After one of the most tense matches in our recent history, Arsenal are in the FA Cup Final. Sounds good, doesn’t it? However laborious the match was, however close we came to being added to Wigan’s long list of cup scalps, we became the first team in two years to knock them out, and as a result find ourselves up against Hull in our first return to the annual showpiece since Vieira’s spot kick won us the trophy in 2005 (or started our trophy drought, depending on who you listen to).
The match was agony, but the result is to be enjoyed, especially after a traumatic couple of weeks in which our title challenge has exploded, the race for fourth has gone from depressingly familiar to deeply concerning, and everyone at the club has been questioned, not least the man who has led the club to the pinnacle and back.
But, of course, there are those that want to rain on our parade, one of a number of things that grated this weekend, so I thought I’d dive into each point and break them down.
1. You can’t celebrate beating Wigan
Actually, Roy Keane, you can. Football, for all the focus on the long-term, the nine month campaigns, the qualifications for future competitions, is actually about the moments. Last minute winners, cup shocks, wonder goals, it is moments that people remember, for good or bad. Cup finals offer many of these moments, from the joy of Andy Linighan and Alan Sunderland’s late winners, to the horrors of Owen’s late turnaround, from the aforementioned shoot-out steal of 2005, to the West Ham disappointment.
All of the above are memorable, for the drama, for the occasion, for the fact we were there. By the time the cup final rolls around, it has everyone’s attention, and too many times in recent years we’ve been watching two sides we despise and trying to figure out which one we want to lose less. Not this year.
But beyond that, we needed this. It wasn’t about playing a Championship side, it was about capitalising on an opportunity to lift a competition we won habitually in the early part of the century, it was about making the most of beating Liverpool, Everton and Spurs to get here (isn’t it remarkable that people say the cup has opened up for us, when it is us who have knocked out most of the big boys?) by finishing the job. Once we went a goal down, it was about survival – in the match, in the cup, and perhaps in the careers of some. It was huge in so many ways.
We did it, we’re in the final – we can celebrate all we like Roy, just like you did when you beat Millwall in the 2004 final. Did you go into the dressing room and stop the champagne flowing because you’d only beaten a third tier side? Of course you didn’t, you pompous prat.
2. The art of the selfie
Ugh. Before I start, I should mention that I hate the word ‘selfie’. It’s a photo. People have been taking photos of themselves for donkey’s years, why is this suddenly a craze?
Anyway, while I hate the term, I cannot understand for a moment why there was such outrage that Ramsey and Cazorla were taking shots of themselves celebrating after the game. And if you think outrage is too strong a term, you should have seen some of the journalists on Twitter actually suggesting sanctions for such behaviour, and not even in jest.
Let’s put this into perspective. How many times have you heard the same journalists cry out at the devaluing of the FA Cup, at ‘foreign players’ (always their fault) not understanding the importance and history of the competition, all while calling it the ‘greatest cup in the world’? Plenty of times, I would guess.
So why, when two players value it highly enough to be taking mementos of the moment, are they vilified? For many, this was their first victory at Wembley, for some it was their first visit at all. Why shouldn’t they savour the moment? Isn’t that exactly what these misty-eyed writers have been looking for, a sign that they really care? Hypocrisy has no limits.
3. Wenger as a laughing stock
Ok, this is where I’m going to lose some of you. I realise that right now the Arsenal fanbase is divided, it has been so for a long time. And while there is much blurring, with some sick of Wenger but wanting him to bow out with a trophy and a legacy, and others who have supported his retention now angling for a change, that is our analytical right as fans – we can love the man yet get frustrated with him, we can support him and despair at some of his decisions, and we can debate his merits and flaws ad nauseam.
Professional broadcasters (journalists, pundits, analysts) are supposed to take the emotion of being a fan out of the debate, to provide a clearer analysis free of bias and predispositions, but increasingly this doesn’t appear to be the case – they prefer instead to go for the extremes, for the Talksport approach of riling up their readers and listeners and allowing their agendas to cloud how they deduce what is in front of them.
This was painfully the case on Saturday, with ITV managing to lower standards yet further (an impressive feat, considering) with their constant barbs, snide jabs and frankly disrespectful comments about Wenger (and, oddly, Arteta, who they seemed to think was the ghost of Denilson past). I’m all for critical analysis, but to reduce a man who has changed the landscape of English football to a clownish caricature was too much. It was truly lowest common denominator stuff.
4. Managing tired legs
Throughout the early phases of extra time, many on Twitter were wondering why we hadn’t made our third and final substitution, with players fading and cramping. I felt (and made the point) that the last change was being reserved for Ramsey, only recently back from long-term injury and highly unlikely to complete 120 minutes. With seven minutes of the added thirty remaining, that came true as Kallstrom replaced him.
Since the game, plenty have been hugely critical of Wenger for allowing Ramsey to play that long. While I can see the argument, this comes back to who knows more about the fitness levels and fatigue of our players – those inside or outside the club.
We have a terrible injury record dating back years – of this there is no doubt. As yet, however, there are no clear answers as to why – our facilities are top-notch, and it isn’t purely a question of numbers – we have a ridiculous amount of midfielders now, which has allowed more rotation than normal, yet they’ve still dropped like flies and by March we’re down to the bare bones once again. You can be sure that the club is trying to find the answer, but I find it remarkable that so many, with so little real knowledge, lambast their decisions based on nothing more than guesswork.
There is one Arsenal fan I trust when it comes to medical issues – an old friend of mine by the name of Tom, who actually has a wealth of medical training and understands sports injuries (and who runs the excellent Running Physio blog). But even he says that these things aren’t simple, and while it is clear that there is an issue, you can’t draw conclusions without a lot more data.
Most of us are far less informed (myself included), so while it is a subject worthy of plenty of debate, it really shouldn’t descend to abuse of those within the club, especially based on the observation that the players ‘looked tired’ in extra time. Newsflash – players are conditioned for 90 minutes, not 120. All the players looked tired, Wigan’s included.
5. Refereeing standards
For this last one I’m going to branch away from Arsenal for a moment. I get quite a lot of stick for being critical of referees in Arsenal games, and I’ll be the first to admit that my observations are built on bias, so of course there is a good chance that people may disagree with my viewpoints, particularly when their biases lay elsewhere. That is normal – witness any pair of managerial post match interviews after a contentious decision and you’ll see those biases taken to their natural conclusion.
However, one of the consequences of Arsenal’s league collapse of recent weeks is that I went into the Liverpool-City game on Sunday not giving a jot who won (I just hoped someone did, because I don’t want Chelsea sneaking ahead of both). Yet despite this, I ended up resenting the result because of the staggeringly awful officiating on display. We all know that referees are human, and they make mistakes like the rest of us, but Mark Clattenburg played an enormous part in the destiny of the points, denying City two clear-cut penalties and refusing to give Suarez a second yellow even after he’d spotted the Uruguayan’s obvious dive. Put simply – if he got all the calls right, Liverpool would not have won the game, and in such a pivotal encounter, that could play a big part in the destination of the title.
Credit where it is due – Michael Oliver had an excellent game in our cup semi – admittedly he had few decisions to make, but the fact that you probably had to think for a moment to remember who took the game indicates that his performance was of the required standard. But this is becoming the exception rather than the norm.
Contrary to what you might think, I don’t actually think this is the fault of the referees – much like players who are out of their depth, it is not necessarily a criticism of them that there are none better. They are the best they can be and they can’t help that they are elevated above their abilities by a lack of talented colleagues. I’ll make an exception for Mike Dean because he isn’t just incompetent, he is a showman who likes to have the cameras on him – and that is a choice.
We’ve been told for years that the number of officials is dwindling, so it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the standards are fading too. But the cruel accuracy of immediate replays show them up again and again, and surely the time has come to give them some help. We’ve had a couple of instances recently where it appears the fourth official is feeding information to the primary one, and while that has been done in an underhand way, I’m all for making it the norm. Get eyes on cameras, get some information to referees. If you don’t want to stop the game, allow referees to retrospectively punish players once the voice in their ear has told them what really happened.
It is frankly ridiculous that within ten seconds of an incident, the only person who doesn’t know what really happened is the one man who needs to, and that he even has a colleague in the stadium who knows better. As for technology, other sports have shown how much drama can be added with the right sprinkling, and I have wondered for a while whether a country like Qatar could place a more positive spin on their World Cup by paying for such an idea to take place when the world’s eye turns on them. That is, if all their money hasn’t already ended up in brown envelopes.
But until the referees get help, they’ll have their every weakness exposed in seconds, which sullies results and hinders any chance of the Respect campaign working. However much fun it is to poke fun at the man in black, I’m sure we’d rather get the right decisions that chant at them. Unless they’re Mike Dean.
On to brighter things, and we face West Ham tonight in what could be one of our trickier remaining games – they’re on good form and have a spoiler of a manager who knows how to get under our skin. If every a match called for an early goal, this is it. Bring it on.