It is a strange time to be an Arsenal supporter and the emotion or feeling that sadly most adequately describes my state of mind is ‘resigned’. It seems highly likely that come the summer now we will find ourselves entering a new era with a new manager for the first full season in 21 years. Firstly, however there is the small matter, at least for this biased observer of winning the FA Cup under Wenger. What better way to see the old man off than with him creating more history and winning a seventh FA Cup, a competition he has already won more than another other coach.
I passionately hope that Arsenal and Wenger come Monday are seriously focused on the cup, despite the apparent easy tie we face. Unlike for most, for me it is Wenger’s relationship with the world’s oldest cup competition that tarnished my personal perspective on him. For most, it has been the lack of success in Europe and in the Premier League or perhaps his apparent dithering in the transfer market, but for me it was often, his disregard for the FA Cup.
History will rightly say he won the competition on six occasions and from 2001 to 2005, his great teams made every final but one and won three of them. History will also day he won the competition in successive years in 2014 and 2015 and I admit to openly crying when he lifted the trophy breaking a nine-year drought. My issue will always be that the drought was 100% of his own making by his changed attitude to the FA Cup in the early Emirates years. I fully accept the argument that with the financial constraints Wenger and Arsenal were under during that period prevented us competing wholeheartedly over the season for the league and certainly for the Champions League. However, I will never accept the way he still prioritised those competitions at the wrong times over the FA Cup. Winning trophies gives players a winning feeling and a winning mentality. We have great players who could have made is a great team had they gained that feeling and that mentality, Our manager sadly denied them that and they all unsurprisingly wanted to leave to go where they could win.
In 2008, he took a weakened team to be demoralized in round five at Old Trafford where his team at that time still top of the league and title favourites. He rested Sagna, Clichy, Hleb and Adebayor for Hoyte, Traore, Eboue and Bendtner and we were thrashed 4-0. The following league match saw our title challenge infamously die on the pitch at St Andrews.
In 2009, we had actually made the FA Cup Semi Final and were due to play Chelsea, as always at full strength. This was at Wembley for a place in the final and Wenger opted to leave his most recent two star signings, Nasri and Arshavin on the bench. We lost 2-1 but do not worry Arshavin scored four at Anfield a few days later. Not much comfort to me at the time when a Wembley Cup Final had been 45 minutes away. Again prioritising the league and Champions league in which we were humiliated by United in the semi-final a week or so later.
Wenger however completely surpassed his apparent disregard for the fine tradition of the FA Cup in 2010 and to this day, I have not forgiven him for this travesty. Arsenal were two points of top spot and had just put four past Bolton at home. The next game was an FA Cup 4th round clash at one of the toughest away grounds at the time, Stoke. Bearing this in mind Wenger changed 10 of the 11 players who had thrashed Bolton, leaving only his young playmaker Fabregas to lead the likes of Coquelin, Traore, Vela and Eastmond out to pay Pulis’s dogs of war. He even played a middle aged Sol Campbell at the back, making his second debut, and Arsenal were not surprisingly well beaten and out of the FA Cup. Wenger’s defenders will of course say he was prioritising the Premier League but the next three league outings following the cup exit saw his team draw with Aston Villa and then lose to both title rivals Man United and Chelsea and effectively drop out of the title reckoning.
In 2011, Wenger did play a virtually full strength side but we exited to Man United away and by 2012, He seemed to be beginning to take the FA Cup seriously once more, although a good side lost disappointingly to an average Sunderland team in round five. Particularly depressing after the historic Thierry Henry return in the third round at home to Leeds.
In decision to risk a weakened team in 2013 however, ranks up with 2009 and 2010 with me for annoyance. Again, many will suggest he was prioritising a game versus Bayern at home on the Tuesday when he decided his team to play Blackburn of the Championship at home on the Saturday. For me it was prioritising a competition we could not win over one we could and when the fans saw the team announced in the pub ahead of the match, trust me most shared my view. Wenger left his four most potent attacking and creative players, at that time, on the bench. His first choice three behind Giroud then were Walcott, Cazorla and Podolski and all were left out along with Jack Wilshere. This was amongst my worse afternoons at the Emirates as we lost 1-0 to a team he had taken too lightly that had been in the same league as us the previous season.
Thankfully, with greater resource and nine years of desperation the FA Cup was firmly front and centre again in 2014 and subsequently but I cannot help but wonder what might have been if we had just focused it in one of the above years. What if a team with Fabregas, van Persie, Nasri, Arshavin as a front four, at their peaks, had been given the opportunity to win the FA Cup in 2009 or 2010, rather than denied it? How different things could have turned out. For top players it is obviously about money to some degree but it also about being able to look back at a career scattered with winner’s medals. We will never know what a team with the above players might have done the season after winning a cup or whether seeing the ambition demonstrated by winning it might have altered their desire to leave.
What we do know now I am certain of is that Wenger and his staff will be taking this year’s FA Cup very seriously indeed. There are many of the best teams left in the competition but on our day IF he plays our best team this team can conclude his tenure with one last trophy.