Hull vs Arsenal FA Cup: Arsène Wenger seeking hat-trick to keep the critics off his back

Arsenal’s familiar spring stumbles in the Premier League leave under-fire manager pinning hopes on historic treble triumph

Poor, old Arsène Wenger. FA Cup history beckons, north London honour is upheld and interest in the league title is retained, yet still the natives are restless. This is the reward for hanging about a place for almost 20 years. People forget what it used to be like supporting boring, boring Arsenal.

Victory tonight at Hull City would leave Wenger just three more wins from a hat-trick of FA Cup triumphs, a feat not recorded since Blackburn Rovers rattled off three on the spin in the 1880s. The old pot is not what it was but winning it still counts for something, and doing so consecutively is impressive. 

After Arsenal roused themselves magnificently on Saturday to draw the north London derby with 10 men against the best-placed Spurs team in half a century, Wenger is entitled to feel a degree of satisfaction. The past fortnight has not been what it might, with a painful defeat to Manchester United, despite dominating possession, and a torrid home loss to Swansea following the Champions League setback against Barcelona.

To lose to the aesthetes of Catalonia was not unexpected. The subsequent reverses Wenger classifies as anomalous, untypical, the consequence of unusual forces acting against Arsenal. Wenger’s critics are having none of it. Same old, same old, they say. Here we go again – the familiar retreat of Wenger’s team as spring approaches is for them one of football’s hardy perennials. 

The quasi toy-throwing exercise was the posturing of a man loved in the boardroom but disconnected from the rank and file. Those fans standing at the gates to the London Colney training complex with sharpies in hand are not intimate with the rhythms of Wenger’s working day. They cannot see what he sees nor intuit the sensitivities of the players.

They must make do with what they witness on the pitch. Of late, Saturday apart, that has not sustained them. Though they will be cheering loudly enough at Hull tonight, success in the Cup, thrilling as the annual trips to Wembley might be, is no substitute for the more substantial reward of a league title. Wenger struggles to appreciate how he has exhausted the promise of his beautiful template. This is the tension that visits him every season at this time of year. And no amount of trumpeting the FA Cup will change that. 

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Arsène Wenger during training (Getty)

“Personally, I rate highly the FA Cup. I think it’s a fantastic, prestigious competition,” he said. “When I listen to people, should we lose a game in the FA Cup it will be a disaster. You cannot say, on one side, it’s undervalued and, on the other side, if we lose it’s a disaster. We won the FA Cup twice in the last two years. We will try to do our best again in this competition.

“I believe that if we were able to do it again, it would be absolutely fantastic. There’s no country where the national cup is bigger. In Spain and France it’s a fantastic, prestigious competition as well. Nobody neglects it: not Barcelona, not [Real] Madrid. Everybody plays for it 100 per cent, with a top team always.”

Wenger at least takes his team to Hull with confidence partially restored after the draw at White Hart Lane. For almost an hour Arsenal were largely untroubled, leading by an Aaron Ramsey goal. Then Francis Coquelin lost his discipline and within the space of seven minutes a controlled environment had become a febrile, inhospitable bear pit, with a third successive Premier League defeat the promised outcome.

Arsenal’s response vindicated Wenger’s claim that his team do not lack spirit or fight, that they are not an effete ensemble shorn of leaders. Alexis Sanchez took to the Spurs defence like a can opener, ripping an equaliser with his customary zest. The importance of that strike for morale was acknowledged by Wenger, who maintains the championship is in the balance with 27 points for his team still to contest.  

“We feel we had the right response after going down to 10 men. We were really down after Swansea because I feel that was a terrible night for us. We responded very well, showing this group is united. We lost under special circumstances at Man United and against Swansea. Of course, we are not used to that.

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Olivier Giroud reacts after the Champions League exit to Bayern Munich in 2014 (Getty)

“The championship is far from over. I’d just remind you we’ve beaten Leicester twice and have done our job against them. People should look at other teams. We will not give up and [will] fight until the end. When people question the spirit it does not mean they are right. Our spirit was questioned against Swansea and I invite you to watch it again and again. We can only go on and do our job. You [the public] have to be influenced by our desire to win the game and by giving our best.”

Wenger celebrates 20 years in the post in September and turns 67 one month later, begging the question how long he means to continue even if he were to win the league. Succession plans are not common in a reactionary industry low on patience. Since there is no sense he intends to leave either of his own accord or the board’s, the question might appear moot but it shouldn’t, given the upheaval experienced at Manchester United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson period.

Wenger is locked in the endless cycle of preparation and recovery, the next match the only one that matters. He simply turns down the volume on the web churn about the job he is doing. All he will say is he will not be here for another two decades. “No,” he said when asked if it crossed his mind in 1996 that he would still be in an Arsenal tracksuit 20 years later. “And it does not cross my mind I will be here in 20 years! 

“I feel privileged to have the confidence of the club for such a long time,” he said. “On the other hand, I work seven days a week with full commitment. I’m not part-time and since I have been here I have given full commitment and that is all I can do. I always have the same pressure, which is the same pressure I apply to myself.

“After that, people talk and you have more people talking than 20 years ago and more opinions. That doesn’t change the pressure. The real pressure comes from your desire to win the next game and that is the only one that matters really. 

“I do my job and one day someone will replace me. That is part of life and as long as you have done well and given your best – that is what I try to do. I try to do my best and leave this club in the best shape so the guy coming after me will have good potential to work with.”

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