There was a time when the Cup Final was the only live televised football match all year.
There was something mythical and magical about it. Something out of the ordinary happened or had a good chance of happening. Someone would break a leg; or a previous unknown would score and become a hero.
Families would crowd around black and white one foot square TVs for a national occasion. Times change.
There was more expectation than hope than the City semi-final. Arsenal had beaten teams above Chelsea in the league and the south west Londoners had a bad record on set pieces and had let in 54 goals in the league. But which post-lockdown Arsenal would turn up? The tactically clinical counter-attack team with low percentage possession and a resilient defence, or the other one?
Holding, Luiz and Tierney formed the back three, with Bellerin and Maitland Niles as wing backs, Ceballos and Xhaka in the centre with Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang up front. Bellerin dropped back into a four when Chelsea attacked.
Chelsea matched up, on paper, in a 3-4-3.
From the start Chelsea took a high line and pressed.
But Arsenal drew the first chance as Tierney sent Maitland Niles on a run down the left, followed by a pull back and cross – to Aubameyang who headed just wide.
Xhaka lost it in a dangerous position, like the City game, and Mount ran on and shot – saved well by Martinez.
Chelsea’s quick-fire passing was threatening. They were by-passing Arsenal’s midfield, getting in the space between the lines and running directly at defenders, largely down the middle. Pulisic found Mount who knocked it in from the left to Giroud who backheeled it into Pulisic’s run. Tierney backed off, frightened of bringing him down and the fleet footed American fired it into the corner. (Same sinking feeling as the Hull final, tempered by plenty of time to make amends.)
A Pepe shot was saved by Caballero. Ceballos went on a good dribble and was fouled in front of the 18-yard box. His free kick went over the bar.
Arsenal seemed to go up a gear after the drinks break – looking like they were hand cranked by the hyperactive Arteta. But they made tactical adjustments.
Chelsea continued to press high – leaving spaces behind. And a regular tactic from Arsenal, post drinks-break was to pump longish balls into the left channel for Aubameyang to chase, instead of neat one touch passing from the back. Tierney would bomb on from the back three, and Maitland Niles would move inside, creating an overload. Lacazette played deeper, drawing a Chelsea defender.
Tierney sent a long ball to Aubameyang who got his body in front of the Chelsea captain, Azpilicueta whose legs couldn’t keep up, but arms could, as the Gabon forward fell in the area.
The defender was booked, and Aubameyang dispatched the penalty clinically. Soon after Azpilicueta’s leg succumbed to a hamstring, which helped Arsenal’s cause.
But Mount’s runs were still not being picked up – and one led to a shot by Jorginho.
Pepe won a free kick in a central position, fooling Christensen, but Lacazette hit it well wide.
At the start of the second half – Pulisic ran from the halfway line into the heart of the Arsenal area but his hamstring pinged just before shooting – wide. At times he looked unplayable – a la Hazard in Baku, so fortune favoured Arsenal here.
An incisive move saw Pepe pass to Lacazette who sent it to Aubameyang – but he was tackled by Christensen.
Then Bellerin used his pace and unusually drove through the middle. He was clattered by Rudiger, the ball ran on to Pepe, who found Aubameyang near the Chelsea area. With Zouma to beat, he feigned to go right, but took it left, opening up space to dink it over the advancing Caballero.
Kovacic, who had been yellow carded for a strong challenge on Xhaka, clashed with him again. It appeared innocuous, and initiated by the Arsenal man, but the Swiss shouted and fell, which was enough to convince ref Anthony Taylor to send the Croat off.
In the latter stages Luiz went off and Sokratis came on for what may be his last appearance in an Arsenal shirt. He helped keep out a Pedro run near the byline, with the Spaniard, looking like he dislocated his shoulder in the collision.
So, Arsenal held on, for their 14th FA Cup triumph and 25th straight season in Europe.
Aubameyang who ominously had nothing to say about signing his contract but enjoying the moment with his colleagues, said: “We enjoyed today. We deserved this win. Did a great job.
On his second goal, he said: ”Zouma knows me well so I went on the left.”
Rob Holding said: “There was no panic (after the Chelsea goal). Wasn’t the way. We were flat-footed. It took some time to get used to it. Auba on the break – he’s our talisman. He’s done it all season.
On winning the cup, he said he would have taken winning it twice in four years when signing for Arsenal. “It’s my second in four years,” he said proudly.
Mikel Arteta said: “it was a difficult start. Sometimes you can go down. This group never gives up. We generate belief. At half-time I told them we were so close to winning – everyone worked so hard. It is a double reward – and important to be in Europe. The FA Cup is part of the history of the club.”
On Aubameyang, Arteta said: “He knows. It is getting the deal done. I think he wants to stay.”
The Spaniard referred to the hectic schedule with games every three or four days, which he said is why we are seeing the injuries. “Players were knackered. We worked hard get a reward.”
Frank Lampard said: “We started well and controlled the game. We got the goal and made chances. We can only blame ourselves. We developed complacency with too much time on the ball. We allowed them back in the game. It is hard to get back. We were slow, went back and invited pressure. It was below par. We had two hamstrings, a dislocated shoulder and a red card. It was a tipping point today.”
It was the first time an Arsenal manager won in his first season since George Graham. Mikel Arteta has become the first person to both captain and manage Arsenal to victory in an FA Cup final.
So, a brilliant end and a silver lining to a traumatic season, of ups and downs.
Arteta has proved he’s the man. Now it is down to management to prove they are the team and back him.
Arsenal: Martínez, Holding, David Luiz (Substituted for Papastathopoulos at 88), Tierney (Substituted for Kolasinac at 90+13), Bellerín, Ceballos (Booked at 73), Xhaka, Maitland-Niles, Pépé, Lacazette (Substituted for Nketiah at 82), Aubameyang.
Chelsea: Caballero, Azpilicueta (Booked at 26, Substituted for Christensen at 35), Zouma, Rüdiger (Booked at 75, Substituted for Hudson-Odoi at 78), James, Jorginho, Kovacic (Booked at 73 and off), Alonso, Mount (Booked at 45, Substituted for Barkley at 78, Booked at 89),Giroud (Substituted for Abraham at 78), Pulisic (Substituted for Pedro at 49).