- A high-profile FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea could serve as the stage for determining Arsene Wenger's future and legacy in London.
This time every year, we have the same debates: How can we make the FA Cup relevant again? And is Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal up? This season, for the third time in four years, the two narratives are entwined. Before long there will be a generation of fans who believe that the FA Cup exists primarily as a gauge of Wenger’s capability.
This year, though, a few things are, if not different exactly, then at least magnified or enhanced. Wenger’s contract expires next month and it’s still not entirely clear whether he will sign an extension. It remains extremely likely that he will, particularly after a run of eight wins in nine games since his switch to a back three, but there are a couple of reasons for doubt.
First there is the simple fact that nothing has been announced yet. Why? What is the advantage in waiting? Wenger has acknowledged the uncertainty has affected his players, and it’s certainly affected contract negotiations of the five regular first-teamers who fall out of contract next summer. Not unreasonably, they want to have some idea under whom they will be playing. That suggests that there is at least some doubt from one party or the other.
Then there was the public disagreement between Wenger and club CEO Ivan Gazidis over the desirability of a director of football. Gazidis has spoken of restructuring the club and bringing in a director of football both to help handle transfers and to ensure some sort of continuity when Wenger does leave. Wenger, though, admitted to being baffled as to the point of a director of football, something that has widely been interpreted as evidence of an internal power struggle.
And then, most oddly, there was Wenger’s pronoun lapse this week when he began speaking of his team as “they.” Usually he says “we.” Perhaps that was nothing, a momentary slip, but it did suggest that a level of distance has developed, that he has perhaps begun to assess his squad with the coldness of an outsider.
Still, the overwhelming probability is that Wenger will sign a new deal, and that he will do so against a background hum of low-grade frustration. The fury of certain Arsenal fans, the insistence that Wenger is “killing our club” is vaguely preposterous, certainly when set against the struggles of fans whose clubs really are in danger of extinction such as Leyton Orient. But at the same time the irritation is understandable. Arsenal fans pay the highest season-ticket prices in the country, and when the club chooses to leave £193 million in cash reserves in the bank rather than investing in players, they’re entitled to wonder whether it’s worth it.
But what is intriguing is why an announcement is being held back until after the FA Cup final. Does the result make a difference? The FA Cup wasn’t enough to save Louis van Gaal last season, the news of his departure from Manchester United leaking as the payers celebrated on the pitch. Nor did winning the FA Cup in the previous two seasons do much to assuage the dissatisfaction of Arsenal fans.
This final, though, may be different–not because the FA Cup has changed, but because of the nature of the opposition. For Arsenal, beating Hull City in 2014, even after being 2-0 down, and beating a shambolic Aston Villa in 2015, said little. Arsenal is good at beating mid-ranking sides like that. It’s how it has kept finishing in the top four for so long. What it is not good at is beating top sides. This season, its only league victories against members of the top six were against an uninterested Manchester United earlier this month and against Chelsea in September, a result that forced Antonio Conte to switch to a back three–the tactical shift that ended up winning the Blues the league.
Arsenal has beaten Chelsea only twice in its last 13 attempts: That game earlier this season, which ended up proving costly, and last season’s Community Shield, which hinted at Jose Mourinho’s troubles but did little positive for Arsenal. For several years, Chelsea has seemed tougher, smarter and stronger than Arsenal, exactly the sort of time to exploit Arsenal’s weaknesses and neuroses. If Arsenal could win on Saturday, if it could follow up beating Manchester City in the semifinal by overcoming its bete noire in the final, perhaps there would be a sense of a corner turned–not because Arsenal had won the FA Cup, but because it had beaten major teams in major games.
Then again, there is an argument that a victory like that would be the perfect time for Wenger to say goodbye. And if he stays, would a win offer real hope, or would it just fit the general Arsenal pattern of conjuring optimism for its fans each May?