Too often after a big game, we reflect on what we could have done better. Who didn’t perform out there? What could Arsene Wenger have done differently? Why has this happened again?
But not today. Today, having watched the game back, it feels only fitting to give time to every single one of the Arsenal players that were on that pitch yesterday. They showed fight, desire, dogged determination and dare I say it, mental resilience. Simply put, it was a perfect day.
The decision to pick the Colombian over Petr Cech had many supporters concerned. Cech has been in much better form of late, even replacing Ospina in the semi-final while our ‘cup keeper’ was injured. In the first half, Ospina was largely a bystander as we controlled proceedings in midfield. After the break, he had more to do, and most of it he did well. Perhaps he could have done better with the goal, as Diego Costa’s effort lacked power, though it did take a slight deflection. If that could have been marked under ‘small error’, he made up for it with a vital save from the Chelsea goal scorer with five minutes to play. He got down low and crucially stopped the shot that Monreal was able to smash clear. It was a hugely important stop at a vital time, as a second equaliser here would have been extremely deflating. A word too for Cech, who, despite being disappointed to miss out, embraced his colleague at the final whistle, wearing a beaming smile to boot. A model professional.
Considering our new hero had not even ever been to Wembley prior to our semi-final with Manchester City, he sure does not look out of place at the stadium and in the biggest matches. He passed the ball intelligently yesterday and he even looked to have a great understanding with Per Mertesacker, which is amazing when you consider how little time the two have played together. He is still prone to the odd mistake – he was caught once yesterday when Costa tricked him into conceding a foul in a dangerous area – but he is so young that there are bound to be learning curves along the way. I thought he was a humble guy but then I saw a video of him singing his own Cannavaro song so now I’m not so sure!
In the week leading up to the game, we were told from anyone who’d listen how Eden Hazard and Costa would be licking their lips at the prospect of playing Mertesacker, as if was some two bob reserve player we’d recalled back from loan in an emergency. Yes, the German has missed the entire campaign through injury, but what many mainstream media contributors seemed to forget was the World Cup winner still has one of the most intelligent football brains in the league. In a back three, his much-maligned lack of pace is exposed less often, as there are less instances of covering a marauding full back, such is the support network around him. Yesterday he was a giant, beating Costa to almost everything in the air and using his gangly legs superbly too. He played like the true leader and club captain that he is and it was a performance to not just silence the critics, but embarrass them too.
Speaking of leaders, how about this Spaniard screaming at teammates with four minutes to play and then charging football and timing a challenge perfectly to blunt another Chelsea attack. His timing in almost every duel he was in was almost perfect. He knows when to pass, when to press, when to put a foot in and when to simply just smash the ball clear from goal. You get the sense that Monreal absolutely loves, and was born, to defend. Now with three FA Cup winners medal, no Spaniard has ever won more medals. He thoroughly deserved his yesterday following his body on the line display.
Offered energy and pace down the right flank all day long, and though his agent says Barcelona haven’t been in touch for a while, more displays like this one might unfortunately attract their attention again. In the first period he attempted to link with Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil a lot, but after the break he seemed to be afforded so much space, the team used him as an out-ball on at least three occasions when looking to break quickly. If we are being harsh, perhaps he could have done more with his two attempts on goal in the second half – one struck straight at Thibaut Courtois and one hit just wide of the far post. However, it was a cross with two waiting in the middle which disappointed most, as with numbers over, his deflected delivery being poor completed halted the attack. Still, Bellerin gets huge props for his celebrations and fan engagements at the end of the game. He clearly gets what a day like this means to all of us.
Picked at left wing back, this was rather a big occasion to make your debut in such a position. Crucially, he settled well, getting a number of early touches, making nice passes and taking on opponents. A couple of times he dribbled inside with the ball sticking to his foot, but his decision-making was not always too perfect. At least once, he should probably have struck a shot, then he delayed a pass to Sanchez, who moved slightly and possession was lost. Still, he got stuck in, as always and delivered almost unrivalled levels of energy, never once looking lost in his latest new position.
I am a fan of Xhaka and feel that some of the criticism – from non-Arsenal sources in particular – have been wide of the mark this season. Yes, he has picked up two stupid red cards, but the main argument has been that he has not controlled many games. Again, I disagree, but yesterday was an emphatic answer to such a statement. With N’Golo Kante an extremely able opponent, Xhaka went about his business with real class. He was composed in possession and a calming influence in the middle of the pitch. His range of passing was a huge asset, with his ability to recycle quickly and accurately key features in how be dictated the play. Like Mertesacker, this performance was one to silence the doubters after a difficult first season at the club.
When you’re a kid, scoring a late winner in a cup final is the dream you are never likely to achieve, so to do it twice is showing off a little bit really! I have always been pro-Ramsey, if he is used correctly, and alongside Xhaka, we have seen a marked improvement from the Welshman in the past two months. He was everywhere yesterday, keeping excellent discipline despite being booked after just eight minutes. Then, when we needed to win this final again, he stepped up once more. The goal is an intelligent one, as he is a fair way behind play when Sanchez feeds Giroud from the left. His run is the type Frank Lampard made a million times in Chelsea blue, sometimes against us, so it was lovely to see him burst in and head the ball in with such conviction.
There was a moment late on when the ball was played to Ozil down the right in an attempt to alleviate the pressure Chelsea were building. As the ball came, he dropped his shoulder, let the ball carry running on to Giroud and in doing so, took Alonso out of the game. Giroud won a throw in and we were able to run down some precious seconds. Now, that will not win any awards but Ozil is just so aware of the picture around him it is scary. He was superb yesterday, playing beautiful passes and making space for himself and others. Ozil glides around the pitch with such effortlessness that he looks half-arsed, but then you see him sprint and put in a crunching challenge on Hazard and you just have to smile. As I cheered that tackle, I thought about how much the pundits on TV would have hated that, as it would not fit the usual narrative. Like Bellerin, he should have scored at least once, probably twice and maybe thrice. Fortunately, it does not matter now.
If this was Sanchez’s last game for us, you cannot say he did not go down fighting. Naturally, he opened the scoring once again, setting the example for everyone else to follow. His goal was fortunate, with a handball and a strange non-offside being flagged. Personally, I feel Ramsey was interfering as he moved towards the ball, but credit to the Chilean for carrying on and playing to the whistle, unlike his opponents. He actually was not involved in many of our other best attacking moves, other than one wonderful pass to Ozil in the first half. Again though, his effort was unquestionable, and his desire to ensure his teammates are on the same wavelength is great to see. His pass to Giroud to set up the winner was fantastic too.
In my opinion, there was no decision to make here. Chelsea do not seem to love pace and movement against them, traits Welbeck offers in abundance, so his name in the line-up was a welcome sight. As expected, he pressed, he hassled, and he dropped deep and won crucial 50/50s in the middle in the first half as they looked to get into the game. When his header struck the post early on, it was unlucky, connecting well and heading away from the goalkeeper. Perhaps he could have made more of some of his half chances but overall, when he was replaced through sheer exhaustion late on, he more than deserved the resounding applause.
With Chelsea pushing and gaps appearing, the game was crying out for Theo Walcott. His speed and his tendency to score against Chelsea were both assets I felt were needed at that particular time. However, what do I know? Instead, Giroud came on, got into a wider position, put in a beautiful cross for Ramsey and we won the cup. Funnily enough, as Sanchez played the ball to him, I screamed how he should be the one in the central position, only for him to deliver an inch perfect ball that Ramsey could not miss from.
Came on to shore things up and was booked within a minute for dissent. I thought his arrival meant we would switch to a back four, but Coquelin somehow slotted in at left wing back and even danced his way past a couple of defenders late on. God loves a trier.
In the 94th minute, you either have to shoot and score, or shoot and fire it into the Arsenal fans behind the goal. We would have been happy with either. Cutting inside there was a really odd decision!
His hands were pretty much tied in terms of the starting line-up, but that is not to say Wenger did not do a great job at Wembley. He had to ensure the defence he had their trust, he picked Ospina over Cech, proving as such. He picked Oxlade-Chamberlain in an unfamiliar role and he gave Welbeck the nod to lead from the front. As I have said, I thought the change of bringing Giroud on was a strange one, which was not at all when it was vindicated within a minute. He played it perfectly and, whether he is continuing or not, this would have been the very best way to end this difficult season.
A lifelong Gunner in his late 20s, Joe can just about remember Bruce Rioch and insisting that his dad took him to away games because he had the lightning blue away kit. Quickly grew up to love Highbury and thanks the Arsenal squads of 1998-2005 for making schoolyard banter a delightful experience. Joe quit his job as a teacher last summer to work in the fantasy sports games industry and writes simply because he enjoys it.