Of all the possible outcomes from Saturday’s FA Cup final, victory for Arsene Wenger’s side was probably the most Arsenal of them all.
Going toe-to-toe with the runaway Premier League champions, with a half-baked defence, and having had a decidedly underwhelming league season, all conventional wisdom pointed to the Blues processing to the double in relative ease.
But as only Arsenal fans will know, confounding the conventional is something that the Gunners have made into an art form in recent years, in almost every respect.
With their backs to the wall and seemingly without a hope in hell, Arsenal saved their most complete performance of the season for the very end, when all but the very few thought they would do anything other than roll over.
To a man, the Gunners were absolutely superb. They were dynamic, aggressive, incisive, and persistent. If either of the two teams looked like champions, it was Arsenal, who matched – and bettered – Chelsea’s 3-4-3, a feat no-one thought possible this season.
There was, of course, an obvious element of complacency about the way Chelsea handled themselves, but that is to take nothing away from Wenger’s men, who thoroughly deserved to win and, indeed, more comfortably than they did so.
It made no matter that we were without key centre backs Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielney. It was inconsequential that Per Mertesacker – a man who had had barely 30 minutes of football all season – stepped into the heart of defence for the full 90 minutes of a cup final. It didn’t even matter that we were playing several of our squad out of position in a system that is still unfamiliar to them. Every obstacle thrown in front of Arsenal was used as motivation to overcome and to do better. In short, it was magnificent.
It was the sort of sense-defying feat only Arsenal seem capable of. Whether it is repeating a 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich three times in succession, throwing away must-win matches against Watford, or destroying the Premier League champions as if they were mid-table journeyman – nothing seems impossible.
So complete and so satisfying was the all round effort that it is difficult to single anyone out for particular praise. Everyone was well-prepared, hungry, and playing to their maximum.
Mesut Ozil was everywhere, Danny Welbeck was tireless, Mertesacker was imperious, Aaron Ramsey was running his legs off, Granit Xhaka was totally in control of N’Golo Kante, everything went according to plan and everyone was superb.
It was the type of performance Arsenal fans have been craving since we thumped Chelsea 3-0 at the Emirates at the start of the season. It was ironic then, that when we finally rediscovered our verve, it was against that same Chelsea side and yielded much the same gulf in class.
To think that these are more or less the same players who were so easily beaten by Watford, Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion makes the achievement all the more staggering.
Quite what happened in the wake of our defeats to Everton and Manchester City in December, which coincided with a serious decline in our form, may never be known but our FA Cup final performance showed that at the very least, this team is well capable of competing with the best.
Credit for that, therefore, must also go to Arsene and his backroom team. Few would have imagined that he still had the nous and wizardry to outdo the younger, trendier, more gesticulative Antonio Conte but he undoubtedly does, such an overwhelming triumph proves as much.
I was among those who didn’t think Arsene was capable of mixing it with the newer breed of Premier League managers but the veteran Frenchman did himself and his club proud with an absolute masterclass.
So with my glass of liquid triumph and revelry, quaffed merrily after FA Cup success, I’ll add a slice of humble pie. While this cup victory, a third in four years, doesn’t negate the need for change at the top, it does serve as a reminder that Arsene Wenger is a remarkable servant to our club and this squad remain capable of producing the type of results that only Arsenal can.