This season is different. Unique, even. It’s possible to pinpoint where and when, to the minute (or at least 90 of them), Chelsea enacted a remarkable metamorphosis from omnishambles to champions-elect.
In the immediate aftermath of that balmy evening in north London—with a Mesut Ozil-inspired Arsenal waltzing through a Chelsea side so leaden it was like watching Fred Astaire trying to teach Fred Flintstone to dance—the home side’s 3-0 victory led to fevered title talk.
Football is nothing if not bittersweet.
Eight months on, Chelsea are Premier League champions with a record 30 victories from a 38-game season. Only Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea class of 2004/05 has ever accrued more Premier League points, with 95. The 13 matches Chelsea won consecutively on the back of the Arsenal game equalled a Premier League record, with Golden Glove winner Thibaut Courtois keeping 10 clean sheets from October 1 to New Year’s Eve. Over the course of the season, they spent just 457 minutes in a losing position.
It’s tempting to say Arsenal are still Arsenal, except that’s not the case anymore. Long since reconciled to the fact they are Ringo Starr, the least fabulous of the Fab Four, they now have to deal with being Pete Best. The Premier League’s fifth Beatle will spend next season with its nose pressed up against the television screen on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. Thursday night graveyard shifts are only worth it if you win it.
Chelsea became Antonio Conte’s Chelsea from the moment he experimented in that dead rubber of a second half at the Emirates Stadium. His side was 3-0 down. A switch from a 4-1-4-1 system to a 3-4-3 was such a light-bulb moment Thomas Edison is said to be checking his patent for possible copyright infringement.
With one flick of the switch, Eden Hazard was freed from his defensive manacles, David Luiz became the best ballplayer from the back in football, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso emerged as a ready-made pair of brilliant, buccaneering wing-backs and Nemanja Matic breathed for the first time in a year at not having to look after Cesc Fabregas. Alongside the Serb, N’Golo Kante went from babysitter to baby-maker by adding a creative side to his game.
Cesar Azpilicueta confirmed himself to be every bit as good a centre-half as he is a full-back—in the process becoming only the fourth outfield player ever to play every single minute in a Premier League title-winning campaign.
All the while, World Cup winner Pedro reminded everyone that he didn’t make over 300 appearances for Barcelona because he is an ineffective winger.
Talk of football and narratives is often incongruous, too neat for a game that dresses itself in the dark. A desire to make stories from plays without scripts often leads to anticlimax, the final shrill of a referee’s whistle eliciting a pervading sense of “is that it?”
On Wednesday in Stockholm, the football industry recoiled at Ajax’s no-show for the Europa League final, bracing themselves for accusations of being guilty of the biggest misselling since the banking sector went big on PPI. It was billed somewhat glibly as a romantic contest of the haves and the have-nots, organic vs. off the shelf.
By full-time Ajax’s wonder kids no longer required a prefix, with the abiding takeaway from the night being callow youth is no match for experience.
Or as Mourinho put it to BT Sport, with no little poetry himself (h/t James Ducker of the Daily Telegraph): “There are lots of poets in football, but poets don’t win many titles.”
Its meaning is unlikely to have been lost on Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. If he can engineer a victory on Saturday to become the standalone most successful manager in FA Cup history, he could do worse than borrow a pithy line from Salman Rushdie: “A poet’s work is to to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”
For Wenger, it represents a final chance to, if not save it, soften Arsenal’s season from being spoken of in definitive terms as being the worst of his 21-year tenure.
If the outcome will affect his decision over whether to extend his stay in north London, no one seems to know. As a saga, it has become as tediously long-winded, with as many red herrings, as the mystery over who pushed Ken Barlow down the stairs in Coronation Street. If it would put an end to it, I’d gladly push him down them again and sign a full confession. Barlow that is, not Wenger.
Arsenal have won six of their 11 finals with Wenger at the helm, with his only defeat in seven previous FA Cup finals coming against Liverpool in 2001.
A record seventh FA Cup win for the Frenchman would hold no little appeal to his remaining acolytes, the type of romantic folk who consider millennials obsessing over UEFA Champions League qualification as being as uncouth as presenting a loved one with flowers plucked from a garage forecourt. They’d rather marry a Tottenham Hotspur fan than partake in YouTube, so screaming to camera on the most famous concrete ramp in football will fall on the deafest of ears.
Chelsea supporters look at Conte the way Arsenal fans did Wenger in the halcyon years, circa 1996 to 2005. An almost immaculate debut season in English football could culminate in the infectiously likable Italian guiding Chelsea to only the 12th league and FA Cup double since the latter’s inception in 1872.
Conte’s men go into the game having won eight of their past 11 competitive games against Arsenal. A record of six wins from their past seven games against teams in the top half is similarly impressive.
Step beyond the sidelines, and the contest is teeming with subplots. For both centre-forwards on show, it could represent farewell appearances. Wenger has assured the media Alexis Sanchez will recover from a thigh injury to start, and he’s even gone as far as to guarantee the Chilean will be professional despite doubts over his future. Well, if that’s not worth £250,000 per week, what is? Chelsea, for one, would almost certainly pay it.
He could replace Diego Costa. The Spain international’s pursuit of roughly the same amount per day in China looks increasingly likely to mean the air will be noticeably less blue at Chelsea next season.
After three terms in England that have yielded two Premier League titles, one League Cup, 57 goals and twice as main spats with opposition centre-halves, it would appear a farewell wave on being substituted in Chelsea’s final league game against Sunderland was the start of the long goodbye, with Matt Law of the Daily Telegraph recently reporting former club Atletico Madrid have asked to be kept informed of any developments.
Costa will want to go out with a bang, which will probably be the sound made by either scoring the winning goal or taking Per Mertesacker’s head clean off at the neck.
Fabregas is spiky enough a character to be desperate to prove Wenger wrong in spurning the chance to re-sign him when Barcelona offered him back to Arsenal in 2014. In eight years under the Arsenal boss’ tutelage, the Spaniard became one of the best midfielders in Europe.
But the Frenchman allowed Chelsea to bring him back to England without a fight as he felt confident Ozil was enough. Even for Wenger, having two of four midfielders wear cashmere boots would be too much luxury.
Conte will probably go with the more pragmatic Matic, even if Fabregas’ impressive run rate of a goal or an assist every 78 minutes of Premier League football this season means it will be sorely tempting to utilise him from the start.
If fate is a fickle mistress, Wenger must have felt she has spent the week leading up to the final in bed with Conte. He has less a defensive headache than an aneurysm.
Laurent Kosielny has probably woken up each morning since the final-day win against Everton silently praying it is Sunday morning. It isn’t, and he’s still suspended for the FA Cup final as a result of his red card in that game. Gabriel Paulista is out until August with the medial knee ligament injury he suffered in the same fixture, with Shkodran Mustafi in a his race to prove he has sufficiently recovered from concussion. Football Association guidelines on the matter are rightly draconian. Kieran Gibbs is another touch-and-go to be ready.
After making his first appearance of the season off the substitutes’ bench against Everton, the always-affable Mertesacker has declared himself ready to start on Saturday, albeit with enough caveats about his fitness to suggest he won’t be storming out of the dressing room if he doesn’t get the nod.
Without his three first-choice centre-halves, Wenger could move away from the 3-4-2-1 that has brought about significant success in recent weeks and revert to a back four. It will be a tough call given Arsenal head into Saturday having won seven of their past nine games, with Tottenham the only side to have beaten them when they have played three at the back.
Lucky charm Rob Holding will start as the club’s most in-form centre-half, with the 21-year-old unbeaten in the past 10 matches in which he has featured from the off.
Azure, sun-kissed skies, with temperatures expected to hit the highest of the year, will not disguise the fact Saturday’s FA Cup final is being played in a period of national darkness. As ever in these moments of terror and tragedy, we look into ourselves. Sport is no different.
Chelsea captain Gary Cahill has spoken eloquently of how the final will be a “difficult experience” against the backdrop of the Manchester bombing and heightened security at Wembley Stadium. He speaks first and foremost as a parent with a young family. It’s easy to forget how footballers are people too, each in their own way just like the rest of us, trying to make some sense of the incomprehensible.
“Before talking about the game, it’s important to show our respect and send our condolences to the families that have been affected in Manchester,” Cahill said, per Law. “We’ve all got families, and I can’t imagine how they’re feeling right now. I lived close to Manchester. It’s a great city, and I’m sure they’ll pull together.”
The final will be the first major football match played with the threat level of a terrorist attack at critical. Arsenal have cancelled plans to screen the game live from the Emirates. Similarly, Chelsea have called off a victory parade to celebrate their title success, which had been scheduled for Sunday, so as not to place extra pressure on police.
There will be those who think the final should follow suit. Tragic events will always shrink everything else so they seem insignificant to the point of being meaningless. Yet football does matter, just in the same way pop concerts matter. Sport and culture are often a crutch when the world no longer makes sense.
In a thoughtful piece for GQ.com, entitled “Why Dads Should Keep Taking their Kids To Concerts,” the writer Stuart Heritage argued it is important to resist a perfectly natural reaction to retreat:
“What makes the Manchester attack so unthinkably hellish is that it deliberately targeted children. A pop concert, for crying out loud. Until the very moment it happened, every child there was having the time of their life.
“They were experiencing a communal spectacle so full-blown that all their senses will have been utterly swamped. It was going to be a moment they would remember forever. …
“Teach your children that the world is dark and full of monsters and they’ll never leave the house. They’ll grow up without taking any risks. They’ll go through life undercooked, and that would be a tragic waste.
“So we have to keep taking our children to pop concerts. Of course we do.”
It’s the same with football. It’s the glue that sticks communities and families together. While hopelessly glib to say terrorism won’t break it, over the Bank Holiday weekend, 210,000 supporters will pass through the Wembley turnstiles.
One of my abiding childhood memories was travelling down to Wembley with my dad for the 1990 League Cup final between Oldham Athletic and Nottingham Forest. I was nine at the time. Looking back at photographs, I was attired head to toe in official club merchandise, including a flat cap. It’s a wonder social services never intervened.
One day, I’ll hopefully make the same journey with my own son (don’t hold your breath, pal—you inherit the bad with the good). I’d love to see him so enraptured with something he feels the need to advertise the fact via his headwear choice.
On Sunday there will be thousands of kids experiencing Wembley for the first time. It will be the most important thing in their lives. Forget what it means to us, as adults, hoodwinked into believing finishing fourth is better than winning the cup. To them, the FA Cup will shine every bit as bright as it ever has in the tournament’s 145-year history.
The scoreline might not matter, but the game definitely does.
After all, as the Swede Nils Liedholm once told protege Carlo Ancelotti during their time together at AS Roma: “Football is the most important of the less important things in life.”