Arsenal thumped Aston Villa 4-0 to retain the FA Cup, catapulting the Gunners to an English record 12th FA Cup trophy, making Arsene Wenger the joint most successful manager in the competition with 6 of those titles, and becoming the first team to win consecutive FA Cups since Chelsea in 2009-2010. But more than just records, this was a cup which overflowed with the narratives of the season.
This win was the culmination of a season’s work. Much has been made of Francis Coquelin nailing down the starting spot in the defensive midfield role and as well there has been a lot of speculation over whether dropping Wojciech Szczesny for David Ospina dramatically changed the team.
There is no question that Coquelin and Ospina are conservative players and that their reserved nature forms a great base for Arsenal’s defence. But this season isn’t marked by Wenger drilling his team to play two banks of four. It should be remembered instead for Wenger changing the entire team’s approach to defence, adding a counter pressing style.
In their yellow and blue kits Arsenal looked like a pack of angry bees swarming any time there was a player invading their half. And like a bee kicking a foreign invader out of the hive they stripped the ball away and started a counter attack. It wasn’t uncommon at all to see three or even four yellow shirts around a lone Villa man with the ball.
Arsenal have spent all season working on this press. From the start there were signs that the King Bee wanted his men to pressure the opposition but that some players didn’t quite know what to do. Early in the season, against Hull, Jack Wilshere was so distraught that he turned around and yelled at Santi Cazorla to get up and help fill the gaps.
The Spaniard, however, took time to catch on, as did all of his team-mates. And that finally paid off here in the final as time and again the Gunners simply surrounded the Villa player and walked away with the ball.
Villa’s response was to resort to cynical fouling. Each time Arsenal took the ball from them, they would chase down the Arsenal man and foul, trip, or pull the player from behind. Villa were outclassed, their manager completely out of ideas, and they were simply grabbing at anything to try to keep a hold in this game.
It was pure joy for Gooners to watch as Arsenal dismantled Villa for 90 minutes. Turning defense into offense, the Gunners ripped open the Villa lines. Hector Bellerin played dangerous crosses, what Mesut Ozil saw must have looked like a fly’s vision as he chipped, back-heeled, and crossed into the path of the attacking players over and over, and Cazorla played like Andrea Pirlo, picking out forwards with his perfectly floated long chips.
Theo Walcott terrified Villa’s defenders and showed that he can play through the middle, Alexis Sanchez scored what could be the goal of the season — a moment of brilliance from Arsenal’s brightest star - and despite being far from a finished product, even Coquelin put in a shift with three dribbles to escape pressure, playing accurate long balls and looking to jump start Arsenal’s counter.
It’s been a long road for Arsenal to get this far.
The nadir of the season has to be when Arsenal fans stood on the platform in Stoke and abused Arsene Wenger. Raphael Honigstein even said that he “saw the logic” in such abuse and that “personal abuse might be the way forward.” As in the way forward to force Arsene Wenger out of the club. He was wrong and those fans were wrong: there was another way forward.
The other way forward included trusting the new fitness team to get the key players back and healthy. That way forward included trusting Wenger to change up his team’s preparation for the games. That way forward included waiting for the Arsenal players to figure out what Wenger was asking them to do. And this FA Cup win was the destination of that other way forward.
As an example of the change in preparation, Wenger knew his team are susceptible to crossed aerial attacks. He also knew that Christian Benteke is a beast in the air. Benteke did win 9 aerial duels today but, crucially, only 2 in the danger area. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny both pressured Benteke on all crossed aerials into the box and kept him quiet.
Szczesny was also clearly trained and ready for this aerial bombardment. From nearly the first minute Szczesny came out to claim whenever Villa tried a cross. He even had a powerful punch at 0-0 to beat Benteke to an open header. His aggression on crosses forced Villa to play them deeper and further away from the danger area. In the end, Szczesny didn’t have much else to do, Villa only registered two shots, both from distance and both blocked, but what he did have to do, he did perfectly.
And of course, player fitness has been a problem for a long time. Before this season, Arsenal would typically say that a player would be out for two weeks and have that turn into four weeks and then six weeks before the announcement that the injury was actually season ending. But for the first season ever Arsenal got players back before they were supposed to. And the players look more robust. Alexis in particular looks like he’s made out of some indestructible material, Alexmantium?
Arsenal’s fitness was so perfect today that Wenger was able to start Walcott (throwing a spanner in Tim Sherwood’s plans) and bring on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud, and Wilshere. All of whom have missed large portions of the season through injury.
In beating Villa 4-0 we saw exactly what a fully fit, prepared, and tactically adept Arsenal team can do. It was the complete performance, an example of what a little faith and a lot of hard work can achieve, and a fitting end to the season. But it’s not the end of the road for these players.
The future looks bright for this team. The last time a Wenger team won back to back FA Cups was the season before the Invincibles. I’m not foolish enough to predict that this team can go an entire season unbeaten but given the way they finished this season and the way they have taken to Wenger’s new style of play, I think they could be title challengers.
But as much as they could be title challengers, we know that they are cup winners. Congratulations to the club, the manager, the players, and the fans. For all you went through this season, the injuries, the uncertainty, adapting a new playing style, and fitting in new players, you deserved this.