For Arsenal, beating Chelsea, 2-1, on Saturday at Wembley Stadium represented a record-extending 14th FA Cup title, but this was a success that felt of far greater significance than that. The FA Cup is a diminished tournament these days, seemingly more important for what it signifies for the future than any intrinsic value, and what this seems to mean was vindication for the revolution Mikel Arteta is putting in place—that, and qualification for next season’s Europa League.
Arsenal may have finished 10 points and four positions behind Chelsea in the table but in an engaging, open final, it was ultimately the better side, more cohesive and better organized, more aggressive and more ruthless. Yet again, Chelsea’s defensive issues were exposed; yet again it was exposed on the counterattack. There may be a fleet of exciting new signings arriving, but if Frank Lampard can’t resolve those structural issues it will mean little.
There is still a lot of work for Arteta to do. This Arsenal is nowhere near the finished article—as the opening quarter of the game made clear. But there is at least a sense of a plan and purpose and, after years of drift, even as Arsene Wenger was collecting his final FA Cups, that is a decisive change for the better.
In a first half of two halves, the defensive issues of both sides were exposed. First the perennial problem Arsenal has at the back of midfield was exposed. Mason Mount had already had a decent effort saved by Emiliano Martinez as he broke through that space when Christian Pulisic put Chelsea ahead. He got a run at the Arsenal back three, which became very narrow and, while it took a slightly fortuitous ricochet to return the ball to him, his rapid footwork in taking the ball into his stride and sliding the ball past Martinez. Pulisic, having become the first U.S. player to score in an FA Cup final, was forced off three minutes into the second half with a hamstring injury.
But Chelsea has been plagued all season by its vulnerability to balls played in behind its defensive line. This is the flip side of all the good attacking play: Playing a high line makes sense only if there is consistent pressure on the ball. Team after team has exploited that and it was remarkable how often Aubameyang especially found himself running onto balls over the top. It was just such a move that yielded the equalizer after 28 minutes as part of a general improvement from Arsenal after the drinks break.
There’s no doubt it was a penalty, Cesar Azpilicueta grabbing at Aubameyang and holding him into the box, but what was odd was that he received only a yellow card. The foul was cynical and deliberate, could not in any sense be deemed a genuine attempt to play the ball, and Aubameyang surely would have been able to unleash a shot before Antonio Rudiger got back: it appeared a clear red. As it turned out Azpilicueta was forced off six minutes later anyway, the victim of the first of the two hamstring injuries to blight Chelsea.
The pace in the second half was notably slower, and the game a little scrappier. But in probably the oddest season English football has ever known, one thing has remained constant from the first weekend to the last: Chelsea’s inability to deal with counter-attacks. Hector Bellerin led the charge, zooming past a weirdly tentative Rudiger. Although he was challenged, Nicolas Pepe was able to work the ball to Aubameyang. He stood up Kurt Zouma, wobbled past him and scored his second with a beautifully deft dink over Willy Caballero.
But brilliant as Aubameyang’s contribution was, the wider issue was how both Rudiger and Zouma were as exposed as they were. Maybe Rudiger got sucked to the ball, but how could there be no cover for a player in the middle of his own half? It’s extraordinary for a team at this level to be as stretched as that, almost as though in trying not leave space in behind them, the defense ended up dropping too deep.
Chelsea’s hopes were diminished further with 17 minutes remaining as Mateo Kovacic, already booked for a foul on Granit Xhaka, was deemed to have tripped him again. Such contact as there was seemed minimal but the referee Anthony Taylor, who did not have the best day, showed a second yellow.
Arsenal dropped deeper in the final minutes, which seemed to invite needless pressure, but for once its defense held firm. Chelsea created little in those closing minutes, and ended with nine men as Pedro suffered a shoulder injury in his final game for the club. With remarkably few anxious moments, Arsenal sealed its success, Arteta’s first trophy as a manager.