Nine long years. Nine years of close shaves. Nine years of shooting ourselves in the foot. Nine years of questioning the team’s belief. It ended early this morning and it ended with silverware. Arsenal hoisted the 2014 FA Cup at the Wembley after 120 minutes of heart stopping, hair tearing and nerve wrecking action. Football, bloody hell. But we have the cup and that’s all that matters!
It took a very Arsenal like performance to win the FA Cup. Paired with less illustrious opponents, the Gunners were hot favourites after their route to the final included beating teams like Liverpool, Tottenham and last year’s winners Wigan. But any Arsenal fan would be a fool to believe that the hot favourite tag would lead to an easy win in the final. Of course not. This is Arsenal.
We went 0-2 down in the first nine minutes. For a team of Arsenal’s calibre, it was shocking to see how the team was more overawed by Wembley than Hull City. Two of Hull’s defenders scored via set pieces against a static Arsenal defence still coming into terms with the game. It was similar to games against Liverpool and Chelsea. We were slow out of the starting blocks and we instantly fell not once but twice. The fans were shell shocked and I was thinking – “not again”. But screwing up early has its benefits, we had time to respond. Cazorla replied in the 17th minute with a beautiful rasping free kick that squeezed between the bar and a fully stretched ‘keeper.
But we still looked rattled. The team never expected themselves to be down by two goals so quickly. Replying early was crucial and all we needed now was another goal to draw parity. The team tried to mount a siege but it did not materialise. Our offensive play was terrible. Players were drifting to the wings and hugging the defensive line leaving the offensive centre empty. Defenders had no one to aim quick passes to. The only option was to fire long balls at the wings and over the defence. That did not work because long balls require a longer build up time to deliver and Hull was quick to press. There were fleeting chances but nothing serious came out of them because our offensive tactics were off. Defensively, we pressed poorly. The team seemed to be in two minds. Three players will fall back with only one pressing forward. A quick Hull one-two will dispose that player and expose a newly formed gap in our defensive line. Why can’t we press like other teams? You either send two to three players to press or you don’t press aggressively at all. It was terrible for the first sixty minutes. Cazorla was the only player making movements all over. He was the only outlet that remembered to fill the middle gap at times. It was clearly not good enough.
Approaching the final 30 minutes of the match, Wenger decided to change to a more direct 4-4-2 formation. Sanogo was introduced for Podolski and the game changed immediately. We were no longer had all our players stretched to the perimeter of the field. The two strikers took turns to drop into the hole and Ramsey returned to the middle. The aforementioned gap in the middle of offence was finally filled and it changed the game. We looked more certain in both attack and defence. The chances kept coming. Hull was fouling and wasting time and the referee did not seem to mind. We threw everything at goal and it finally came from Koscielny via a corner. How critical our French defender has been for us over the years. His goals sealed Champions League football for the past three season in all three decisive games, and this time he handed us the equalizer after the ball pinged in Hull’s box. He twisted himself inside out and managed to flick it past the keeper at close range. 2-2. Relief.
Arsenal could not find the winner and the game approached extra time. Strangely, Wenger decided against using his remaining two substitutions at the start of half time. The game had fallen in pace drastically by then. We did not have pacey players left besides Gibbs, and Hull was reeling from a very hard pressing display which they pushed through up till the 80th minute. From the 80th minute, we did not look to be in any danger conceding. It was chance after chance and I was personally more worried about having to face a penalty shoot out because the game was there for the taking. Wenger finally decided to make two changes with Wilshere and Rosicky coming on for Cazorla and Ozil. With fresh legs in the team, the second half of extra time saw a renewed push for the winner. The winning goal came in typical Arsenal fashion from Ramsey who had before that skewed almost all his short and long range efforts. Another foray into the box saw Giroud released diagonally away from the goal, he drew his marker with him and back heeled the ball to an on-rushing Ramsey. Ramsey made no mistake this time, firing low into the right bottom corner. The fans went wild. After a long 109 minutes in this match, we finally had the lead.
But it is not like Arsenal to kill off the game and give their fans an easier time. Nope. We immediately suffered three scares as Hull decided to push for an equaliser. Fabianski reminded the fans why we have been so divided about him after a hot blooded decision to charge out of his box in a failed attempt to slide the ball out of play. Per had earlier tripped himself when attempting to clear a wayward pass awkwardly. With an open goal and two on-rushing Hull players, a goal bound cross was delivered but Gibbs managed to race back and clear it off the line. That was his second goal line clearance and yet again it was a reminder of how his clearances had been instrumental in key decisive games like the final CL clinching match two seasons ago at West Brom. Minutes later, Arteta decided to step out of a long shot which nearly fooled a blind-sided Fabianski. But Fabianski reacted very quickly and made a full stretched save at the bottom left corner. The final whistle blew. The fans erupted. The manager and players celebrated wildly. I was stuck to my chair, overcome with emotion. It was strange to see the Gunners lift the cup. It was a feeling that I have been so far removed from. Winning. We won a bloody trophy. We won a bloody trophy!
It was amazing to watch Vermaelen lead the team up the stands to receive the trophy. An embattled captain who spent most of his time on the bench or in the treatment room, he now has an honour that Henry, Fabregas and Van Persie do not – captaining Arsenal to a trophy. Our last captain who did that was Vieira in the 2005 FA Cup victory over Manchester United, and now Vermaelen joins him and host of former captains to have lifted the trophy. The trophy was raised by delighted players and it was telling that Mertesacker and Koscielny decided to raise the trophy together. Their partnership had brought stability to the defence and both of them scored the equalisers in the semi final and final. The cup was passed around, paraded, hoisted to the fans as more senior players such as Rosicky and Sagna could not believe they finally had a taste of silverware in an Arsenal jersey. Sagna did not want to let the trophy go and Rosicky celebrated like there was no tomorrow. The fans were overcome with joy and there were tears after nine barren years.
We did it, and in a very Arsenal way too. It’s celebrations for now but the team will have to work to improve for the next season. The hope is that this win erases some mental barriers and disbelief – especially freezing up in big games. Onwards and upwards! Victoria concordia crescit.