Ten Thoughts: FA Cup Final - Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

Photo: The Guardian

Now that there's a moment to reflect after vocal chords have been bruised, jumpy screamy celebrations have been done, champagne has been drunk, friends and strangers have been hugged and that warm, relaxed afterglow feeling that former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton would call "the cool of the evening" has settled in, I can only now begin to process in my mind that our Arsenal battered the ever-loving shit out of this season's rampant and deserved Premier League champions in today's FA Cup Final.

Honestly? The Chavs can bitch about that handball/offside goal all they like, but they're lucky we didn't run out of there 6-1 winners. Also, they can go get fucked. Start with Diego Costa, please.

And that, right there, is the beauty of this competition and why I love it so damn much. Over the entirety of a 38-match season, you get found out if there is any drop in the required levels. But, in a one-off knockout scenario, it turns out that you CAN fight City Hall. That's the secret. That's where the magic lives.

So, the inevitable hot takes you'll see about how this trophy is diminished or whatever-the-fuck about next season's Champions League, it all misses the point. This has not been a wonderful season for a multitude of reasons, but joy doesn't come in jumbo servings anyway. Football exists for moments like today - yellow ribbons worn as samurai headbands or corsages, smiles of childish glee, cares of the world forgotten for little fleeting moments, beer showers, and a 13th FA Cup trophy in the cabinet.

Absolute goddamn bliss.

1. I'll admit it - I was not optimistic before a ball was kicked this afternoon. I had said on the Facebook machine that I hoped that our boys fought hard and didn't embarrass us. While I will never say that you can't understand the game if you've never played it, the one thing that is hard to translate minus that direct experience is how much of the sport is played in the fields between the players' ears. Confidence is fleeting and unpredictable, so imagine the boost it must have been to be up 1-0 before the match was five minutes old.

Second admission - the goal shouldn't have counted. Not only did Alexis Sanchez handle the ball in the build-up, but Aaron Ramsey was indeed offside as far as the letter of the law goes. I've been studying to become a registered referee for those that don't know, and the key here is that while he didn't touch the ball and was not involved in Alexis' shot rifling past Thibaut Courtois' flailing leg, his presence alone is what made him offside. His proximity to the keeper meant that Courtois had to visually account for his presence, and again, as written in the laws, visual interference is still interference.

However, and this is a massive bloody however, I couldn't give half a shit. We have been victimized by preposterous refereeing decisions so much over the years, I can't bring myself to say anything other than "swings and roundabouts". It's about damn time we got the rub of the green for once.

Also: Play to the whistle, nimrods.

2. According to Wikipedia, the Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, built on the Greek island of Rhodes in 280 BC to celebrate victory in a war against Cyprus.

According to your intrepid reporter, the Colossus of Wembley is an Arsenal defender of German extraction, born in the town of Hannover in 1984 AD and celebrated victory in a football match against odious barbarians from west London.

Our entire defense played like titans today, but Per Mertesacker stood tallest of them all. It defies belief when you consider the scope: Our best center-half suspended for a rash tackle in a meaningless game. Another injured of his own doing in another reckless challenge in the same match. A natural left back performing with aplomb in the center. A kid we bought for like a million pounds playing like a top-class seasoned veteran. A central midfielder with a few games at right wing-back somehow doing a job at left wing-back. The more natural right wing-back recovering from a season-long malaise precisely when his best was needed. The much-maligned cup keeper taking over for the in-form starter and somehow pulling off a worldie save right at the end.

While Chelsea were not at their fluent best, this was still a side that boasted Eden Hazard, Pedro, Diego Costa and (later) Cesc Fabregas. They have made fools out of better defenses - on paper - then ours, but our lads had them in their pocket all day. Timely blocks, key interceptions, perfectly-executed sliding challenges, they provided exactly what was needed time and again to keep the blue hordes at bay.

In the fullness of time, I'll likely forget both of our goals. I'll definitely forget theirs. But, that defensive performance will be etched into my memory for as long as I live. Immense. Massive. Other related synonyms.

3. I find it necessary to spare a few words for David Ospina. Like many, I was apoplectic when news came out that he was taking the gloves from Petr Cech in this, our most important match of the season. Cech has been in stellar form over the last month, and I believe that sentimentality has no place when a trophy is on the line.

No one is saying that Ospina is the man for us over that 38-match slog of a league season. I'd go so far as to say that like Lukasz Fabianski before him, this should be thank you and farewell. I'd go even further to say that he was horrendous on Chelsea's goal, deflection or not, as that was a serious case of papier-mache wrist.

The final reckoning showed far more tick marks in the credit side of the ledger, though. He got down low brilliantly to save Victor Moses' low drive early in the second half. He gave up his body under severe risk of injury to keep out Costa in the first half. Countless times, especially in the last 10-15 minutes when a desperate Chelsea threw everything at us in one last furious outburst, the Colombian stopper was there to claim a cross and settle down the nerves.

Then, of course, there was THAT save. Up 2-1 at the death, nerves fraying, Mertesacker easily brushed aside in front of him, Ospina got down incredibly fast to somehow repel Costa's low rasper. That shot, that open, from that location is a goal damn near every time. Ospina stole that one, and it won us the game.

4. Another point to consider is as well as we played, as wonderful as that effort was, this result also comes down to Chelsea forgetting what got them here. It looked to me like Antonio Conte's version of the team was already sunning themselves in Ibiza or Marbella, and Jose Mourinho's vintage were the ones on the hallowed Wembley pitch. Cynical, divey, plodding, overly-defensive...all the hallmarks were there. Costa managed to con Anthony Taylor a few times, and we got some mystifying yellow cards, but their cynicism ultimately proved to be their undoing.

What Moses was thinking with that clownish dive in our penalty area when he was already on a booking, I'll never know. Sure, most referees wouldn't have the minerals to show the second yellow there, but why take that chance in his shoes?

I don't know if we would have held in those last madcap minutes or not if Chelsea had had their full complement of players, but I do know that Moses' idiocy made our job much easier. Cheers, bud.

5. Halftime fun: I want to be this man when I grow up.

What. A. Legend.

6. Remember when I was talking about the mental battle often proving vital in this game? Chelsea's goal came in the 76th minute. Our winner came in the 79th. That's character. That's not letting your head drop, that's saying "OK, we'll go get that back", and then actually doing it.

It would have been so easy for the guys to fall to pieces, too. I certainly feared the worst, especially because goalkeeping mistakes are often killers to a team's mental well-being. But, one substitution later, Courtois was picking the ball out of his net again. As it turned out, it was a headed goal involving Ramsey and Olivier Giroud, but the mad thing was that it was Ramsey nodding in from the big man's cross. Giroud's first touch was his foray down the right, and I'd pay good money to know whether Conte was more enraged at how Giroud was so open to cross it in, or Ramsey was so open to drill his header home.

That's for all of you who said that Ollie wasn't good enough, by the by.

7. Speaking of Ramsey, he and Granit Xhaka were fantastic in the center of the park (of course, I was screaming in the pub for A-A-Ron to be subbed off nanoseconds before he scored the winner, proving as always that I'm a complete dolt and should not be trusted). There were plenty of redemption stories to be found in red and white today, but both of those lads are right there at the top.

The Welshman has not had an outstanding season by his previous standards, and I suspect he'd be the first to admit that. He does have a knack for scoring goals in FA Cup Finals though, eh? That's the thing with him - he never stops running, never stops fighting, never gives up. It's bloody admirable.

As for Xhaka, I don't know if I've ever seen so many premature "waste of money" hot takes from people who should know better. I've said it before, and I'll say it a million more times - how quickly (or not) a player adjusts to the Premier League differs from player to player, and sometimes it's not until the second season that a guy's true value shines through. This guy can run, pass, tackle, shoot...he can do it all. He's a complete midfielder and you mark my goddamn words, he's going to boss this division next season.

8. Speaking of bossing, this should have been a lot more comfortable, shouldn't it? How many were cleared off the line? How many hit the woodwork? How many did the excellent Courtois keep out? How many fizzed just the wrong side of the post? History is going to show that we scraped this 2-1, and it will show that Mesut Ozil didn't trouble the scoresheet. However, in an alternative timeline, Ozil has a goal and two assists in a 6-1 tonking and a few more zeroes get added to his next contract.

The people who know will tell you. Mesut was brilliant today.

9. Something that wasn't brilliant - four bloody goddamn minutes of injury time at the end. Man, that was torture. It felt like weeks passed in between each second of added time, a wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey phenomenon made worse by the fact that it felt like someone was massaging my nerve endings with extra-strength Brillo pads. Fuck me, that took five years off my life.

It also didn't help that Taylor added 30 seconds on beyond that for our time-wasting substitution, which on one hand is fair play but on the other something that you rarely see happen. Naturally, I'm aware that the number of minutes indicated is the minimum to be added on, but by that point I was a broken man, pleading with whatever deity was chancing to listen for Taylor to blow his whistle and end our suffering.

Then, he did. And with that, dear Chelsea, you can shove your fucking double up your arse.

(Also, shit club no history, etc and so on.)

10. OK, we have to end it by talking about this man:

Look at how happy he is! Isn't it a joy?

Today, I'm not talking about the future that is still to come. I will not talk, any more than necessary, about the recent past that we now cannot change. There's plenty of time for the first, and I'm sick to my damn back teeth of the second.

Today, I'm talking about 7 FA Cups, which is more than most clubs have earned in a century-plus of history. That includes Liverpool AND the nearest and dearest, by the way.

Today, I'm talking about a guy that has taken unbelievable, sickening abuse for the apparently heinous crime of having a bit of an underwhelming season of association football.

Today, I'm talking about a guy who has taken that abuse on the chin, with pride and grace, when realistically a lot of it should have been directed at the absentee landlord that owns this club.

Today, I'm talking about a guy who finished above Jose Mourinho's lot, when by the way they spent the GDP of a small continent to still end up behind us.

Today, I'm talking about the guy that took us out of the dark ages and made us one of the biggest clubs in world football.

Today, I'm talking about the guy that has delivered 3 FA Cups in the last 4 seasons. The nearest and dearest's best season since 1961 yielded one less trophy than our worst one in ages did.

We can talk about all the rest of it on some other day. I'm glad he got to enjoy this. I'm glad he got to smile today.

Thank you, Arsene.
Thank you, David.
Thank you, Nacho.
Thank you, Per.
Thank you, Rob.
Thank you, Alex.
Thank you, Hector.
Thank you, Granit.
Thank you, Aaron.
Thank you, Alexis.
Thank you, Mesut.
Thank you, Danny.
Thank you, Olivier.
Thank you, Francis.
Thank you, Mohamed.

Thank you, Arsenal.

Man of the Match: All of them, duh.  OK, OK, if you have to pick one then it's clearly Per Mertesacker. An absolute career-defining performance, in only his second appearance of the year. Welcome to the Arsenal pantheon, BFG.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Chelsea, FA Cup Final

Wembley Stadium, London
Saturday, May 27
12:30 p.m. EDT, 17:30 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Anthony Taylor
    • Assistants: Gary Beswick and Marc Perry
    • 4th Official: Robert Madley
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 73 Arsenal wins, 62 Chelsea wins, 54 draws
  • All-Time in the FA Cup: 8 Arsenal wins, 5 Chelsea wins, 6 draws
  • Arsenal's Path Here
    • Third Round: Beat Preston North End, 2-1
    • Fourth Round: Beat Southampton, 5-0
    • Fifth Round: Beat Sutton United, 2-0
    • Sixth Round: Beat Lincoln City, 5-0
    • Semi-Final: Beat Manchester City, 2-1 after extra time
  • Chelsea's Path Here
    • Third Round: Beat Peterborough United, 4-1
    • Fourth Round: Beat Brentford, 4-0
    • Fifth Round: Beat Wolverhampton Wanderers, 2-0
    • Sixth Round: Beat Manchester United, 1-0
    • Semi-Final: Beat Tottenham Hotspur, 4-2
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-W-W-W-W-W
  • Chelsea's League Form: L-W-W-W-W-W
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more...

The league season is over now and for the first time in over 20 years, Arsenal have finished outside of the top four. Astonishingly, they finished with more points this year (75) than they had in 10 of the 20 consecutive seasons where they qualified for Champions League football, so figure that one out. Just one of the many weird existential questions we'll have to ask ourselves in this season's postmortem: what the hell actually went wrong here?

There are many who won't give Arsenal a snowball's chance in hell for this game and it's quite easy to see why; it was hard to give Arsenal much of a chance even before all of their defenders got hurt and suspended at the same time.

That being said, anything can happen in a single 90-minute match of football. That's why they don't play matches on paper; they play them inside of television screens on 14th Street.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Gabriel (knee,) Cazorla (Achilles)
Doubts: Mustafi (concussion,) Gibbs (thigh,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (hamstring,) Pérez (fictional)
Suspended: Koscielny (first of three, serious foul play)

Hey, have you ever played the position of central defender? If so, I know a London-based club that could probably use your services!

Arsenal's season started to swing back in the right direction once they started playing three center backs in April, but now, it might be a stretch to even name three available center backs that could start tomorrow. So, let's figure this out.

Here's a list of Arsenal's first team defenders, listed by squad number, listing their level of availability:

Mathieu Debuchy (probably available, but far from ideal)
Kieran Gibbs (doubtful)
Per Mertesacker (available, but not quite ideal)
Gabriel (out)
Laurent Koscielny (out)
Rob Holding (available)
Nacho Monreal (available)
Shkodran Mustafi (doubtful)
Héctor Bellerín (available)
Carl Jenkinson (see Debuchy)

Thank God there are four names available, though you could argue that Mertesacker is not ideal for a match of this magnitude, given how little he has played this season. Like, do we even still have Mathieu Debuchy? There were photographs of him at an end of season event looking glum (or, as they say in France, le gluuuumme), so he does exist. I haven't been bothered to check if Lucas Pérez is in any of those pictures because I'm going to maintain that he's fictional.

My guess is that Mertesacker will anchor a back three including Rob Holding and Héctor Bellerín, Nacho Monreal will start on the left and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, back in full training from his injury suffered at Southampton, will start on the right.

From there, the selection seems easy to me, aside from center forward. Danny Welbeck was a bit wasteful against Everton last weekend but strikes me as a better option than Olivier Giroud at the moment.

Predicted XI: Čech, Bellerín, Mertesacker, Holding, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Monreal, Xhaka, Ramsey, Özil, Alexis, Welbeck.

Chelsea Squad News

Out: Loftus-Cheek (back)

Thanks to Chelsea's deal with Satan, which was re-upped for another five years last summer, the Blues have no major injury concerns entering the final. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has been out with a nagging back problem; he made only six appearances in the league this season, none of them starts, which has led to swirling transfer speculation around the 21-year-old midfielder.

Chelsea play a 3-4-3 formation, something they switched to after losing to Arsenal in September (covered below), with a back three composed of David Luiz, Gary Cahill, and César Azpilicueta. The midfield four are usually Victor Moses, Marcos Alonso, Nemanja Matić, and either Cesc Fàbregas or N'Golo Kanté.

The attacking trio feels a bit like Murderers' Row, with Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, and Pedro all capable of doing quite a bit of damage against an Arsenal back three-or-four-or-five that is being held together with duct tape and Per Mertesacker's long reach.

Predicted XI: Courtois, Cahill, Luiz, Azpilicueta, Moses, Alonso, Matić, Fàbregas, Hazard, Pedro, Costa.

Season in Review

Both of these sides switched to a back-three this season following a 3-0 road loss within London. For one, it made them runaway title winners. For the other, it came far too late.

When Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates in September (covered in more detail below,) they were in the middle of what would go on to be a 19-match unbeaten run across all competitions. The loss, Chelsea's second in a row at that point, dropped the Blues to eighth in the table after six games. A week later, at Hull, they struggled to a 2-0 win. From the BBC recap of that match:
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte promised "a solution" after his side went down with a whimper against Arsenal last weekend and he found his answer in a strategy he used at former club Juventus. The Italian opted for a three-man defence during much of this trophy-filled time in Turin and deployed Gary Cahill, David Luiz and César Azpilicueta at the back as he organised his Chelsea rearguard to match.
The win at Hull was the first of 13 consecutive league wins for the Blues as they catapulted their way to the top of the table. Even after Spurs snapped the winning streak on January 4, Chelsea still went on to win 14 of their final 18 league games, as they won the league by seven points.

Arsenal, of course, stumbled throughout the winter and spring. Two losses in mid-December left Arsenal nine points out of first on Christmas. By the end of the season, that gap doubled.

The warning signs were there in January, when the Gunners spotted Bournemouth a 3-0 lead before having to storm back to draw 3-3. But, they responded by winning their next four across all competitions. The season truly fell apart in the last week of January and first week of February, when Arsenal were blitzed out of the gate at home by Watford, lost 2-1, then lost at Stamford Bridge four days later. Starting with the Watford match, Arsenal lost eight times in a 16-game span across all competitions.

After losing to Tottenham on April 30, Arsenal finished the season by winning five straight, but it was too-little, too-late.

Match Facts

Arsenal and Chelsea split their league meetings this season, with both sides winning at home under very different circumstances.

It feels so long ago that Arsenal ran riot over the Blues at the Emirates (it was September 24, so, eight months ago, I suppose that is a long time...) Arsenal jumped out to a huge lead, with Alexis Sánchez pouncing on a Gary Cahill error in the 11th minute before Theo Walcott doubled the lead three minutes later. Mesut Özil added a third before halftime and Arsenal coasted to a 3-0 win.

At Stamford Bridge in February, Chelsea bludgeoned their way to an early lead, quite literally, as Marcos Alonso used his elbow to beat Hector Bellerín to a header on 13 minutes, forcing the Arsenal right back out of the game with a concussion to boot. Arsenal did well to keep the match close, but Francis Coquelin did not do well to keep Eden Hazard close on 53 minutes and the Belgian scored a wonderful individual goal to double the lead. Cesc Fàbregas made it three from a Petr Čech error on 85 minutes and Olivier Giroud scored a consolation goal in injury time.

Historically speaking, there was a watershed in the course of this rivalry, though it was not a league game or an FA Cup tie, but a Champions League tie in 2004. To remind you that the watershed came during the Invincibles season borders on blasphemy. It was, of course, Wayne Bridge's 87th minute goal at Highbury that saw Chelsea through to the semi-finals 3-2 on aggregate. Since that match, Chelsea and Arsenal have played 31 times across all competitions. Chelsea have won 18 them. Seven have ended drawn. That leaves just six Arsenal wins in 13 years.

Chelsea and Arsenal have met in 13 previous FA Cup ties; Arsenal have won eight and Chelsea have won five. After splitting the first two, with Chelsea winning in 1915 and Arsenal winning in 1930, the Blues won three straight meetings in '31, '39, and '47. Arsenal then won seven consecutive ties between the clubs, in 1950, 1952, 1973, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. That 2004 win and the two league encounters that season (both Arsenal wins) came before that fateful Champions League tie, of course. The sides last met in 2009, with Chelsea winning 2-1 in the semifinal.

The Referee

The referee is Cheshire-based Anthony Taylor. Taylor has had a colorful history when it comes to Arsenal, including that season-opening loss to Aston Villa almost four years ago as well as Arsène Wenger calling him "dishonest to his federation" when he was the fourth official against Burnley during the winter. Colorful history aside, Arsenal all-time have a record of 12 wins, five draws, and two losses with Taylor in the middle, across all competitions.

Arsenal only had Taylor as a referee twice this season and both instances came after the whole "dishonest to your federation" thing. The first was the FA Cup sixth round tie against Lincoln City, which Arsenal won 5-0. The other was the first match of Arsenal's back-three experiment, the 2-1 win at Middlesbrough on April 17.

All-time, Chelsea have a record of 11 wins, four draws, and four losses with Taylor in the middle. Only one of those losses was a league fixture (1-0 at Stoke in 2015.) Two of the three losses were League Cup losses: 2-0 to Swansea in the first leg of the 2012/13 semifinal (it was the second leg when Eden Hazard kicked a ballboy and was sent off by Chris Foy) and 2-1 after extra time to Sunderland the following season.

Taylor has worked a match between these two clubs at Wembley before; he was in charge of Arsenal's 1-0 win in the 2016 Community Shield, which was Chelsea's fourth loss from the list.

This year, Chelsea won all four games in which they had Taylor as the referee (though, to be fair, they did win 79% of their games this year in total): 2-1 over West Ham in August, 2-0 at Hull in October, 3-1 at Manchester City in December, and 2-1 at Stoke in March.

John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and an intensive pronoun. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat yourself.