Wembley success masks Wenger’s problems
Ah, the glorious uncertainties of football! Of which Arsenal’s triumph over ultrafavourites Chelsea in the Cup Final was a resplendent example.
Arguably, it confirmed the besieged Arsene Wenger in office for another two seasons; a compliant and passive ownership and board would predictably do nothing less. Are they right? Is he worth it? Time will all too shortly tell, but my own view is that they are wrong.
It is also legitimate to reflect on what that defeat tells us about Chelsea and the previously deified Antonio Conte.
Though the first potentially traumatising Arsenal goal may have been fortuitous and controversial, as the game went on Arsenal, against all expectations, were the dominant team.
And if the supremely gifted Alexis Sanchez was arguably the most impressive and influential player on the pitch, what of the minor miracle afforded by the display of Per Mertesacker?
Six feet six inches tall and 32 years old, injury had kept the German out for the whole season until the game before the Cup Final, when he came on for a limited second-half spell. You would have thought in all rationality that Diego Costa would dominate him. But in fact Costa was curiously ineffective, never taking advantage of Mertesacker’s well-known vulnerability on the turn.
And Eden Hazard? Following a strangely mediocre and ineffective season under Jose Mourinho, when he seemed largely uninterested, Hazard had been dynamic through the season in which Chelsea romped away with the league. At Wembley, he was no better than a marginal figure.
In Arsenal’s ranks, the German international Mesut Ozil came belatedly to life after a long fallow period in previous weeks – or even months. And we know that Aaron Ramsey delights in playing in the Wembley Final, since as a teenage substitute he sparkled for Cardiff City against Portsmouth.
Yet Wenger can scarcely take credit for the performance of Mertesacker, who he was obliged to pick after the linchpin of the defence Laurent Koscielny ludicrously got himself sent off and thus suspended on the verge of the Final.
Whether or not victory in the Final was sufficient to make Wenger’s case for staying on remains debatable. It could hardly compensate for a mere fourth place in the Premier League, which excluded the Gunners from the next European Champions Cup, nor atone for the shocking pair of 5-1 defeats by Bayern Munich in the European Cup.
In pleading his own cause, Wenger has spoken of the many young players the club has brought through of late. But where and which are they? Alex OxladeChamberlain and Theo Walcott came from Southampton, Danny Welbeck from Manchester United. Jack Wilshere was that rarity, a homegrown product, but he was on loan all season to Bournemouth.
Over the years, the club’s youth
scheme has been no better than an expensive luxury, though one does have to give credit to Wenger for bringing through a young Cesc Fabregas, boldly deputing him to fill the role of the bigger and more robust Patrick Vieira in central midfield. Cup Final day, however, found Fabregas on the bench with Chelsea.
Wenger, after such dazzling early years with Arsenal, has surely shot his bolt at least two seasons and some spectacular defeats ago. Yet the board is docile and pliant, the chief shareholder Stan Kroenke a largely absent figure with no evident grasp of football at large.
Keeping Wenger is one thing; hanging on to the surely irreplaceable Sanchez quite another. Like Ozil, he has only a season left on his contract, which means that if Arsenal keep either or both of them, with each now reportedly demanding something like £300,000 a week in wages, they could at the worst lose them at the end of the season for nothing. Sanchez clearly wants to play in the European Champions Cup. To lose him, which seems all too likely now, would be a crippling blow to the team.
As for Chelsea, the Final defeat and the way it happened dramatically changed perspective on team and manager. Chelsea, in the vernacular, choked at Wembley, with so many star players failing dismally and inexplicably to assert themselves.
And next season, whatever riches they pour out in the summer, things will not be as comfortable as the season just concluded, in which they actually benefitted from their lack of success the previous season. Their lowish league place meant that they did not have to compete in Europe, meaning less pressure on their players.
Keeping Wenger is one thing; hanging on to the essential and surely irreplaceable Sanchez quite another
Besieged...Arsene Wenger is to stay at Arsenal for another two years
Controversial...Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez opens the scoring in the FA Cup Final