Needing a win, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have more to lose
Nine years after they ground their way to an uncharacteristic victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup final in Cardiff, it is understandable that everything Arsenal have done in the build up to Saturday’s final against Hull City at Wembley Stadium seems to have been filtered through the drought.
For Arsenal this is not just about winning the FA Cup. It is about proving that they are still a club capable of winning trophies, about validating what would otherwise be a fairly mundane season and proving they are still one of the elite.
That creates a slightly strange dynamic, given last year’s winners, Wigan Athletic, were relegated, and that if Hull win nobody would dream that they were among the elite.
Arsenal, though, understandably, have become fixated on ending a record that has become a millstone.
The reason Jose Mourinho’s jibe that Arsene Wenger was “a specialist in failure” hurt so much was because it contained a clear element of truth.
Then there is the issue of Wenger’s future. He has still not signed an extension to his contract that expires this summer, and, although he has said that the result of the final will not affect his decision and, although the thinking is increasingly that he will stay, the uncertainty seems odd.
After all, he is 64. While it is hard to imagine him leaving football – he has no hobbies and few interests beyond the game – winning a fifth FA Cup and ending the drought could be the perfect way to say goodbye.
Given the portentous nature of some of his comments, it seems Wenger has at least considered his legacy and what the final means to Arsenal.
“No matter what the result will be, this club – and this is always most important – can deal with the consequences of any game,” the Frenchman said.
Back in 2005, nobody thought they were witnessing the end of an era. Arsenal had, after all, only a year earlier, completed a league season undefeated.
The tendency, in fact, was to be slightly sniffy, to wonder whether they had really needed to play so defensively in a 0-0 draw against Manchester United that they won on penalties.
Thierry Henry and Sol Campbell were both injured, which led Wenger to his negative approach, although in those days that still meant a front three of Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Jose Antonio Reyes, with Cesc Fabregas supported in midfield by Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira.
Those names, perhaps, tell their own story: Arsenal then had pace and power to underpin the neat technical football. Perhaps some of the key players were ageing, but that is still a side that had a physical aggression the present team lack.
It may be that, with the restrictions on spending Wenger has worked under (admittedly seemingly partly self-imposed), he has not been able to buy players who combine that physicality with the technique he so prizes, or it may be that, seeing the success Barcelona have had with small, neat players, he has sought to replicate that, becoming increasingly stubborn and idealistic.
Either way, a glance at the 2005 side, even without Henry and Campbell, raises a thrill in a way that a glance at the modern side does not: a game between them, you suspect, would be very one-sided.
And that perhaps hints at another truth: that this is only the FA Cup – Wenger own four of them between 1998 and 2005.
Arsenal have been derided for decorating a bus and putting together plans for an open-top parade, and while that may be unfair, surely rather than arrogance it demonstrates sensible preparedness.
Hull have also made plans but have faced less mockery – there is a palpable excitement, or at least a relief that they might be about to throw off the mantle of failure, about the club.
No trophy should be belittled and if Arsenal do win it they deserve their celebrations.
But what happens next season?
Have the problems been solved?
Is the transfer budget going to be spent? Just how big a step would this be, really, in taking Arsenal back to the sort of position they enjoyed a decade ago?
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Published: May 16, 2014 04:00 AM