That all depends on your perspective, and, of course, we actually have to lift the trophy, no mean feat against a Chelsea side that won the league title at a canter and seem well poised for the domestic double.
We can trot out the statistics and perhaps history is on our side. With a win–the club’s third in four seasons–Arsenal would once again edge ahead of Manchester United in the total tally. Both clubs have won the FA Cup 12 times and this would be lucky number 13 for Arsenal. Manager Arsene Wenger has lifted the trophy a record six times–alongside George Ramsey’s similar total–even if the Aston Villa manager won his six over 37 years, lifting it for a final time in 1920. Wenger needed less than 20 years to win his half dozen. Lucky number seven would see Wenger stand alone in that department.
Wenger, of course, manages in the modern era and the domestic cups are considered consolation prizes these days. Over his tenure, as he delivered Champions League football with top-4 league finishes, the importance of the FA Cup has diminished. Like it or not, the money and prestige of competing for the top European cup has become the bigger prize. This season, for the first time since 1998, Arsenal are on the outside looking in. 75 points in the league is a very respectable return, but it wasn’t enough–especially as Chelsea turned in the highest winning total in over a decade, 93. Stopping them from taking a domestic double would be very nice indeed, but would it be enough to save Wenger from the ire of disappointed Gooners? Would it be enough to keep him and some of his best players from seeking greener pastures–and Champions League football–elsewhere?
These debates must go on hold until after we win the cup, hardly the easiest task despite a very nice run-in which saw Arsenal win eight of nine matches after switching to a three at the back formation, conceding just six goals over that stretch. It was just such a switch from Chelsea’s first year manager, Antonio Conte–ironically, after an early season loss to Arsenal–that turned their season around in even more impressive fashion. After the 3-nil defeat at the Emirates, Chelsea won their next 13 league matches to distance themselves from the chasing pack, the first six without conceding a goal.
It was a remarkable recovery and many players benefited from the change in formation. With a spine of David Luiz–usually flanked by Cesar Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill–N’golo Kante and Nemanja Vidic in midfield and Diego Costa up front, several Chelsea speedsters, including Pedro, Victor Moses, Marcos Alonso and Eden Hazard flourished in the wider positions. Conte’s rejigging, like Wenger’s later in the season, was expedient at first but then allowed for more expansive football with a measure of attacking verve.
In recent matches, Chelsea have conceded more goals (13 in their final ten matches) but they were still able to put the title to bed with a couple games left to play, turning their focus more towards how to celebrate the title. It all culminated in the gaudy substitution of their team captain, John Terry, in the 26th minute of his last game for the club, to match his shirt number. It was stomach turning stuff for Gooners who have had to endure his self-aggrandizing antics over a long and torturous career. Memories of him crying over his missed penalty in the Champions league final or being knocked senseless by the foot of Abou Diaby in the league cup final are happier ones for most Arsenal supporters. Repeating those sorts of scenes in this final–and emerging with the victory–would go a long way towards soothing many a long suffering soul wearing the red with white sleeves.
How can Arsenal do it? In addition to facing a formidable Chelsea team–Terry will surely only get a bench seat–Wenger faces his own problems with few bodies available in central defense. The FA has denied the appeal of Laurent Koscielny’s red card from the final league match of the season so the man who wore Arsenal’s arm band for most of the season is out. Gabriel Paulista hurt his knee in that same match and cannot play. Question marks also hang over Skhodran Mustafi and Kieran Gibbs. The former missed the final league match due to illness which some are claiming was an aftereffect of a concussion. Gibbs missed out with a thigh injury and neither were spotted in the final training session before this match. Thigh issues have also affected Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who has missed three matches on the trot and Alexis Sanchez who has soldiered on–and scored four goals in those same three matches–but has been seen clutching at his own thigh on several occasions. Given all these issues, team selection will be a headache for Wenger.
While some are suggesting that the defensive injuries might force a return to a four man back line, I don’t think Wenger will opt for it, especially if Mustafi cannot play. Simply put, pairing young Rob Holding and our team captain, Per Mertesacker–having only played as a substitute in the final pair of matches after sitting out the entire rest of the season–while pushing the full-backs into their more expansive attacking and defending duties would put too much strain on the center two. Instead, I believe it will be a back three of Holding, Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal with Hector Bellerin and Gibbs as our wingbacks. Although David Ospina was our “cup-keeper” this season, Petr Cech started the last two FA cup matches so I believe Wenger will let Cech play against his former club. Hopefully, such a set-up allows Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey room to move the ball in central midfield, along with Mesut Ozil and Alexis who will nominally start as wide attackers. The only real question–in my mind at least–is who gets the call to lead the front line. Olivier Giroud was the answer in the previous round against Manchester City although we looked far more effective when Danny Welbeck came on as a substitute. Here then is my list of the team I believe Wenger will choose:
Substitutes: Ospina, Coquelin, Elneny, Iwobi, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Welbeck
We should remember that–like in the semis–this is a match that could go 120 minutes so substitutes could play prominent roles and long stints. If Gibbs cannot go, the Ox could switch sides and play as a left wing-back and offer support to Bellerin, Xhaka and Ramsey with their midfield and tracking back duties. If we could stake ourselves to a lead, so too could players like Coquelin and Elneny off the bench. If we need goals, Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi and Welbeck (or Giroud if DW starts) might be the men for the job.
To me, this FA Cup feels different. Maybe it’s because of the strength of the final four teams (four of the top five league finishers), maybe it’s because of the two finalists and the differing trajectories of their seasons. Arsenal are clearly the underdogs here, their long-time and under-fire manager taking his beleaguered bunch into battle against a revived Chelsea with a younger and more exuberant (overbearingly so, at times) first season manager poised to take them even higher. The romance of the cup is all about upsets, however, and Wenger and Arsenal’s–if they can pull it off–would be a shot of redemption the club sorely needs.
Go on then…