Arsene Wenger's Cup runneth over with bubbly after long drought
Arsenal manager gets a soaking - then turns his thoughts to a summer of team strengthening
Arsène Wenger gave his final round of interviews on Saturday dressed in the last clean tracksuit the kitman had left and socks matched with slip-on rubber sandals. He had been doused with champagne on the pitch by Lukas Podolski and will get a waft of the bubbly every time he takes that club suit off the hanger; the aroma otherwise known as the sweet smell of success.
It has been a long time coming for Arsenal, who have a trophy to put in front of their team group photograph next August for the first time in nine summers. Afterwards, in the corridors off the Wembley tunnel some famous fans and the occasional ex-player basked in a little of the success. Mo Farah interrupted Mikel Arteta’s interview with Spanish television to embrace him. The last time Arsenal won a trophy, Farah was not even the European Under-23 5,000 metres champion.
Stan Kroenke was there too, unwilling to elaborate on his thoughts on the first trophy since he took over the club, but no doubt relieved, like the rest of the Arsenal board, that the new contract with Wenger can be signed without a backdrop of discontent.
One year ago, had this been the scenario offered, Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive, Kroenke and Wenger would happily have taken it. A trophy in the cabinet for the first time since 2005, Champions League qualification a relative breeze (compared to the 2012-13 season) and no major players pressing to leave the club. It is only that they led the Premier League for so long that gives cause for regret.
There will still be many among the club’s support who will regard a three-year deal for Wenger with trepidation. The mood at the club remains on a knife-edge. Never more so than on Saturday when, at two goals down in the first eight minutes, there was palpable anger and frustration among the Arsenal support at Wembley. By the end of the game, #InArseneWeTrust was one of the United Kingdom’s leading trending topics on Twitter.
That schizophrenic attitude towards their manager is never likely to go away. When his team win, as they did against Hull City, coming from two goals behind and snatching it in the 19th minute of extra time, he looks like he has all the answers, and all is well with the world. When they lose, all the worst aspects of his personality – stubbornness, an unwillingness to adapt – seem to be amplified once again.
As for the future, the first impression was not that Wenger is falling over himself to reinforce the squad for a fresh assault on the Premier League title next year. “First, we have to wait for [the out-of-contract] Bacary Sagna – what will he will do?” he said later. “And then there is Lukasz Fabianski [also out of contract]. After, we have to bring in two or three players to strengthen the squad, that is for sure. Unfortunately, everywhere we go, there are many teams trying to buy in the market at the moment.”
He deserves to enjoy his triumph first. Arsenal paraded the FA Cup around the streets of Islington, north London, yesterday and before Wenger embarks for Brazil next month, to work as a pundit for French television at the World Cup finals, he will sign his new contract. The length of it, three years, shows that the club regard him as the man to carry them forward in the long term.
It must have been reassuring for Arsenal fans to see Wenger in the break before extra time started in the middle of his players, intensively briefing the players with his tactical message by moving around water bottles on the turf. He later explained his quandary over substitutions, given that Santi Cazorla, who came off before the second period of extra time, is a good penalty-taker. He also took a risk in leaving on Kieran Gibbs, who had injured a hamstring.
As for ending the nine-year streak without a trophy, he conceded that it was a considerable relief. “Look, it will force you first to be a bit more creative [about your questions] in the press conferences but I trust you will be,” he said. “I don’t worry too much about it. But basically, the whole club and the fans were under that kind of pressure, not having won for years. This will help to get that off our shoulders a little bit and focus on getting stronger.”
How much stronger? It is curious that nine months on from the £42m signing of Mesut Özil that seemed to signify a change of direction within the club, it was not the German who won the final for Arsenal. If anything he was one of their quietest players, doing little to affect the game. The big players were Cazorla and the match-winning goalscorer Aaron Ramsey, with the added impetus of late substitutes Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky.
Olivier Giroud put in another fine performance, right up to the maximum of his abilities, setting up Ramsey’s goal and striking the post himself with a header. But Giroud is not the answer to Arsenal’s centre-forward question; he is the answer when a putative star centre-forward is injured. Giroud would be an excellent understudy to a top-level striker, but can Arsenal find that man this summer?
A ball-winning midfielder would not go amiss either. Abou Diaby was at Wembley, but in the stands as usual. They will need to look at right-back too if Sagna does leave. Still, by the standards of recent years, it has been a good season for Arsenal, especially given the meltdown at Manchester United that has left them as last men standing from among the English veterans of Champions League qualification.
Wenger said: “I believe the quality of a club is the consistency and then the special players make you win the trophies. The quality of the consistency is important for the club and on that front we have been better than everybody else. There are only two clubs in Europe who have 17 years consecutively qualified for the Champions League and that consistency demands special values inside the club.”
He would take Champions League qualification over the FA Cup every day of course, although for once he did not have to. As for the champagne, why was Podolski so determined to soak his manager? “He needed it,” the German said. “After nine years, he needs a little drink.”
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