Gunner Thoughts

A season later and shades of Baku

An FA Cup Final is on the horizon and vibes of Baku are back in the air. Arsenal will have to do one better than last time around in a final versus Chelsea.

Last weekend Arsenal’s season came to an end. It ended with a win, but still resulted in 8th place, the worst Arsenal finish since the mid-90’s. Yet, despite having 3 managers, a manager diagnosed positive for Coronavirus, multiple injuries, an 11 month season, and a level of play that won’t have satisfied anyone involved, Arsenal have another defining final to end it all.

As a 6 week break begins for some teams before the next Premier League season  on September 12 and the transfer window opens, Arsenal will play a final that will dictate how they feel about this short break, what they can do in the window, and whether or not they will have Europa League football and funds. With it comes more than a few shades of Baku.

The season has progressed as though it were scripted by television writers so desperate to write the most unrealistic show they could fathom, in an attempt to have it cancelled before the finale, that they themselves forgot to write a finale. So how do they end it? Eh the suppose the same way they ended last year was alright for some viewers. Sure we’ll just change up the competition, line up the new characters, and no one will notice.

The similarities in the details for Arsenal are quite eerie. Even beyond the obvious playing Chelsea in match for silverware and qualification into a league Chelsea care nothing about. Last year, Arsenals season came to an end in extremely disappointing fashion as they were unable to seal themselves into the top four ending with a terrible run that would carry into this season. This year, while not quite as drastic, the result against Brighton, defeat to Leicester, heartbreak at Tottenham after dominating possession, and losing to Villa will feel as though Arsenal could already have earned themselves a place in the Europa League through the Premier League. 

Now, leaving it to the final day of their season, Arsenal will compete for a cup with similar stakes to their future at last year’s finale. The top prize of winning the club’s 14th FA Cup is of course the winner’s route into the Europa League and the financial boost that comes with it. It may be minor funds, but as Arsenal look to accomplish a lot in small window, the promise of extra funds is likely to be vital in getting some deals done. In addition to funds, having European football, even the Europa League, brings some level transfer clout over teams without it, and demonstrates the beginning signs of success from Arsenal’s rebuild and move beyond Emery – and even Wenger.

Last season, Emery took over the reins at Arsenal Football Club as the first new manager in over 20 years. Baku offered an opportunity for him to take home silverware in his first year and get that monkey off his back. It’s a monkey that many critics refused to allow off Wenger’s back late in his tenure and one that new manager Mikel Arteta will want to remove – if not at least subside for the time being. It can be a daunting aspect of the Arsenal job that I imagine sticks with a person when critics throw it in the club’s face. Arsenal are very familiar with taking home the FA Cup having done it 13 times, but doing it this time may mean more to Arsenal’s future than when Wenger broke the dry spell in 2014.

Arteta is confident players still want to be a part of Arsenal, despite recent turmoil. “The feeling I get when I talk to a lot of people is that the players still want to come to the club because of the history, the way we do things, our values, the fans we have, our stadium. That’s a really attractive thing, that’s my feeling.” Obviously, fans in the stadium isn’t a current reality for anyone, but the rest of it still exists as a bargaining chip. Bringing home another FA Cup and showing the foundations for success Arsenal are building under Arteta could go a long way in enticing players to not only come, but specific ones to stay.

Don’t be fooled into thinking the road to the finals has been a stroll through the park for the Gunners. It’s an example of the type of quality Arsenal can string together. A tough match against recently promoted Leeds United showing their quality. A match against Premier League Bournemouth, who were relegated this year but still capable of competing with Premier League talent. Portsmouth who were likely the easiest of Arenal’s fixtures. Sheffield United in the quarter finals who Arsenal were yet to beat and whom were looking to continue their strong season with a deep FA Cup run. And finally, a semi final against Manchester City who had little to play at the time besides the FA Cup. Completing this run with a cup wouldn’t be a shabby reward.

To do so, Arsenal will have to seek revenge for Baku against Frank Lampard’s Chelsea and overcome the trauma from last year’s 4-1 booting that will have left a mark, in a very similar feeling match. No one will have to travel to Azerbaijan, a nightmare within itself, but the trip to the big stage of Wembley can be tough enough. This won’t give Arteta pause, but as a supporter it’s impossible not to see the comparisons with an ominous feeling.

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