Arsene Wenger vindicated with FA Cup win

The challenge now for the Arsenal manager now is to build on the FA Cup victory with a sustained title challenge next season, writes Richard Jolly.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wengerholds the FA Cup trophy during a victory parade after Arsenal won the FA Cup final against Hull City at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, in London May 18, 2014. Andrew Winning / Reuters
Arsenal manager Arsene Wengerholds the FA Cup trophy during a victory parade after Arsenal won the FA Cup final against Hull City at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, in London May 18, 2014. Andrew Winning / Reuters

This is as good a time as any to revisit the thoughts Piers Morgan posted on February 16, 2013. “Wenger OUT. Now,” tweeted the professional self-publicist and Arsenal fan.

That is typical of the misplaced sense of entitlement among supporters who think their team deserves success, whereas, presumably, his counterparts at smaller clubs do not.

That particular knee-jerk reaction followed Arsenal’s surprise 1-0 loss in the FA Cup to Championship side Blackburn Rovers in the fifth round of the competition.

In pictures: Arsenal beat Hull City wo win the FA Cup

Sixteen months later, Arsenal are the FA Cup winners. Their season has been a success. They have attained their highest points total in six years and won their first silverware in nine.

In a season of managerial change – there have been 12 departures in the Premier League and there may be more before competitive football resumes – there is something reassuring about the sight of Arsene Wenger celebrating at Wembley Stadium.

The division’s longest-serving manager exerted a revolutionary impact upon his arrival in 1996. Now he stands as proof that change is not always beneficial.

This has been the season when Arsenal expanded their horizons. They smashed their transfer record to sign Mesut Ozil last summer.

They were unashamedly ambitious, eschewing the Mourinho-esque approach of pretending to be perennial underdogs.

They led the Premier League for 128 days and are justified in wondering if the trophy they paraded around North London yesterday would have been the most prestigious in England, but for the thigh injury Aaron Ramsey sustained on December 26 against West Ham United.

Instead, the Welshman delivered the FA Cup. It prompted Wenger to rebuke the electorate of professional footballers, who had omitted Ramsey from the Professional Footballers’ Association’s Team of the Year.

The central midfield berths were occupied by Yaya Toure and Steven Gerrard, men who had superlative campaigns themselves, but the point is that Ramsey has graduated to their rank.

He is a reason why generalised criticisms of Arsenal are invariably incorrect: some players stall in their development, but others realise their potential under Wenger’s guidance.

Ramsey has kicked on, just as Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie did before him.

Significantly, and in a measure of any elite player, Ramsey produced under pressure. His manager suggested that a loss to Hull City on Saturday would have been “a major setback”. If anything, that was an underestimate.

It would have been the most crushing blow of his 18-year reign; far worse, for instance, that the triptych of thrashings at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea this season and, because they were so close to that elusive honour, much more damaging than losses to lowlier clubs at earlier stages of competitions.

It is rare that victory brings joy and relief in such similar but sizeable measures. It is unusual, too, where both teams have such grounds to believe they deserved to win a cup final.

Hull’s set-piece prowess and brave defending, coupled with their excellent game plan was admirable in the extreme. While few credit manager Steve Bruce with tactical subtlety, it should not be forgotten that he outfoxed Wenger with his use of three centre-backs and a midfield diamond.

Arsenal’s response was notable. They first lost a final and then won it. It was understandable, then, that Wenger spoke with pride of his side’s “special spirit and togetherness”.

This is a team with an evident unity. The challenge now is to add more solidity in those pivotal away games and quality in attack.

Olivier Giroud’s 22-goal campaign was embellished with a delightful assist for Ramsey’s winner and Yaya Sanogo provided an injection of enthusiasm at Wembley, but the fact remains the Frenchman has yet to score.

The safe outlook for the 2014/15 campaign is that, as usual, Arsenal will maintain their spot in the top four in the league.

The task is to sustain a title bid. Wenger referred to the FA Cup win as “a platform”. Arsenal can gaze down on the trophy-less while looking to clamber to the next level.

sports@thenational.ae

Published: May 18, 2014 04:00 AM

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