Monday, 1 June 2015

Arsenal 4-0 Villa: The boys turned men?

Match Report | Match highlights | Wenger's thoughts

My, oh my. Be it Aston Villa, I had definitely prepped my nerves for something more life-threatening.

What an absolutely scintillating response to a traditionally tense stimulus that was. Granted, the stakes were lower than last season. As I had said yesterday, neither Arsene Wenger nor the fans saw this match as some kind of ultimatum.

But this was the cup final. And incidentally, the final of probably the greatest knockout competition football has ever known. This was a tournament where Manchester City and Chelsea are knocked aside for being a touch too complacent. Winning the cup, let alone retaining it and carving a new record for yourself, is not something to be scoffed at.

The fact that we made it look so easy was, I must say, surprising in the bestest of ways. Villa came out looking for a fast start but were utterly overwhelmed within the initial 10 minutes, resorting to "tactical" fouls and hoofing the ball to Benteke. It was meat and drink stuff for Mertesacker and Szczesny (and incidentally, I'm having a bit of mutton as I type this!)

Chances came at a canter for Koscielny, Ramsey and then Theo, who so agonizingly missed out on a tap in thanks to a Kieran Richardson block. I won't lie - at that point, I worried that the spilled milk would come back to haunt us. Even though Villa looked as threatening as a stray kitten with a pink bow on it, it would be so Arsenal to let them take the lead through a defensive mishap.

It turned out we were simply bidding our time, and our time came when Walcott laced home a loose ball. The manager's decision to start him ahead of Giroud reaped the rewards of ruthless pragmatism (apologies for the House of Cards reference). Walcott ensured our play was much more fluid and new to Sherwood, whose defence simply could not cope.

From then on it was all Arsenal - we managed to see the game off with frightening electricity in the build up, Ozil and Cazorla at the heart of it. Quite obviously the pick of the lot was Alexis Sanchez's thunderbolt. It makes me quite thankful that I decided to postpone the awards for this season, for that's definitely a contender.

The end-of game celebrations were funny and heartwarming, although for some reason I had a strange fear that the podium on which the players stand to hold high the trophy was going to fall, killing everyone. Apologies for the mental imagery.

There was the usual comments from the players and from Wenger, but what I particularly enjoyed was from Theo Walcott, when he said: 

"It’s a great achievement to win the FA Cup on consecutive years and it just shows this is a special team. We want to do this more and more for these guys because they deserve it and this group of players deserve it. I’ve been here for a long time and this is the best group."

I completely concur. Say what you will about Arsene Wenger getting a lot of things wrong this season (and I'd be the first to show you the list!), but he's done a lot of right, too. He changed his tactical approach against the very best teams. He adjusted his priorities with respect to the cup. And most of all, as mentioned above, he has assembled the best Arsenal side since the Invincibles.

Look at the team from a very objective point of view. Aside from competition for Coquelin and replacing possible departures, this team is respectfully stocked in every position. I understand concerns for the team to upgrade on positions such as goalkeeper and striker, and I'm all for it too. But if we fail (or if Wenger chooses not to strengthen), our contingency plan isn't too shoddy. Ospina and Szczesny may have their faults, but they're both very decent and talented players. In the striking department, so are Walcott, Giroud and Welbeck.

It's a far cry from having to be stuck with the likes of Almunia and Bendtner when our grand plans failed. Even if Arsenal do not have any influxes or exoduses this summer (which I pray won't happen), the players we have are yet talented and committed enough to frighten any team in the Premier League.

There really should be no excuses now. We have a team any manager in the world would swell with pride for, not least the manager who collected them over the years. 95% of this team, in Wenger's own words, is going nowhere. The team has built relationships and rapports which have definitely solidified following yesterday. Aside from Alexis Sanchez, they have a relatively idle, if not truncated pre-season.

We have a rival too, if you haven't noticed. Arsenal vs Chelsea could be one of the greatest stalwarts for the Premier League since the United-Arsenal rivalry. Everything about the two teams is so polarizing in terms of manager, style of play, history, financial approach (even the Hazard vs Sanchez parley) that there's no love lost between them. Obviously at this moment Chelsea are better, but if we look up to a rival like them instead of looking down at Tottenham, the sheer will to trounce them will really push us on.

If Wenger fails to win the Premier League with this bunch due to overplaying them and not employing the right tactical formulae, then that's on him. However, if he focuses on the opposition's weaknesses game-by-game and rotates his egalitarian squad respectively - forget Premier League contenders, the Champions League skirmish could see a wild card entry, too.

Optimism. It's a beautiful thing. Get the minutiae right, and it becomes a reality.

I don't know about you, but Arsenal can fix me in ways no other person, object or concept can.

What a way to come out of 2014/15.

-Santi [Follow me on Twitter @ArsenalBlogz ]