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Match report from Wembley: In a yellow blur, the shadow of the Invincibles begins to recede


IT was when one glanced towards the Villa end shortly after the final whistle and before the losers had collected their medal that the true scale of the devastation we had wrought hit home. A year earlier the Hull end had been packed at the same moment. This time, it was 90 per cent empty. It was their biggest day out in god knows how long but now for most, there wasn’t even pride to salvage.

For us, this was probably our biggest moment since Patrick Vieira ambled round Ian Walker in the Leicester goal 11 years ago and cemented Invincibility. It was certainly my happiest moment, far more enjoyable than either United in 2005 or that at times tortuous experience a year ago. But leaving aside the happiness, this was a hugely emphatic statement. Last year’s win after 9 without one may have been psychologically important but it was not by any stretch of the imagination one to leave our opponents quaking. The performance against Villa, I think one can reasonably say, sent a message to our critics and opponents.

Fortunes in football can change very quickly and it is not inconceivable that two months into the new season we could once again be miles behind Chelsea and out of the title race. But speaking as someone who, for the past five or so years, would not have mourned a change of manager, I do think that things have changed for Arsene Wenger. At the final whistle his name was sung with infinitely more gusto than it has for quite a while and I’ll readily admit I was one of the swing voters who uttered that ditty for the first time in a long, long while.

For the manager, Wigan in the semi and then Hull in the final last year were, I think many would agree, survival operations. I’d never argue the board would have sacked him if either had ended in the calamitous defeats they were headed towards because I think he could relegated and still have their trust, but I think in the minds of the fans it might have been an impossibly long way back. There was rightly never the same pressure on the Villa game. But few would have envisaged such a triumph. We simply played so many thousands of times better than we ever have in a competitive game at the new stadium than we ever had before.

There can be times in football when emulating one’s achievement of the year before can feel that little less special. When walkovers become an anti-climax. This was not one of them. It was infinitely preferable to last year.

I thought that, quite simply, we strangled Aston Villa. We heeded the lesson of last year and started sharply. But more than that we were unrelenting. In fact, the more Villa tried to attack, the more dispiriting it became for them. Repeatedly we took the ball off them, relieved the pressure with a few neat passes and went on our way, with Villa at no point looking remotely like doing anything. Anyone who has ever been to a game with me will know I’m only to happy to snatch pessimism from the jaws of optimism, but even I couldn’t at any point see anything other than an Arsenal victory.

The manager made a bold call in starting Walcott over Giroud and was rewarded with an unerring finish for the opening goal. The brother of Goodplaya called it most un-Theo like. I’m not so sure: both the goal and the badly misdirected curler in the second half backed the traditional view that he’s best when he doesn’t have time to think about it.

Either way, I think we’d have won yesterday with either of them up front. It wasn’t about who played for us, it was about how they played. It was about that pressing I’ve already spoken about.

For me, everyone in an Arsenal shirt had a really good game. Were one to pick a man of the match, I can’t see how you can look beyond Sanchez. Perhaps the difference in the way we approached yesterday’s game compared to last year’s final was nothing to do with him whatsoever. But for me it is hard not to think that the sight of such a technically brilliant player as him working as hard as he does can fail to rub off on those around him. And then, of course, there was the goal. What a goal and what a moment for it. It wouldn’t have remotely been beyond us to dominate the first half, only score one and then to drop our pace and struggle after the break. In that moment he basically won the cup final.

I should also add that from a personal perspective I was deeply indebted to Alexis for ensuring that I enjoyed such a fine look at the goal. I was way up the other end, high in the upper tier but nonetheless he had the good grace to basically run and shoot straight along my view towards goal, so I enjoyed one of those rare moments where the moment he hit it I could see exactly where it was headed.

Walking away from Wembley, I recalled those years after our move away from Highbury when for some bizarre reason we appeared to regard the domestic cups as somehow beneath us. A curious and failed experiment where the manager tried to see how weak a team he could put out and yet still win the game. I’d always argued at the time that I for one am a fairly fickle creature and that frankly a nice cup win amounted to a pretty cheap and potent injection of Arsenal adrenaline straight into my system. I stand by that now: some historians will likely put the last decade down as one of important consolidation in the club’s history following the upheaval of the stadium move. And while I accept that is part of the story I think it also probably ignores some somewhat odd (remember when anyone over 25 was basically got rid of?) periods of ideological experimentation and indulgence.

But if last year was a case of “yes, but”, this year was simply a case of “yes”. The temptation will be to look at this season from October onwards and to conclude we’re in fine fettle and that nothing needs changing. On two fronts that would be a mistake. Firstly because we need to understand why we were out of the title race so early this season. To ascribe that to injuries alone, would, I fear, be naive.

The second is because personnel wise, there may be some tough, inconvenient decisions to make. Such as whether the midfield pairing of Coquelin and Cazorla that has served us so well of late is the one to take us through an entire league season. Maybe they are, but we should think long and hard about areas such as that and others rather than just thinking all is rosey.

I don’t think there can be any ambiguity: after a decade of somewhat inevitable decline from the Invincibles dizzying heights followed by a lengthy plateau, yesterday marked a shift and a shift in the right direction. If last year’s triumph felt a little like a case of a club of our size throwing enough to stick, yesterday was a very obvious cementing of the improvement we have seen in the league, the ruthlessness and size of our victory over Villa an unmistakable statement of intent.


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