by Matthew Wade
What does the Gunners’ FA Cup final triumph means for the club and its summer dealings?
So after a weekend where Arsenal won the FA Cup for a record 12th time, retaining the trophy in the process, and Le Boss became the joint all time cup-winning manager, all feels well on planet Gooner. Even the curse of yellow shirts in a final that has been going since the penalty shootout loss to Valencia in 1980 has been laid to rest. Not even May showers or the inevitable faux horror of the media at MC Wilshere on the mic could dampen spirits in North London.
With the team giving a performance that was a masterclass in how to approach a major final, with every player and the manager’s tactics outshining the opposition, it was an unusual feeling to be so relaxed watching Arsenal in a show-piece affair.
From the second minute onwards Arsenal were in the ascendancy, and never gave Aston Villa a sniff, whilst having the luxury to miss a few chances on the way.
It was exactly that level of performance and the minutiae within it that was so instructive for the inevitable conversations about the club’s summer business. As Lewis has already eloquently outlined, we saw a rare combination of team selection based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, deliberate tactical fluidity within the game, a well balanced line-up, and positive impacts from all three substitutes.
It was vitally important coming into the game to cement the promise of the last four months into something tangible as a concrete measure of the sense of progress that has been in the air. A defeat would have left question marks over the squad’s development and the furthered the club’s recent reputation as being big game chokers. To win so emphatically and with such confidence laid those doubts to rest and provides a great platform for next year.
That it was done with the selection of two fine players who had been on the outside looking in only makes it even sweeter. Anyone to have read my previous witterings here and elsewhere will know that I am a fan of both Wojciech Szczesny and Theo Walcott, in much the same way that I was convinced about Rambo even when he was struggling.
Both the Pole in the goal and our longest serving player (I know…sounds weird, eh!), have, for different reasons, stuttered in their development. To appropriate a turn of phrase from the USA sporting lexicon, both have most of the tools, but not necessarily the toolbox. Both frustrate the hell out of the fan-base, because most observers can see potentially very important players for us if they can just have the right mental adjustments.
It was good that Szczesny publicly shot down both his father’s unhelpful comments and months of ill-founded speculation about his future before the final, before largely nullifying Aston Villa’s tactics of hitting Benteke with long diagonal crosses. It was also heartening to hear Theo talking like a man who assumed he was staying after banging in a beauty.
People forget that despite some anonymous showings when being nursed back into the side, our number 14’s goals and assists to minutes ratio over the last three years is excellent. He’s not a man for all seasons (as it were) by any stretch of the imagination, but a quartet of him, Giroud, Welbeck and a quality finisher in the Eduardo mould would provide an excellent and flexible range of options. It’s also good news for the club that the classy experience of Rosicky and Arteta appears to part of next year’s plans. Two excellent players who can provide very useful tactical options if used intelligently.
As Wenger rightly said during post match and parade questions, for this group of players, continuity and cohesion is vitally important. The emergence of Coquelin and his big game temperament (as celebrated by Helen) and the redeployment of Cazorla into a roaming deep-lying playmaker has transformed the squad’s balance in midfield, and helped the back four play to its collective and individual strengths. This has been further enhanced by the form of Monreal and dynamic arrival of Bellerin. The return of a beefed up and more motivated Ozil has also helped the team develop more fluidity between the middle third and the final third, and created a chemistry that needs to be nurtured rather than thrown into flux. Perhaps more importantly, it has made possible a tactical maturity and pragmatism that hasn’t been witnessed regularly on the Emirates pitch since the injury cursed title challenge of 2007/08.
Such has been the strength of that central triumvirate, that last year’s star man Aaron Ramsey has been slightly relegated to a more peripheral role, albeit one with the freedom to get into the areas where he is most effective. With the return to fitness of Jack the lad, suddenly our midfield options look exhaustive and equally importantly, very flexible. At the back, we find ourselves with 2 quality options in each position, and with three or four able to play in more than one position if needed.
When Theo said that the current squad was as good as any he had been part of, there was no hyperbole. And it looks stable too according to Arsene:
“All our players want to stay here at Arsenal this summer. I have no concerns at all.”
With the likes of Sanogo, Campbell, Podolski, Jenkinson, Akpom, Gnabry and even dare I say it Diaby (!) all unable to get game time, it wouldn’t surprise to see Arsene playing the nightclub doorman as far as transfers are concerned: one in, one out.
Of course, despite Arsene’s protestations, there will inevitably be a summer of endless speculation about comings and goings. And this isn’t entirely without reason.
The club has stabilised both off the pitch and on it, and for the first time in almost a decade go into the summer appearing to have the mentality and numbers to challenge. The template for success has been laid down, but even the most optimistic supporter would question whether there is quite the level of quality to last the course for a Premier League or Champions’ League challenge.
In terms of depth, the only real concern is defensive midfield, where an injury to Coquelin would result in a dramatic drop off in quality. On top of that, it doesn’t make sense strategically to be so reliant on someone with less than a full season’s experience at this level. The sample size is just too small to be pinning the hopes of a title challenge on.
Beyond that, it’s all about quality and character. The point where The Gunners have set a new FA Cup winning record is also the point where Arsenal get to act like the european superclub they aspire to be. By that, I don’t mean the obscene lavishing of riches of the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea, PSG or Man City, where your bench warmers cost more than the squads of half your opponents. But rather more akin to Bayern and Barcelona where the policy is to continually recruit quality kids from around Europe and only buy first-teamers who are clear upgrades or address very specific needs and are long-term rather than short-term investments.
It will lead to an interesting and exciting time, as long as we keep realistic expectations. As Le Boss said when asked about Pogba or Bale;
“We would not get involved at that level for financial reasons. People forget that for years we had to sell our best players and that was a very difficult period. That is the reality. Since we are buying again, we are slowly coming back to a more competitive level.”
“You speak maybe about stratospheric numbers where we will not be involved.”
But, you look at the level below that, and anything is possible. In all likelihood this summer will see the departure of Podolksi, Campbell and a few kids for maybe £20m incoming, to add to the existing post Puma sponsorship pot.
The club has shown, even before the new TV deal, that it can and will spend £30-40m on the right player, and assuming we retain all the players that we want to, it is only really that second defensively minded midfielder that is an absolute priority. As I said recently, in an ideal world I’d like to see a top goalkeeper at his peak, a genuine winger and quality poacher who can also fill in on the left, but I can’t imagine we’ll see all of those, and that it may just be transfer gluttony on my part anyway.
But hold on to your hats, because we’re going to be linked to half of the top players in Europe, and what’s more exciting is that almost any of those links could be true.
All in all, it’s a good time to be a Gooner.