Sanchez and Ramsey scored on Saturday to give Arsenal a record 13th FA Cup and make Wenger the most successful manager in that competition with a 7th title. The Gunners were complete underdogs before kickoff. I remember reading the Evening Standard on Friday and all their six pundits predicted a Chelsea victory. On the one hand, the Blues had no injured or suspended player and could therefore field a full-strength team. On the other, the Gunners were so badly crippled by injury or suspension that there was no defender on the bench.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
Wenger made a gutsy call by giving Mertesacker his first start of the season despite question marks over the match fitness of the German centerback. Koscielny’s suspension, Gibbs’ illness and injuries to Mustafi and Paulista also forced the manager to use Oxlade-Chamberlain as a wingback on the left flank. The key for Arsenal was to avoid playing a high defensive line that could expose Mertesacker’s lack of pace.
Tactically, the Gunners annihilated Chelsea’s strengths by using the same 3-4-3 system as Conte. They met twice in the Premier League this season. Arsenal thrashed Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates stadium in September when both sides were playing with four defenders at the back. Conte then switched to a back three to beat the Gunners 3-1 in February. At that time, Wenger was still hesitating between his favored 4-2-3-1 formation and a more industrious 4-3-3 system. Those Premier League games became irrelevant on Saturday since the FA Cup final was the first meeting between Conte and Wenger in which both played a back three.
I wasn’t optimistic before the game. I thought Arsenal would be punished for Mertesacker’s lack of pace and Holding’s inexperience. My only hope was the 2-1 win over Manchester City in the semifinals. Maybe we could win if the Blues missed their chances and the Gunners converted theirs. In the end, Arsenal showed more desire than Chelsea, making 23 tackles to 20 and 17 interceptions to 13, according to the club’s website. The scoreline was quite misleading. The Blues were so badly outplayed that nobody would have complained if the Gunners had won 4-1 or 5-2.
Ramsey’s late runs
Arsenal capitalized on a spell of domination in the opening minutes to open the scoring with a controversial goal. Sanchez charged down a clearance from Kante and the ball hit the Chile striker’s arm before landing at the feet of an offside Ramsey. Luiz and Cahill froze while Ramsey let Sanchez take his chance. Sanchez flicked the ball past Courtois with the outside of his boot to put the Gunners ahead after three minutes.
The controversy was not so much about Ramsey’s offside position, since he didn’t play the ball, but about Sanchez’s handball. You can argue that Sanchez was simply trying to protect his face and that the handball was therefore unintentional. It’s not the first time that a referee has allowed a goal to stand despite a handball in the buildup. Trezeguet scored a similar goal in France’s 2-2 draw with Croatia at the Euro 2004.
Sanchez created the winning goal in the 79th by releasing Giroud down the left wing. Giroud made a cross for Ramsey, who headed the offering into the bottom corner. The understanding between Ramsey and Giroud made the difference on that play. Ramsey’s deep runs are hard to track for any defense. Kante lost track of Ramsey, who was able to find some space between Luiz and Alonso inside the box.
Chelsea struggled to mark Sanchez and Ozil because they have a lot of freedom in Wenger’s 3-4-3 system. As inside forwards, Sanchez and Ozil can find space between the centerbacks and the wingbacks. They can also drop back to exploit the space between the centerbacks and the midfielders. The main drawback of that formation is that Sanchez and Ozil can sometimes be isolated if there’s no support from the wingbacks or midfielders. That explains in great part their high turnover rate. Sanchez had 11 turnovers and Ozil 6, more than any other player according to whoscored.com.
The reason why Sanchez and Ozil are considered world-class players is their reading of the game. They can see and make the right pass even under pressure. Sanchez initiated a counterattack in the 55th with a cross-field pass to Bellerin, who failed to find two Gunners at the far post with his cross. The Chile striker also slipped a through ball to Ozil, whose chip was cleared off the line by Cahill in the 16th. It was a good effort since Ozil hit the ball with his weaker right foot. In the closing minutes, Giroud picked out Ozil, who cut inside Azpilicueta only to strike the near post.
Ozil finished the game with 3 key passes and worked harder than usual. The Germany playmaker made 2 tackles compared to none for Pedro and Hazard. He also played a key role in Arsenal’s passing game with 65 passes, second behind Xhaka’s 73. By contrast, Hazard made only 35 passes, fifth behind Azpilicueta, Luiz, Kante and Cahill in the Chelsea team. Sanchez made no tackle but disrupted the Blues’ passing game with 3 interceptions, tied with Monreal and Bellerin for the most by an Arsenal player.
Up front, Welbeck struggled with his finishing. He met a corner in the 19th for a header that crashed against the far post. Then Welbeck took a pass from Bellerin in the 30th and was denied by Courtois from a tight angle while a cross to Ramsey for a tap-in was the better option. On the bright side, Welbeck worked his socks off to cover Sanchez or Ozil when they were stuck high up the pitch. Giroud came off the bench in the 78th to set up Ramsey for the winner.
Ramsey has received a lot of stick this season and much of it was not deserved. First, injuries have marred his season. Ramsey never really had a good run of games to find his groove. And second, the few times Ramsey was fit, he had to play in a dysfunctional team. It’s only last month against Middlesbrough that Wenger found the right balance between defense and attack with the 3-4-3 formation.
In my eyes, Ramsey was Arsenal’s best player at Wembley. Ramsey didn’t get off to a good start by collecting a yellow card for pulling back Pedro in the ninth minute. But he grew into the game and was unlucky to chest the rebound against the post after Welbeck hit the woodwork in the 19th. Ramsey finished the game with 0 turnover and a passing accuracy of 95.1%, the highest percentage among the starters. He also made 2 interceptions and won 60% of his duels and 2 of 3 tackles for an outstanding overall performance. Kante, Xhaka and Matic had a lower percentage for duels won, according to the club’s website. Xhaka’s focus on the defensive tasks allowed Ramsey to make his trademark late runs in the box. The Switzerland midfielder tested Courtois with a long-range volley in the 32nd.
The Blues were surprisingly lethargic in the first half. Maybe they took their foot off the pedal after celebrating their Premier League title. Chelsea played with more purpose in the second half and equalized after Fabregas replaced Matic in the 61st and Conte sent on Willian for Pedro in the 72nd. Somehow, Moses hurt the Blues’ chances by receiving two yellow cards. The first one was for a cynical foul on Welbeck in the 57th and the second resulted from a blatant dive to win a penalty in the 68th.
Holding as the weak link
Arsenal showed a lot of solidarity at the back to frustrate Chelsea. One defensive play in the 15th set the tone for the game: three Gunners united their efforts to block a shot from Costa. Mertesacker was dominant in the air, winning 5 duels. Only Cahill did better with 6, according to whoscored.com. On the ground, Monreal relied on his reading of the game to win 4 of 4 tackles, the most for any Gunner.
The wingbacks, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Bellerin, contributed defensively to keep Pedro and Hazard relatively quiet. Pedro still managed to get two chances by finding some space between Monreal and Mertesacker in the 39th and then between Ramsey and the centerbacks in the 59th. But each time Pedro missed the target.
In his return from injury, the Ox ran out of gas in the second half and was replaced by Coquelin in the 82nd. Bellerin was cautious in the first half and showed more audacity after the break. The Spaniard tested Courtois with a first-time effort from 18 yards in the 65th. Bellerin then led a counterattack in the 84th and dribbled past Luiz to fire a low strike wide of the far post.
Holding proved the weak link at the back. Chelsea’s best chances came from duels Holding lost. As Costa chased a long ball in the 28th, Holding tried to shield the ball for Ospina but was outmuscled by Costa, whose point-blank shot bounced off the Colombia goalkeeper. That was poor decision-making from Holding, who made a similar mistake against Manchester United three weeks ago by attempting a risky backpass instead of clearing the ball into touch. Holding was booked in the 53rd for an obstruction on Costa.
Chelsea’s equalizer in the 76th was the result of three Arsenal errors. First, Ozil lost possession to Luiz in midfield. Second, the Ox was late to stop Willian’s cross. And third, Holding was wrongfooted and struggled to change direction when Costa chested the ball down before pulling the trigger. TV Commentators claimed Ospina made a mistake because he got a hand to the ball but couldn’t keep it out. I thought that was harsh for Ospina because Costa’s 10-yard shot took a deflection.
The Blues nearly leveled in the 86th. Giroud sat too deep and failed to prevent Kante from hitting a ball over the top. Hazard beat Holding to the high ball and redirected it into the path of Costa, who chested the ball down and was denied by Ospina from 7 yards. Costa reacted more quickly than Mertesacker on that play. Ospina made two other key saves, stopping a long-range effort from Kante in the 49th and palming away a low strike from Moses in the 51st.
The Gunners have saved their season with that FA Cup title. Wenger couldn’t help having a snipe at the Arsenal board and the fans before and after the game. The French manager complained about the “lack of respect” and stressed how the “uncertainty” over his future affected the players. It’s now obvious that Wenger wanted some public backing from the board when the results were poor and the fans protested. In any case, that was a no-win situation for the board. If they had backed him, they would have antagonized the fans. By remaining coy, the board put Wenger under more scrutiny, which is what happened with Van Gaal last season at Manchester United. Ironically, both Wenger and Van Gaal finished fifth and won the FA Cup.
Papering over the cracks
Wenger also chastised the fans by stating that “once the game starts and you’re a fan, you stand behind the team.” He also added: “We played some games in a very hostile environment and I will never accept that.” It’s hard to disagree on that point. I think the best way for the fans to protest was to leave a lot of empty seats like they did against Sunderland. Demonstrations outside the stadium were OK but hostile chants and banners inside the stadium were wrong. What kind of player would like to stay in such a club?
The board will meet on Tuesday before announcing Wenger’s future. There’s some obvious tension between the board and the manager. It feels like the FA Cup is papering over the cracks of a disappointing season. The Gunners played 6 games and faced only 2 big teams (Manchester City and Chelsea) to lift the FA Cup, while Chelsea played 38 games and faced 5 big teams twice to win the Premier League. There’s no doubt that the Premier League is the more important competition and the 18-point gap between Chelsea and Arsenal is a reminder that the club needs more than one or two signings to contend next season. Wenger’s failures in the transfer market and in the assessment of the quality of his squad have been obvious in the past two years.
If the board has found a better manager, now is the perfect time to make the transition and maybe offer Wenger the position of sporting director. Otherwise, the board will have to say that it’s Wenger’s last contract in the hope that it could appease the fans with the obvious risk that protests could start again next season if the results are poor.