The number fourteen holds a particular significance at Arsenal over the next week or so. Heading into Sunday’s FA Cup final, Arsenal had the chance to secure their fourteenth FA Cup and in doing so, would likely see the future of captain and number fourteen Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang resolved.
The FA Cup has long been a mainstay of the Arsenal trophy cabinet. As the competition’s most successful team and a former manager as the most successful manager in the competition, it’s safe to say that Arsenal’s relationship with the FA Cup is a meaningful one for the club from N5.
The cup holds a particular significance for head-coach Mikel Arteta as well. Having lifted the trophy twice as a player for Arsenal, the Spaniard had the possibility of becoming the first person to win the FA Cup as a player and as a coach for Arsenal, since George Graham in 1993.
With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why Arteta set up the way he did, with only one change to the Arsenal side, Joe Willock dropped to the bench for the more experienced and tactically flexible Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
Sunday’s FA Cup final had the same ring to it as it did in 2017, when Arsenal beat Chelsea. Arsenal were again the underdogs, a disappointing campaign that was mercifully coming to an end and Chelsea who had over performed and looked to be adding something shiny to their own impressive trophy cabinet.
As two former central midfield number eights and former captains led their teams onto the pitch, it was odd to see no fans either side of Emiliano Martínez and Willy Caballero.
The match began with a couple of chances for both sides. Arsenal with the first as Maitland-Niles got the better of César Azpilicueta and crossed an enticing ball in for Aubameyang, who couldn’t guide his header as he would have liked. Chelsea threatened next, with Granit Xhaka having his pocket-picked by the superb Mason Mount who bared down on goal and decided to let one fly from distance rather than playing through former-Gunner Olivier Giroud, which forced an impressive, if somewhat Hollywood save from Martínez.
It was Chelsea’s turn to attack again, with Jorginho’s pass slicing through Arsenal’s almost non-existent midfield to find Christian Pulisic, who found Mount out wide, his pass was able to find Giroud, who’s delicate flick (something Arsenal fans will be all too familiar with) found Pulisic and the American was able to bounce the ball over the onrushing Martínez to give Chelsea the lead.
Arsenal’s links to Atlético Madrid midfielder Thomas Partey look all the more justified as Chelsea glided through Arsenal’s midfield of Dani Ceballos and Xhaka like they weren’t even there, putting Arsenal’s already fairly shaky defences comprising of Rob Holding, hero of the 2017 final, the dependable Kieran Tierney and former Chelsea defender David Luiz under more pressure.
Arsenal seemed to come out of their shell a bit after conceding. They knew they needed to attack and did just that. A lovely passing move was rounded off by a superb shot from Nicolas Pépé, who rattled the back of the net in what would have surely been a contender for one of the greatest FA Cup final goals, had the linesman’s flag not been raised. Arsenal were threatening and for Chelsea, the warning signs were ever present.
A few minutes later, Kieran Tierney managed to release Aubameyang down the left-hand side, a tactic that has been Arsenal’s go-to attacking plan all season, with the Gabon forward getting the better of Azpilicueta before driving into the penalty area and forcing the Spanish defender to foul, which resulted in Anthony Taylor promptly pointing to the spot.
Aubameyang’s record from penalties is good, but not amazing, Arsenal fans will remember only too well his penalty misses against Manchester City in his first season and against Tottenham Hotspur the season after. An 80% success rate from the spot is nothing to be sniffed at, but Aubameyang’s technique has always created something of a heart-in-the-mouth moment for Arsenal fans, but all fears were erased as the captain smashed home the equaliser, sending goalkeeper Caballero the wrong way.
From that point on, it’s fair to say that the equaliser had knocked the stuffing out of Chelsea and Arsenal began to dominate the game. Though fewer chances were created, Arsenal were quick to nullify Chelsea’s real attacking threat, Pulisic enjoyed less creative freedom and Mount was unable to pull the strings as he had in the opening twenty minutes.
The second-half heralded in new life for Chelsea who started well, Pulisic broke well from the halfway line with Arsenal’s defence too slow to catch the speedy American who bore down on goal and fluffed his lines. Replays shows that the American had pulled his hamstring whilst running and was unable to guide his effort goal wards before falling to the ground clutching his thigh.
Things seem to be going from bad to worse for Lampard and his side as Pulisic was the second Chelsea casualty after Azpilicueta had had to be replaced in the first half for the same injury.
From there, Chelsea committed men forward, which allowed Arsenal to break, with Héctor Bellerín springing forward, carrying the ball perhaps a little too far, which resulted in a collision with Andreas Christensen; Anthony Taylor allowed play to continue, which led Pépé to play the ball to Arsenal’s talismanic captain, who turned defender Kurt Zouma with an impressive bit of skill only to then dink the ball with his weaker left foot past an out coming Caballero to double both his and Arsenal’s tally.
Aubameyang’s finish was a marvel in of itself, in a post-match interview, Aubameyang told BT Sport that he knew Zouma and that Zouma would expect him to go onto his right foot, which led Aubameyang to score with his left, wrong-footing Chelsea’s French defender.
From there, Arteta knew that Arsenal needed to do what they had done against both Liverpool in the Premier League and Manchester City in the semi-finals, weather the storm and his team was helped by a bizarre red card decision for Mateo Kovačić, which saw the Croatian midfielder sent off for a second bookable offence, after once again bringing down Granit Xhaka. It’s perhaps a testament to how bad the decision was that even the most ardent Arsenal supporters conceded that the decision was beyond harsh.
As the final-whistle came, celebrations erupted from the Arsenal bench as Arteta ran onto the field to celebrate with his players. The achievement was no small feat, the win prolonged Arsenal’s record of being the most successful team in the competition and also made them the first team to ever win an FA Cup behind closed doors.
Owing to the restrictions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the usual post-match pleasantries of the runners up receiving their medals before the winners climb the hallowed steps to hold the trophy aloft had to be dispensed with. Chelsea would receive their medals off the field and Arsenal would lift the trophy on the field, a feat that was nearly ruined when Aubameyang comically failed to remove the trophy from its plinth and promptly dropped the world’s oldest sporting trophy.
The final means more to Arsenal than just simple silverware however. It adds a pretty hefty amount of glitter onto what has been an astoundingly poor season from the North London side in the wake of Unai Emery’s departure, but most importantly of all, it guarantees Arsenal European football next season, with the FA Cup providing an automatic buy-in to the Europa League with the added bonus that Tottenham Hotspur, who finished sixth in the league now have to participate in a season extending qualifying period to make the group stages, it also means that Wolverhampton Wanderers need to win the Europa League to qualify for any European football next season as Arsenal replaced them as the third English team in the Europa League.
For Mikel Arteta, it’s an impressive end to a stressful first eight months in the job. Arteta has had to contend with want away players, diva behaviour, a global pandemic, limited financial resources and injuries galore all while having the added pressure of this being his very first management role.
But the former Arsenal captain has more than shown his steel and proven what he can do. He has convinced Granit Xhaka, who looked all-but gone in January that his future remained in North London and he’ll be hoping that Sunday’s FA Cup triumph will convince Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to remain at Arsenal as well.
If Arteta can convince Aubameyang to stay, then Arsenal have a real chance of putting a dent in top four next season and will be able to entice more players to join them and before any transfers can be concluded, Arsenal need to have the former Borussia Dortmund striker tied down to a new deal, because if Sunday has taught us anything, fourteen seems to be the magic number for Arsenal.
26.) Emiliano Martínez
16.) Rob Holding
3.) Kieran Tierney (Kolašinac 90+13’)
23.) David Luiz (Sokratis 88’)
2.) Héctor Bellerín
8.) Dani Ceballos
34.) Granit Xhaka
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
19.) Nicolas Pépé
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
9.) Alexandre Lacazette (Nketiah 82’)
33.) Matt Macey
5.) Sokratis Papastathopoulos
11.) Lucas Torreira
24.) Reiss Nelson
28.) Joe Willock
30.) Eddie Nketiah
31.) Sead Kolašinac
57.) Matthew Smith
77.) Bukayo Saka
13.) Willy Cabellero
28.) César Azpilicueta (Christensen 35’)
15.) Kurt Zouma
2.) Antonio Rüdiger (Hudson-Odoi 78’)
24.) Reece James
17.) Mateo Kovačić (S/O 73’)
3.) Marcos Alonso
19.) Mason Mount (Barkley 78’)
18.) Olivier Giroud (Abraham 78’)
22.) Christian Pulisic (Pedro 49’)
1.) Kepa Arrizabalaga
4.) Andreas Christensen
7.) N’Golo Kanté
8.) Ross Barkley
9.) Tammy Abraham
20.) Callum Hudson-Odoi
29.) Fikayo Tomori
33.) Emerson Palmeri