What a way to wrap up the season. After being not only the worst season in Arsenal’s last three decades, it was the longest – figuratively and literally – to just pile on the pain. But to end on a note like this, with a win that propels Arsenal in the right direction and checks off so many boxes in eliminating some of the worry keeping Gooners up at night, will put a bit of excitement into waiting for the start of next season.
In a thrilling match at an empty Wembley stadium, Arsenal matched the pacy attack of Chelsea step-for-step and went one step further. Arteta took few chances with his lineup, starting with the same eleven as he did against Manchester City.
Arsenal: Martinez, Bellerin, Holding, Luiz, Tierney, Maitland-Niles, Xhaka, Ceballos, Pepe, Aubameyang, Lacazette
It was a strong looking lineup, but left little flexibility on the bench outside of Bukayo Saka if it came to needing to make something happen through substitutions.
In the match preview, I spoke about Arsenal likely wanting to keep this game from becoming an open affair. Well, that plan went out the window from the whistle. Arsenal opened the match funneling their attack completely down the left which earned them an opening header opportunity for Aubameyang of an Maitland-Niles cross. Immediately, Chelsea streamed back down the field and forced an early save from Emi Martinez off a curling shot from Mount. Martinez would be capable of getting hands to this one at full stretch, but the clean sheet wouldn’t last long.
A minute later, Jorginho found Pulisic in the middle, between the lines, with all kinds of space to run at the backline and find Mason Mount off the back shoulder of Rob Holding. From there, a simple slotted ball, helped on by Giroud, finds Pulisic to finish the movement. Nothing Emi could do about it. 1-0, 5 minutes in.
The first 20 minutes, seemed as though it would be a long day. So much space between Xhaka and Ceballos in the midfield and the backline that seemed like it would be exploited for 90 minutes. Coming out of the drinks break, after an animated Arteta had a go at everyone, Arsenal seemed settled, in control, and commanding. Immediately, Pepe put a 20-yard curling shot into the upper corner, only to have it called off for a Maitland-Niles offside call in the build up. The letdown wouldn’t last long as a minute later Tierney played a long ball over the top, misjudged by Azpilicueta, into the path of Aubameyang. Azpilicueta attempted to bring him down but the fouling continued into the box and a penalty was called. Cleary penalty, well dispatched from Aubameyang and Arsenal are back on level terms.
The rest of the half continued in an open, thrilling manner but few opportunities to score. Arsenal seemed to have shut down those spaces for Chelsea wingers to wreak havoc and started to deny control of the game to Jorginho and Kovacic. It was level at halftime 1-1.
Chelsea shot out of the gates to start the second half with Christian Pulisic causing the damage once again. However, as he was in on goal, away from Rob Holding once more, his hamstring gave way. From an Arsenal perspective, it was very fortunate. If anyone looked likely to tilt the contest in Chelsea’s favor, it was Pulisic.
Again, Arsenal settled in and there were early signs of a free flowing attack and exchanges between Pepe and Auba. In the 67th minute, Hector Bellerin would get on the ball with all kinds of space and make a 30 yard sprint through the midfield. It was the type of ball carrying that Arsenal have lacked all year. The ability to run through the midfield, attack the backline and demand the opposition make a play. The Chelsea defense would be up to the task, and Bellerin took a hit for his troubles, but the loose ball would be scooped up by Pepe in space who then found Aubameyang one-on-one with Kurt Zouma. With a dip of his shoulder and a scrape onto his left boot, Zouma was beat and Cabllero was off his line. From there, Aubameyang flicked the ball up and over the keeper’s head in a splendid goal made to look much more graceful and easier than it is. 2-1, Arsenal.
5 minutes later, the task ahead of Arsenal would get a little easier when Kovacic would receive his second yellow card of the day for a late clip on Xhaka and off he would go. Was it worth a red card? No. Was it worthy of a yellow? Still, possibly not, but off he would go. There were a few nervy moments from there, some good defending, 7 minutes of extra time, an injury that brought that extra time to 11 minutes, some more defending and anxious moments until finally, Arsenal would hear whistle they were longing to hear. The piercing sound that made them FA Cup Champions.
It was quite the sign-off from the Gunners and a wonderful moment for supporters to share at end even if they couldn’t be in attendance. With the next season starting in just six or seven weeks, here are a few thoughts from this game to carry forward with confidence into next year.
Nicolas Pepe looked fantastic
All year, Nicolas Pepe has teased the world with what he could be capable of doing. His dribbling abilities and flair always on display, his ability to whip in a cross seen at times, a dangerous left footed shot, and moments of combination play that dazzle. However, throughout the year, Emery and Arteta have had moments of frustration with the Ivorian in getting him to put in the work defensively or put together a run of complete games.
In the run in, Pepe has been brilliant, and yesterday was the culmination of his fine form in one of the most complete games he has played in an Arsenal kit. With 1 assist, 2 shots, 2 chances created, 9 crosses, 1 key pass, 7 duels won, 3 fouls won, a tackle, and 2 recoveries he was everywhere.
The ability to come more central was pivotal to his success and something Arteta will need to figure out how to create more of next season, especially if Arsenal make the shift to a 4-3-3 formation. In a 3-4-3, this task is a bit easier as Bellerin provides him that ability by overlapping him on the outside. Bellerin also offers him a bit more space and relief from being double-teamed by drawing away a defender with an attacking run.
The central areas are clearly where Pepe needs to be much more frequently. He showed a keen ability to cause problems with his individual brilliance on the ball, which creates worrisome defending scenarios and fouls in good areas. However, it was still evident that Pepe is missing someone to combine with in those little spaces to work a shooting opportunity for him. His shots are made on his own, but if Arteta could give him someone to link up with it would allow Arsenal to use Pepe’s impressive finishing ability more frequently.
Despite missing that combination play, Pepe’s workrate has been unquestionable and was once more. Slowly but surely, you can see him settling into things. Hopefully, a short break and then quick start will allow him to continue these improvements. He has a big role to play in Arsenal’s future rebuild given his price tag and abilities. A fantastic final all around.
Dani Ceballos at it again
If Pepe gets applause for his turnaround under Arteta, and during this restart, Dani Ceballos DEFINITELY does. Yesterday was just another tally to his name under the column of consistent, solid, and complete midfield displays. After a rocky start to this game, Ceballos came on strong and once again provided the box-to-box presence Arsenal need.
Ceballos had 2 shots, 3 crosses, 6/8 long balls, 8 duels won, a successful dribble, won 3 fouls, had a tackle, won an aerial duel, and added 4 recoveries to his game. Creating chances is lacking, and Ceballos didn’t statistically create any yesterday, but having a midfielder put up these kind of numbers across the board in a display that shows his presence on both ends of the ball, helps create chances for Arsenal to stay in possession and offers defensive security.
With his loan spell coming to an end, his future at Real Madrid bleak, and Arsenal having just received a bit of a transfer boost – he must be strongly considered. In the past, Real Madrid has tossed out a steep price tag with rumors around £40-50m, something that seems a bit high for what he showed during the entire season. But the Ceballos of late has come out of his shell, into his own, and deserves recognition in the form of Arsenal’s best efforts to retain him. There have been discussions of an extended loan, something in the short term Arsenal should look into completing.
In recent comments, Ceballos mentioned that he sees himself as a hybrid 6/8 player, which is a huge deal. This is a massive mental switch from the Ceballos that arrived touting himself as an 8/10 or outright 10. It suggests he has seen the light, understands what Arteta sees in him, and is feeling confident and content with his role as a midfielder that does it all on both ends of the ball. It’s clear that taking up these positions has helped him see the game quickly, move the ball, and pick out players without having to put in the work to settle the ball, turn, or play with his back to the attack. His positive play has been a revelation and if Arsenal can work out a beneficial deal, it would be fantastic to see him stay aboard Arteta’s boat.
Sign da ting, Auba
I get that there are only so many consecutive games a person can write about Aubameyang before it comes across as a lazy analysis. The guy is always good enough to warrant being talked about. But when he scores a brace in the semifinals and a brace in the finals – he has to be talked about once more. But one of his goals was a penalty… Yeah, a penalty that he created, drew, and dispatched with gusto.
With 2 goals, 4 shots, 4 duels won, a dribble, an aerial duel won, an interception, 5 recoveries, and a Man of the Match award. Aubameyang lifted the silverware in style. Well, sort of. The actual lift wasn’t that smooth, but the match that got him there was quintessential, efficient, effective Pierre.
Yesterday, Aubameyang proved that he is worth every penny Arsenal are capable of offering him, and likely a little more. Unfortunately, the decision for him to stay likely won’t be about the money that Arsenal can offer him. With his career reaching a shrouded point, and the unpredictability surrounding his long-term sustainability settling in, Aubameyang likely only has a few years where he is capable of contributing in this quantity and he wants it to contribute to team silverware.
It seems as though selling him on the Arsenal project and playing on how happy he is in London is the route that Arsenal have to take, while offering him the money he warrants. Arsenal can’t offer him the assurances that his contributions will lead to Premier League titles because in the next two or three years, Arsenal may not be in contention for a Premier League title. But they can attempt to sell him on the beloved figure he would become to club for his role in this rebuild. It’s not the easiest of sales pitches to deliver, but with yesterday’s win, cup, and elated end to the season, the thrill may be enough to get a signature on the dotted line.
There were plenty of other aspects to the day that may have been worthy of discussion. Emi in tears of joy after is long journey to this point is enough to fill a book and the video that surfaced of him on the phone against the stanchions was enough to bring a tear to my own eye. Seeing Arteta life the cup as a reward for his astounding work in correcting the course of his sinking ship was remarkable. I may have even seen a telling glint in his eye that knew he had won himself some flexibility and funds to rebuild with. Qualifying for the Europa League is something we definitely will talk about down the road. For now, enjoy your Sunday, enjoy basking in the limelight and the warmth of victory, and enjoy a little bit of relief from the grind of a season this proved to be.
Arsenal are FA Cup champions for the 14th time.