Yesterday I was certain that Arsenal were going to lose to Chelsea. One secret that I’ll reveal is that I have my moments where I doubt the team and I often slip into an irrationally defeatist attitude. If we aren’t playing perfectly after the first 30 seconds of a game I’ll often say to my girlfriend, “that’s it, Arsenal are going to lose this match.” To which she will always reply “I take it we haven’t gotten to the two minute mark?” See, after about two minutes that’s when I can relax and settle into the rhythm of the game.
But yesterday was different. I knew we were going to lose this match because Arsenal had lost Koscielny to a red card, Gabriel to knee injury, and Mustafi to concussion. That meant a makeshift back three or back four defense facing off against Chelsea, the League champs.
And Chelsea are more than just League champs. They have the Player of the Year on their team, N’Golo Kante, a defensive midfielder in the mold of Francis Coquelin only a step or two up. They have the Player of the Year from two seasons ago in Eden Hazard. They have a nightmare center forward in Diego Costa, a guy who gets under our defender’s skins and crawls around like some kind of worm eating them from the inside out. And I can’t forget that Chelsea have Arsenal’s former boy captain Cesc Fabregas in their squad: a player who is not just a mere snake but also one of the most talented footballers I’ve ever seen play at Arsenal, and a player who has won trophies with Chelsea and Barcelona, but never with Arsenal. His link-up play with Costa is almost preternatural. I felt for sure that he would be the one to pass the ball to Costa, who would do something god-awful to us. As if all that weren’t enough, Chelsea has a deep bench with Willian, Batshuayi, Fabregas, and Captain Leader Legend, John Terry, who was all suited up and prepared to do something truly vile to Arsenal’s corpse after we died in a heap at Chelsea’s feet.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I wasn’t even nervous at the start of this FA Cup final. I was simply resigned. We were losing the cup. Arseblog asked me to write the match report, which meant that I had to write and watch at the same time. And so just before kickoff I pulled on my Eduardo shirt from 2007, calmly opened up my laptop, and sat down to write the saddest match report of my life.
As you know now, it didn’t turn out that way. Within seconds of the opening kick Arsenal looked like the sharper team. They passed the ball with a confidence I haven’t seen this season, they had more energy than Chelsea which is another rarity this season, and they pressed and harassed Chelsea into turnovers in dangerous areas.
Player of the Year N’Golo Kante turned the ball over exactly where a defensive midfielder cannot turn the ball over, in his own area. His teammates failed to clear. Alexis hunted the ball down. Alexis scored. But Ramsey was there, offside, right next to the ball, moving, blocking the keeper, and certainly interfering with play.
I thought for certain the goal would be chalked off. From what I understand of the rules, an offside player between the keeper and the onside player is exactly what the offside rule is supposed to prevent. It’s not just whether the player actively goes for the ball, but whether the player blocks the line of vision for the keeper. But then I’ve seen this not called so many times against Arsenal. There was a controversial Fulham goal a few years ago where a player actually lifted his leg (or maybe ducked?) to let the ball go past him. I remember screaming into the internet about how that was offside. I had slides from the laws of the game and I feel fairly certain that I understand this rule but clearly, the interpretation in England is that a player can stand offside between the keeper and the attacker and as long as he doesn’t look like he’s going for the ball, it’s ok.
So, 1-0. But I still thought we were going to lose.
Then the extraordinary happened. Arsenal created chance after chance. Ramsey was at the far post when Welbeck struck the upright but could only put the ball int the side netting. That could have been a goal. Cahill cleared an Ozil shot off the line. That could have been a goal. Ozil hit the upright after juking Azpilicueta. That could have been a goal.
All of this and solid defense at the back. Costa tried getting under Rob Holding’s skin: he put him in a headlock, threw him to the ground and then “accidentally” tumbled into Holding, kicking him in the head. Holding just got up, walked away, laughed, tapped his temple and said “I’m not falling for your mind games”. Minutes later Costa kicked Ospina in the head. Again with one of his now patented “accidental” tumbles where his legs go flying all over the place like a giant spider on roller skates.
That kick to the head led to a few shaky minutes from Arsenal. Ospina dropped a cross. Arsenal turned the ball over. But Chelsea couldn’t get a sniff and Arsenal created great shot after great shot. Arsenal weren’t just playing well, they were KILLING CHELSEA.
Still, Arsenal hadn’t been able to capitalize on the chances they made and I felt like Chelsea were going to get their second wind. And of course that meant that Arsenal were going to lose.
The second half did start better for Chelsea and eventually they got their luck. It took them subbing on all their attacking players but Costa got a cross from Willian and then Holding overran the cross, Mertesacker tried to block but merely deflected, and then Ospina reacted poorly, but they got a goal.
I barely even had time for the doom to set in before Aaron Ramsey restored the lead. That sequence epitomized this match in many ways. Arsenal and Chelsea played an open, attacking cup final. Both teams set up in a 343 and both teams looked to hit each other on the counter. Both teams created plenty of chances and it made the game an example of what the Premier League looks like at its very best. This wasn’t Mourinho’s negative football or Sam Allardyce’s anti-football, this was two teams going at each other, end to end.
And Arsenal won.
After the match, Arsene Wenger did two unusual things. The first is that he held onto his winner’s medal. He hasn’t kept any of the previous 6 FA Cup winner’s medals. He usually gives them away to a member of the club who are underappreciated. But he kept the medal and he said he kept it because it was a record breaking 7th FA Cup win.
But he also mentioned one other weird thing in his post-match interview. He held on to the medal because it felt special. This win felt special because of what the team had to overcome this season, specifically the situation with his contract and with the squabbling between manager and the board.
He pointed out that Arsenal won 7 of their last 8 games. That after their blip they collectively decided to put their heads down and try to get the job done. They finished 5th which was a let down but while Tottenham, City, and Liverpool might have a better record, Arsenal notched wins over Man City and Chelsea to lift the FA Cup.
I’ll take an FA Cup win over Chelsea over 4th place any day.