I just don’t think you understand

Wembley Stadium

Wembley Stadium

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

What a day, what a performance, and if anyone over the last few years has ever said to you: ‘Think how good Arsenal could be if they played to their full potential’, simply point them to Wembley Stadium, 27th May 2017.

No shrinking in the face of the big challenge here. In the white heat of a cup final against the champions, a match few expected us to win (not least me), we pulled our best performance of the entire season out of Arsene Wenger’s moth-eaten magic hat. He clearly said, “I’m having that”, and have that he did.

Our motley back line held firm for all but one moment. Our midfield was in control and high-energy, and going forward our pace caused considerable problems.

I’m not going to run through the whole team, because to a man they were magnificent, from the evergreen Mertesacker (an inspiration on and off the pitch) through to the fizzing dynamism of Ramsey and beyond to the irrepressible Alexis.

What got me out of my seat was the way we broke with such menace. For too long (and too often) we’ve watched as Arsenal ping it upfield then get bogged down. But on Saturday, with extraordinary regularity, we went for the jugular with our directness and pace. It was genuinely exciting football, and a reminder of the sheer excitement it can bring when all the elements come together. It hasn’t been like that enough this season. But – ah yes – that’s how it can be.

It was a final that just had it all, to be honest. A hot May day, two big teams contesting it, a bit of controversy right at the beginning, a hatful of chances and a winning goal only several minutes after the equaliser. An embattled manager proving a point against a manager whose stock couldn’t be higher.

And then there was the build-up, with that special tingly pre-cup-final atmosphere that is palpable but hard to explain. Nerves, excitement, anxiety. Fans and friends from far and wide.

It baffles me that some seem so willing to denigrate the FA Cup – the most important domestic cup competition – while simultaneously complaining about clubs celebrating getting into the top four as if it was a trophy.

Let me clear this up. The FA Cup is a trophy; getting into the Champions League is not. I would rather have an FA Cup win over getting a place in the Champions League any day of the week, frankly, and not just because we’re very good at one and very bad at the other.

Anyone who was at Wembley, and all those watching in pubs or at home with friends – feeling the highs and the lows, the swings and the roundabouts, the tantalising prospect of elation and of real success – will surely agree.

And finally to Wenger, the seven-times-FA-Cup-winning elephant in the room. All but the most curmudgeonly will grant Wenger the respect and gratitude he deserves for an unparalleled achievement. The team rose to the occasion and showed us what it can do. He got it right.

I’m well aware this muddies the water for some, myself included. But I suspect it has calcified the thinking of the man who pulls the strings, Stan Kroenke, and for all the recent obfuscation and whiff of power struggle, for all the deflection and uncertainty, I’d still be surprised if Wenger wasn’t here next season.

Well played Arsenal. You have made me happy.

*goes off to watch highlights again*

FA Cup final preview: Cech and balance

*eyes open at 6am*. It’s the cup final, baby! Best write a preview then.

Cup runneth over

Though the river marked ‘league titles’ ran dry many years ago, leaving an arid wadi of frustration, the one labelled ‘FA Cup’ continues to bubble along nicely.

In fact, while Wenger’s record in the League Cup final (P2, L2) and in European finals (P2, L2) leaves a lot to be desired, he’s made up for it in the FA Cup with an astonishing six wins.

The last time we lost in the FA Cup final – his only defeat to date – was in 2001, when quite frankly we woz robbed anyway.

That record comes under severe scrutiny today against Chelsea, who have Lazarused their way out of last season’s doldrums under the tutelage of the impressive Conte.

Wenger’s goodbye?

The two sides are coming at this from wildly different places, if we’re honest. For us, winning it would be a positive end to an arduous season where all the usual weaknesses took their turns to make an appearance. It could be Wenger’s justification for a new deal – or it could be a way to bow out on a high (and maybe the best chance he will now have to do that). We still do not know and it seems utterly bizarre that this could be Wenger’s last game, but we wouldn’t know and couldn’t say goodbye. (Spoiler: it probably isn’t).

For Chelsea, already riding the crest of a wave, it’s a chance to win their second double, so it’s safe to assume they’ll be sufficiently motivated.

Cech bounced

They will be favourites, a view reinforced by an untimely dose of defensive misfortune for us – added to yesterday with the news that Cech will be replaced by Ospina. A “slight knock” in training led to this decision, apparently, though it’s slight enough for Cech to be devastated. If this is Wenger being stubborn and keeping his promise to ‘cup keeper’ Ospina, it wouldn’t surprise me. But this kind of sentimentality is madness on a day where we’re already without Koscielny, Mustafi and Gabriel.

It could be a bluff. I’m a hardened cynic, but honouring a departing keeper’s promise does feel a bit textbook Wenger. Or it could just be that he’s genuinely encumbered by injury and is not fit to start, in which case maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I’ve got a lovely Per

In front of Ospina, who has not played for eight weeks, will be Per Mertesacker, who has not started a match in about 56 weeks. Rob Holding, who has made just 16 starts for Arsenal, will join him and Nacho Monreal, a left-back, will make up the three.
We’ll probably see Bellerin on the right and Ox or Gibbs on the left, and the rest of the team picks itself, bar striker. It should be Welbeck, but this is Arsene Wenger we’re talking about so don’t stick money on it.

But look, we’ve finally hit some form and it’s a one-off Wembley final, in glorious May sunshine, so while we won’t be everyone’s favourites, we’re hardly starry-eyed underdogs here.

Cup fever

I’ve always loved the cup, and the good fortune to have seen so many finals in my time does not lessen my love of it in any way. The atmosphere, the anticipation, the nerves, the mates coming together from far and wide; steeling yourself for joy or despair – it’s got the lot and I can’t wait.

For those of you who are either travelling or at a loss at how to fill the pre-match hours, warm yourself up by curling your lug-holes round Arseblog’s pre-match live podcast, (where we all scoff at the thought of Cech missing out).

The nerves are well and truly kicking in, so that’s your lot. Come on you rip-roaring reds!

Pinch yourself – yes it is Monreal

Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City

Imagine my surprise when Arsenal’s mojo – which I had prayed for in hope rather than in expectation before the match – emerged in the second half beneath Wembley’s arch.

There it was in full view in the shape of Chambo (the wing-back, do keep up) getting past his man time and again before crossing on a platter for Monreal (the other wing-back, scuttling forward) to lash home a volley with his right foot.

Or in the shape of Gabriel, all teeth and spring-loaded quiff, who had what must be his best game for Arsenal yet. Whodathunkit! Formerly possessing two left feet, he had a magnificent game.

And Rob Holding, just 20 and a Wembley first-timer, who’s waited patiently for most of the season for misfortune (Mustafi injury) and circumstance (back three experimentation) to combine in his favour. He took his chance again.

I pick these four out because they weren’t perhaps the players you’d expect to emerge from the shadows, and it’s not to gloss over some other fine performances. Because overall it was a game of real commitment and energy from Arsenal; manna from heaven in a season of strangely subdued predictability. Boy did we need it.

There was an element of luck involved, I won’t deny it. Both sides could have had a penalty, City hit the post twice and had a goal ruled out unfairly (easy to say in slow motion). The defending for their goal was iffy on several levels, but Arsenal kept battling and the more they did so the more fun it got. With a bit more ruthlessness, we could have had more. So yes, it was cathartic. Best of all, something clicked.

And counter to my expectations, here we are again in the FA Cup final – our 20th, and Wenger’s 8th. If someone ever tells you it’s not relevant or big enough, they’re lying. It never gets boring.

Yes, it’s only one game and we’re all too skittish and wizened to see it as anything else, but what a time to show the fight and nous needed. All the other stuff, we can put back in the box – for now – and just enjoy it. Because that is, after all, what it’s meant to be all about.

We’re in the cup final. Get in!

What do we want? Mojo. When do we want it? Now.

wingatefinchley
 

Yesterday I took my kids to non-league football for the first time, for a play-off hopefuls clash between my local team Wingate and Finchley, and the hipsters’ choice Dulwich Hamlet.

To say that it’s everything that Premier League football isn’t is to state the bleeding obvious. I’m not naive enough to think that there’s always a pot of gold at the end of the non-league rainbow, because standing with a few dozen others on a wet winter’s night would test the patience of many. But on a sunny spring day with a large travelling following (several hundred – the visitors swelled what is normally a home crowd of about 100 to a whopping 440), I can see the attraction. There’s a community spirit and a sense of relaxed enjoyment that is often entirely absent from football at the top level. For me and my two boys it was the sum total of £12 to get in.

The gulf between the players and the fans is about – well, about 6 yards. And despite a convincing 3-0 win for the Hamlet, both sides made the play-offs – Wingate and Finchley’s best season in their history. Hats off to both sides.

Now, this non-league eulogy wasn’t intended as a pointed barb at the Arsenal, though it did give me a pleasant contrast. But the sense of fun and excitement has withered somewhat in recent years for many – in particular this season for me – and how nice would it be to reconnect a bit?

Starting today, naturally. What better chance do we have than an FA Cup semi-final to make something of a hugely disappointing season? We might not be favourites, and rightly so, but it’s hardly a giant cognitive leap to see us getting something here, is it? Or is it?

Taking the game to City is not like climbing the Matterhorn: we drew 2-2 at home (perhaps fortunately) and lost narrowly away despite a poor performance.

To go from current form (average at best) to our true potential (home against Chelsea) won’t happen in one leap, and it might not happen at all, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask for a game of increased tempo at the very least – like yesterday’s semi-final. If we freeze in the headlights again and go through the motions in terms of application, we can forget it. I know it’s boring to have to even ask for basics like that, but that’s where we’re at.

Now, it’s all very well of me to take to the blog with a note of mild optimism, or to issue a flimsy call to arms, when I couldn’t even be bothered to go to the game myself. But that sort of encapsulates my current mindset: I want to believe, and I want to reconnect, but if the sparks aren’t there it’s hard.

Show me the sparks, Arsenal – and we can take it from there.

Come on you rip roarers!

Come on you rip-roaring yellows

It’s happening.

I somehow managed to avoid getting too nervous, too soon about today. In fact, it wasn’t until Thursday’s Arsecast that the fear slapped me in the face and the jangling belly kicked in. The waking up early. The inability to think about anything else.

That was compounded last night by a whistle-wetter or two with some of the usual online reprobates. There were people who’d flown in from LA, from New York, from Montreal: guys who’ve never seen Arsenal in a cup final, high on nerves and anticipation, wide-eyed and happy.

And that’s the FA Cup final right there, for me. A massive day, different to all the others; hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it. I absolutely love it. I try to soak it all in, but end up forgetting most of it. Having won it a lot, and coming this far two years running, doesn’t mean the feeling changes one iota. For me, the FA Cup final is a glorious day. Always was, always will be.

I want Theo to start, but I think Giroud will. I’d like Sir Chez to start, but I think Ospina will. But all of this is out of my hands.

Time to head to Wembley, gulp in the atmosphere and wrestle with my inner anxiety.

Come on Arsenal.

May the best team win. So long as it’s Arsenal.

Where’s Wally? He’s right bloody here, that’s where

Arsenal 4-1 WBA

Walcott’s pootled along this season, slowly recovering his potency – oh so slowly – not always convincing on his infrequent forays off the bench, and nobody would have given him a cat’s chance in hell of making the starting eleven for the cup final on Saturday.

Until yesterday.

As timing things to perfection goes, that was straight from the It’s Up For Grabs Now handbook.

Theo was phenomenal, playing through the middle, causing absolute havoc. If he’d spontaneously combusted towards the end of the first half I don’t think anyone would have been massively surprised. He was that hot.

I’d say the general view is that Giroud will start, but I’m not so sure. Compare and contrast yesterday: when Giroud came on he looked languid and tired, much as he has done for the last handful of games. Walcott was the polar opposite. If you were picking the cup final side on form, you’d have to play Walcott, wouldn’t you?

It reminded me of the game he got injured against the Totts. Almost everything he touched turned to goals – that first one was just outrageous from that angle. It was, as my nephew says, ‘toast and meatballs’.

The second was less Hollywood but more deft, a shimmy then a smart finish, and by this point there was no stopping him.

The third, a tap-in, sealed the deal. I’d like to think I could have scored that one but the reality is I’d have been 50 yards back with my arms on my hips, searching for my inhaler, as red as a beetroot.

Wilshere was equally as convincing, though I’m not sure he has as good a chance of starting as Walcott does for the simple reason that the player he’d need to displace – Ramsey in all likelihood – is himself playing very well. Welsh Jesus hit the bar twice when he came on, a gentle reminder that Wenger is going to need to double-dose on Anadin ahead of picking his midfield.

As for his goal, it was a rising rocket. Vieira v Newcastle in 98. Goals don’t get much better than that.

The second half was a non-event by comparison, but that always happens after first halves that scintillating. Plus, who wants to get injured ahead of the cup final?

Everyone else contributed to the spectacle, with the only worry being the form of Ospina. He did not cover himself in glory either for the Baggies’ goal or for the fumbled long-ranger. Can Szczesny expect a call? I can’t see it. He’d surely have had a warm-up game first. The relationship there is irrevocably broken.

Overall, pretty much the perfect way to end the season, a return to goalscoring form after a mini-drought, and some lovely, lively and convincing auditions for the big one on Saturday.

WARNING: POINTLESS LINE-UP CONJECTURE IMMINENT.

My mind is racing to Saturday already. Don’t lie to me – yours is too. How would I line up for the final? Based on form (and in Ospina’s case, other factors) I say Ospina, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Bellerin, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla, Ozil, Sanchez, Ramsey, Walcott.

Sorry Jack, sorry Olivier. Some amazing potential stories in that line-up though, if it came to pass. The rise of Bellerin. Monreal displacing Gibbs. Coquelin the phoenix from the ashes. Walcott coming from nowhere.*

*But what do I know. Plus, I reserve the right to change my mind between now and Saturday.

I can handle a whimper as long as there’s one last bang

When we lost to Swansea ten days ago I detected a whiff of endofseasonitis. We’d already qualified for the Champions League and the title was long gone – dusted, boxed up and packed away. We lost and we weren’t great.

All it takes is for a few percent of the usual performance to evaporate for what we’ve seen over the last three games to occur. Not horrendous, but not very good either. Too predictable and a bit slow of body and mind.

I know that the difference between third and fourth is not to be dismissed, nor is the notion of finishing one place higher than last season something to look down at, but once that Champions League qualification had been reached, maybe a little bit switched off.

Feels that way. I suppose it’s a bit like being a marathon runner. Those last few miles are the hardest. (I don’t know this of course, as I’ve never run one. I have eaten one, but that’s as near as I’ve got).

It explains why teams that are imperious until the point of winning something often end up losing straight afterwards (and it makes Arsenal’s 2004 achievement – to not lose having won the title with four games to spare – all the more admirable).

So all of this, despite my frustration last night, I understand. I just hope that this dip in form – goals are suddenly nightmarishly hard to come by – can be shaken off for the cup final.

I’d like to think our recent appearances there have inured us to such whimsical Wembley form. But ‘Wigan’, ‘Hull’ and ‘Reading’ are three words that will point to another truth: that playing a cup semi-final and final is not remotely predictable. Arsenal don’t do it that way.

All fingers point to it being anyone’s game. But at the very least, we need to find a way of rediscovering some mojo and some of the technical silk that we have seen since the New Year. We look leggy and a bit dulled.

Wenger’s worried we could be fatigued for the final. It’s easy to see why. I get why he’s played the same players, but there’s little to gain from doing that on Sunday. Giroud is dead beat. Alexis is running on empty. Ozil is making weary errors and even the metronomic Cazorla is misplacing passes.

Big changes on Sunday – I’d be amazed if there was anything else. It’s not like the preferred eleven is currently nailing it.

Squeezing into the final, Arsenal style

IMG_1382

Reading 1-2 (AET)

So it’s the FA Cup final for the second year running, Arsenal’s 19th of all time – a record. And if we go on to beat the Villa, it’ll be another record – 12 wins. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Still, the grin on my face is only just beginning to subside.

I’ll spare you a match report, given how late in the day this is. Suffice to say, the old pot brought the best out of Reading and made us go all stodgy. It has a habit of doing that, as do Arsenal. We’ll need to play a lot better that on 30th May, or we’ll be filing out of Wembley miserable.

But like Wigan last year, and countless anxiety-riven semi-finals before it, it’s the getting through that counts, and get through we did. Roll on the final – now I just need to strike it lucky getting a ticket.

But the buzz was very much alive and kicking before, as I thought it would be, and that’s the magic of the cup for me. It’s something intangible that lifts a match from the mundane to the special. I loved it all.

It was there in the pub we were in beforehand, it continued on the tube (which ended up being more song-fuelled than the ground was) and it was there as we chased a winner at 1-1.

That said, it was a bit odd where we were in Row 9 behind the goal. I’m not sure if it was the blue and white of the Reading colours, or the sun that bathed the other end of the ground, or whether it was simply because we were low to the pitch, but we couldn’t see a thing happening down the other end. That wouldn’t have mattered if all the goals had been down our end, but they weren’t, and the upside was that when Arsenal scored both their goals, the reaction was for the first few seconds a bit muted. We simply couldn’t see what was happening, and many of us ended up turning backwards to look at the screen. That split second it took to realise made the celebrations a bit muted. Odd.

Then there was the tannoy, and yes, I sound like an old git when I keep banging on about it, but it’s horrific. It’s so loud, so grating and so completely unnecessary that you can barely hear yourself think. I said it on Twitter the other week, but who actually asks for that? Is there a groundswell of opinion that demands it? Are they mimicking other sports in other countries? It genuinely puts me off Wembley, a ground I otherwise don’t mind.

But otherwise, a cracking day. Hats off to Reading, who played out their skin and didn’t deserve to lose it the way they did. But we’re there – and I can’t wait.

IMG_1398

And here’s a little something else for you.

Buzzing again: it must be the cup

Bah humbug to anyone who can’t get their rocks off at the thought of an FA Cup semi-final, whoever the opponent.

I’ve been bouncing off the walls all week.

Competing at the business end for proper trophies, the nervous flutter of the pre-match stomach, the fear and the anticipation: that’s the essence of football, it’s what it’s all about. Big moments like these are what you remember when you end up looking back. Where were you when Ramsey scored? You won’t have to think too hard about that, it’ll be etched in your mind forever.

Read this fantastic article from the Times’ George Caulkin and you’ll see how lucky we as Arsenal fans are compared to others. I think we know it, deep down, though in the heat of things it’s easy to forget.

Think of all the times you were elated or despondent at a football match, and I suspect many of those will have been in the FA Cup. For all the scheduling lunacy, the Wembleyness of the semi-final and the loud blaring music over the tannoys at inopportune moments, the FA Cup is still something I can’t help but stay in love with.

Kenny Sansom flat hat, food and beer, mates, Wembley Way. It’s a routine I love.

Let’s just hope we don’t repeat the complacency of Monaco, or freeze like we did at this stage last year against Wigan. I have a string of photos taken during that game when we were a goal down and the clock was ticking, and the misery and anxiety on people’s faces was amazing. So please Arsenal: don’t do it to us again.

Forget the stats though: this is Reading’s one shot at glory, and we all know how transient glory is. They have nothing to lose so it’ll be an intriguing match. Of course we have the form and players that should see us through, but football doesn’t always work that way.

I can’t wait.

Come on you rip-roarers!

Hashtag nervous.