We're on the road to Wembley in the FA Cup again, and as the only Arsenal manager to have lifted the cup more than once, Arsène Wenger knows just what it takes to go all the way in this competition.
In fact the boss has his eyes on winning the FA Cup for a fifth time, but the first since 2005. The Arsenal Magazine sat down to speak with Arsène recently about the world’s oldest domestic knockout competition, and whether cup football remains as relevant in the modern game.
You have a 100 per cent success rate in the FA Cup third round, with Arsenal progressing for 18 seasons in a row. What do you put that record down to?
Well, we always take the competition seriously. You are always aware that you can go out, but you also know that the first step in the competition is very important. You need a special focus to get really into the competition. Once you are in it, past the first game, you work to stay in it, but that first step can sometimes be the most dangerous one.
I’m lucky enough to have won the cup in every country I’ve worked in, and that magic moment when you realise 'it’s ours' is something very specialArsène Wenger
Do you still look forward to the FA Cup as much as you did 15 years ago?
Yes, I have been lucky enough to win it four times, but unfortunately we haven’t won it for a long time now, so in fact I’m even more focused to do well in this competition. I would love the Club to win the FA Cup again. Unfortunately sometimes the scheduling clashes with the Champions League. For example last season we had Blackburn at home in the FA Cup just before playing Bayern at home in the Champions League, so it was difficult to focus the attention completely on the Blackburn game. Hopefully we have learnt from that though, and this year we won’t be distracted.
What do people mean when they refer to the ‘magic of the cup’ and do you think that magic’s fading?
The magic of the cup is when you get close to the end of the competition - the dream becomes more real. We all had that dream as kids, we were educated by seeing people lifting cups. That became our dream and to make it come true is one of our targets. That’s what the cup is about - when you are a young boy you dream to lift the cup. I’m lucky enough to have won the cup in every country I’ve worked in, and that magic moment when you realise “it’s ours” is something very special. It makes everybody happy. Of course in the early stages of the competition, the focus is not exactly the same, but the closer you get to the final, the more the dream comes alive.
At what stage then do you allow yourself to think you might win the FA Cup?
I would say when you get to the quarter-finals. Then you think there are only two games to go before you are in the final, and until then you just want to get through each game.
How does the mentality change for cup games from the league? How different is knockout football for a player?
It is different because you have seen many times a team that doesn’t do well in the league does extremely well in the cups. That’s because the negative pressure of the league is lifted, and sometimes it can be an opportunity for a team to regenerate psychologically because they don’t have the negative pressure of bad results. Many times for us, it was just a case of using the cup to show that we are strong like we are in the championship, and transfer the confidence we had in the Premier League into the cup. Most of the time when we won the cup, it was in seasons when we had also done well in the league, and our cup run was no coincidence.
Do some players prefer knockout football, playing in the knowledge there is no second chance?
Yes, but I think cup football still reflects the overall quality of the team. Sometimes though, when you go into extra time you have players who you feel are capable of finding extra resources, or they have the calmness that is needed in a penalty shoot-out, for example. That can get you through a cup game, but overall, even if you are playing in special conditions in the FA Cup, you need to have the quality to go through.
Has rewarding the top four in the Premier League with places in the Champions League taken something away from the FA Cup?
Yes, maybe it has taken something away, but I believe the FA Cup is still something special. I don’t think it needs to conflict with the Premier League - you can finish in the top four in the league and win the FA Cup. It can conflict with the Champions League programme sometimes, that’s true, but overall it’s still something special in my mind.
The FA Cup is fantastically organised, but what I would think about is not moving Premier League games to make time for the FA CupArsène Wenger
Would you do anything to the FA Cup to shake it up? Introduce seeding for example?
No, not really. The only thing that I might change is the priority it has over Premier League fixtures. At the moment we postpone games in the Premier League later on in the season when they clash with the FA Cup. That can lead to unfairness in the league season. The FA Cup competition itself is fantastically organised, but what I would think about is not moving Premier League games to make time for the FA Cup. What I would do instead is move the cup game to midweek rather than the league game. I believe that sort of thing would be an interesting change.
Apart from winning it, what have been your personal highlights in the FA Cup?
The first time we won the cup, in 1998, we played against Port Vale in the third round, and that really showed me how tricky the cup could be. We played a draw at Highbury, then we had to go to Port Vale and the replay went to extra time and penalties before we won it. That was a special memory though, because it was a real old-fashioned cup tie where you had to dig deep, on a difficult pitch, to get through to the next round. That was a bit of a shock for me at the time - I started to find out about the FA Cup, and we were lucky to win that game in the end. That night I did not think at all that we would be able to win the FA Cup that season, because we only just went through, with a bit of luck.
How does the emotion of lifting the FA Cup compare with winning the league?
To compare them – the league is a slow process, you gradually get there and then you think, 'We have finally done it'. Whereas the FA Cup is an explosion - an immediate satisfaction. Everyone is on the same wavelength in the same game. It’s more sudden, more explosive and that’s a big difference. It’s more of an occasion, a special day out, going to Wembley, and it’s a matter of pride for everyone at the Club. It can also be a special occasion for families too - they can go to a final and support the club they love.
Read the interview with the boss and more in the latest edition
Finally, people in England like to think of the FA Cup as the best domestic knockout competition in football. Do you agree?
Yes it is, because it’s the most traditional. England have two qualities that are exceptional: firstly they created the competition, and secondly they maintained the traditions better than in other countries. You always feel that this is the country where the FA Cup has been the first competition. Going to Wembley for the final is always a traditional and special event.