Arsenal are not just looking forward today, towards their first FA Cup final since 2005, and the prospect of ending that infamous trophy drought, but backwards as well, as they hope to make amends for recent embarrassments.
Too many times this season, when Arsenal have played for the highest stakes, they have been humiliated, appearing simply unfit to challenge the best. It has undermined Arsenal’s pride but this afternoon, at Wembley, in a Cup semi-final, there is a chance to pay back some debts.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain spoke honestly about the pain of those revealing defeats, before today’s game. He said that the 6-0 reverse at Stamford Bridge, in which he was controversially allowed to stay on the pitch, was a “nightmare”, and that the players were “gutted” after the most recent, and maybe most damaging, away defeat – 3-0 at Goodison Park last Sunday.
Wigan Athletic, clearly, are not on a level with those teams, although they did beat Manchester City in the quarter-final at the Etihad Stadium, which is certainly more than Arsenal managed, having lost 6-3 there in December. That was the first of Arsenal’s abject away afternoons this season, the last came just last week.
“After the Everton game, everyone was gutted,” Oxlade-Chamberlain admitted this week. “That is not the result we wanted or expected. Everyone was completely fired up and we knew what we needed to do. To come away with a 3-0 defeat, it is hard to put your finger on what went wrong. The initial reaction was disappointment, but you have to put it to the back of your mind.”
Even worse than the Everton defeat was the 6-0 thrashing at Stamford Bridge, in which Oxlade-Chamberlain was controversially spared by referee Andre Marriner for a handball on the line – he could only watch as Kieran Gibbs was sent off instead. “It was a nightmare day,” said Oxlade-Chamberlain, now able to joke about the affair. “People ask if I’m a midfielder or a winger, but I showed I can play in goal. The whole situation was crazy.”
The incident, as Oxlade-Chamberlain described it, happened in a flash. “I handballed it, but I did not even know what had happened,” he said. “It was an instinctive reaction and you cannot control these things.”
But there is a positive example to follow. When Arsenal were beaten 5-1 at Anfield on 8 February, it prompted a positive response in the FA Cup rematch the following week. Arsenal won 2-1 eight days later, to reach the sixth round. They harnessed the hurt and used it on the pitch, and that is what they need to do today.
“I remember losing at Liverpool, the feeling that left on us and on me,” Oxlade-Chamberlain said. “Going into the FA Cup game against them, it gives you that little bit extra to go and prove yourselves, so we can take that.”
Arsenal’s worst moments have come against the biggest teams, while they seem to approach lesser opponents with more authority. They ought to be far more confident going into today’s game, against Championship opposition. But no player would want to talk down an opponent on the eve of a big game and so Oxlade-Chamberlain was insistently polite about Wigan’s qualities. “I watched Wigan play City, I did expect City to win, but I saw the whole game and not for one moment could you tell Wigan weren’t a Premier League team,” he said. “They have great players, they play some really good stuff and they compete. We don’t think we’re massive favourites and they’re underdogs. We know it will be really hard. If they can beat City, on their day they can beat us and it is our responsibility to make sure that does not happen.”
Wigan, of course, are the FA Cup holders and for all the differences between the two clubs, only one of them has fresh experience of winning a trophy. This is the glaring gap in Arsenal’s recent history and Oxlade-Chamberlain knows that they need to win the Cup, as a way to teach themselves how to take a trophy.
“I always hear commentators talking about squads that have been around and that have won things,” Oxlade-Chamberlain reflected. “They always mention the experience of winning, and knowing what it takes to win.
“Once you do get that experience of winning the first one, you automatically build confidence that you can go on and do that again and again and again. That experience is vital.
“Teams have only got that through winning trophies, and winning competitions. That is definitely something that will help this team to go on and push forward and be successful in the future. But it is just getting to that first one. It is a lot easier said than done.”
Just capital in the Cup : Arsenal close to home
If Arsenal go on to win the FA Cup this season they will have done so without leaving London, following four home ties and two trips to Wembley – but it will not be the shortest distance travelled to lift the trophy.
In 1950, the Gunners again played their first four games at home – at former ground Highbury – defeating Sheffield Wednesday, Swansea, Burnley and Leeds before travelling to White Hart Lane to take on Chelsea in the semi-final.
Although they required a replay to reach Wembley, their two trips to Tottenham (3.9 miles) and the journey to the Empire Stadium (11.1 miles) totalled 18.9m – three miles less than Arsène Wenger’s team might have to travel for two trips to Wembley (22 miles) this year.