’s arrival there may even be a late tilt at Champions League qualification. But he is a promising young manager, not a magician.
The competency – and discipline – is clear, as is the reinvigorated feeling around the club. Neither Mesut Ozil nor Matteo Guendouzi were anywhere to be seen. Ozil was allowed to return to Turkey and his post-match tweet of “Great job my boys!!!” felt like a distant echo of Arsenal’s recent past; a past from which they want to move on
quickly. It was interesting that those players who were involved sought out Arteta in the immediate aftermath just as readily as he sought them out.
Even Aubameyang, who had carefully cradled the trophy and kept an eye on it as his team-mates passed it around, eventually handed it to Arteta, while Josh Kroenke, the Arsenal director and son of owner Stan, sidled up to edge into the periphery of the celebrations before withdrawing.
Arteta has delivered. It is a start. European football will come as a relief for Arsenal, although it again follows years in which they assumed the Champions League was their domain. A trophy this early in his management will future-proof him in a way that defeat in last year’s Europa League final – by Chelsea – holed his predecessor, Unai Emery.
Kroenke will have to play his part now. Arteta and Arsenal’s technical director, Edu, have already drawn up a clear and detailed plan to overhaul and strengthen the squad – which starts with a new contract
for Aubameyang – and the head coach’s mandate to demand more has now become powerful with this triumph and the manner of it.
That manner felt tough on Chelsea and Frank Lampard. It was not that Arsenal were lucky; it was that Chelsea were unlucky. Or, rather, everything that could go wrong for them did, following Christian Pulisic’s smart opening goal after just five minutes as the 21-year-old provided compelling evidence that he can be Eden Hazard’s successor.
The American was central to Chelsea’s downfall as, early in the second half, he collapsed in pain with an apparent hamstring tear, even though he bravely got a shot away before crumpling to the turf. Up until then he had been the final’s outstanding performer.
That was the second hamstring injury suffered by Lampard’s side, after captain Cesar Azpilicueta had gone off. In injury time Pedro appeared to dislocate a shoulder and was carried off on a stretcher in his last game for Chelsea. The Spaniard will hope desperately it will not affect his move to Roma.
To add insult to those injuries, referee Anthony Taylor gave a poor performance, in particular the second yellow card he issued to Chelsea midfielder Mateo Kovacic for a challenge on Granit Xhaka. In an era of Var it is a strange anomaly that the system cannot be used to overrule cautions, even when they lead to dismissals.
Chelsea fans will rage also against Arsenal’s first-half penalty award, with Azpilicueta first pulling Aubameyang back outside the area. But, tellingly, Lampard did not complain and if it had been a free-kick then it would probably also have been a red card for Azpilicueta who, like Pedro, is surely out of Chelsea’s Champions League last-16 tie away to Bayern Munich on Saturday, with them trailing 3-0 from the first leg.
The winning goal showed why Chelsea – as Arsenal – have much work to do with their squad. As Timo Werner watched on, and with Hakim Ziyech signed and the pursuit of Kai Havertz continuing, Chelsea also need defenders. It was calamitous as they failed to deal with Hector Bellerin’s run into their half, with Aubameyang then easily beating Kurt Zouma before dinking his shot past 38-year-old Willy Caballero – as the world’s most expensive (and unwanted) goalkeeper, Kepa Arrizabalaga, sat on the bench.
Still, it has been a promising first campaign for Lampard, who has delivered Champions League qualification even if he could not quite augment that with a trophy.
The only thing that went wrong for Arsenal as they won a record 14th FA Cup – courtesy of their No14 Aubameyang – and their first silverware for three years was their captain dropping the prize. But that was before Arteta intervened to orchestrate matters off the pitch, just as much as he had controlled them on it.