When the final whistle blew and everyone connected with Arsenal Football Club celebrated, it was impossible not to feel pleased for Arsene Wenger. This has been an extremely difficult season for the Frenchman, who has probably received more criticism and been under more pressure than at any other point in his managerial career, but it was heartening to see him end on the campaign on a high with victory in the FA Cup final.
Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat of Premier League champions Chelsea on Saturday was fully deserved: the Gunners came flying out of the traps and dominated large chunks of the game, and on the balance of both general play and the number of chances created it was a completely fair result. It also moved Wenger clear of ex-Aston Villa chief George Ramsay and onto seven FA Cup triumphs, which is more than any other boss has won in the competition’s long and illustrious history.
Arsenal came into the game as underdogs, and it was not hard to see why. Chelsea, after all, had recently amassed 93 points on their way to the Premier League title, while Wenger’s men had not even managed a place in the top four and Champions League qualification. It was, quite frankly, difficult to see how the north Londoners could halt the well-oiled machine that Antonio Conte has created in his debut year in English football.
Yet that is exactly what they did – and more. This was not a backs-to-the-wall job from Arsenal, but rather a fine all-round performance which featured attacking flair, midfield control and, a handful of jittery moments aside, defensive solidity. The latter element was perhaps the most impressive given that Wenger was forced to select an unfamiliar back three of Rob Holding, Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal, the central member of whom was making his first start of 2016/17.
Arsenal’s fast start was rewarded with an early goal, Alexis Sanchez charging through to slot home as the Chelsea defence appealed in vain for offside. They were the better team for the remainder of the half and looked to be on the verge of victory when Victor Moses was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 68th minute; Diego Costa hit back soon after, though, and Chelsea – despite their numerical disadvantage – sensed an opportunity to turn the final on its head.
Yet Arsenal responded in ideal fashion, regaining the lead almost immediately through Aaron Ramsey, who headed past Thibaut Courtois after a fine pick-out from Olivier Giroud. That was enough for Wenger’s side to win the match, and it was clear from both the manager’s reaction and his post-match comments how much it meant to him.
“I think it’s down to the board members if I am the right man to lead this club further and for me to decide if I am the right man to lead this club further. It’s not about popularity, it’s about competence,” he told reporters when asked about his future, which remains unresolved, at his press conference at Wembley.
“I do [still believe I’m the right man to lead Arsenal]. You can’t make 35 years at the top level if you believe you’re not the right man to do the job.”
There is no disguising the fact that Arsenal have failed to progress in the manner they should have in the last few years, so it would be too much to call Saturday’s success a redemptive moment for Wenger. Even so, the 67-year-old’s sense of relief and elation will have been welcomed by all those who have the utmost respect for his contribution to the game we all love.