That was sweet. Like a fresh strawberry dipped in whipped cream sweet. Arsenal’s 14th FA Cup trophy won when nobody thought it was possible really takes the sting out of this long, strange, and mostly disappointing season.
As Arsenal dropped points with no margin for error to begin with, it looked as if the Gunners would miss out on European football for the first time in 25 years. Yeah, the club still had the FA Cup, but Sheffield United followed by a semifinal and final almost assuredly against one of the big clubs made that look like a pipe dream. But that’s why they play the games.
Arsenal put in an impressive performance to defeat Manchester City in the semifinals, but they were still considered underdogs against Chelsea. 90 some odd minutes of football later, Arsenal are once again headed to Europe and have added a record-extending 14th FA Cup title to the trophy cabinet. It was a major redemption for a club that had a subpar season and a big victory for new manager Mikel Arteta.
The headlines are, rightly, all about Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and the poetry of Arsenal’s #14 scoring two to lead the club to it’s 14th title. But as Mikel Arteta has preached from the day he took the helm, yesterday’s success came from everyone pulling in the same direction and buying in.
Mikel Arteta said time and again that there was a place for anybody who wanted to be at the club and that seeming outcasts were valued members of the squad. Enter Granit Xhaka and David Luiz.
The Swiss midfielder was booed off the pitch last October and in response, let the home support know what he thought of them with some colorful language and, uh, unfriendly gestures. Then manager Unai Emery stripped him of the captaincy, and it appeared certain that his time in North London was over. Xhaka admitted in a recent interview, “I was very, very close to leaving the club.”
He remained, and Xhaka credits Arteta for his turnaround and rediscovered confidence. The Spaniard convinced the midfielder to stay and made it clear that he of the plan going forward. About this Xhaka said, “Mikel was the guy. He turned me around and gave me a second chance and he showed me he trusted me, and I tried to give him everything back.”
Xhaka is not a worldbeater; he has his flaws. But he played a critical role in the restart, helped by his newfound confidence, and seems to have won back the support of the fans. He may not get the headlines, but for a defensive midfielder that usually means they are doing their job. Xhaka showed resolve and steel to turn around a bad situation and come out on the other end. He deserves credit for persevering.
Another player that redeemed himself is David Luiz. He joined Arsenal from Chelsea before the start of this season when it became apparent that he was not a part of new manager Frank Lampard’s plans. Since moving across London, he has divided opinion like no other Arsenal defender since perhaps Phillipe Senderos or Pascal Cygan.
His blunders this season were far too frequent and almost always game-changing. He set the record for penalties conceded in a Premier League season with five. He picked up two straight reds. He was sent off against Chelsea in January, and in Arsenal’s first match after the restart in June, Luiz gave away a penalty and received a red card in a terrible display that resulted in a 3-0 defeat at Manchester City.
Regardless, Arteta showed faith in the centre-back’s experience and past successes with the defender being offered a new one-year deal for next season. The manager said as much after Luiz was sent off against City in June.
Luiz repaid his manager’s faith in him one month later as he put in a Man of the Match performance in Arsenal’s 2-0 win against Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals at Wembley. Arsenal were on the back foot throughout that match, but Luiz commanded the back line, threw his body around and kept City from finding the back of the net. That day he won 100 per cent of his aerial duels, and made 11 clearances. And he did that on the back of another solid performance that helped the Gunners to their 2-1 victory over Liverpool.
In the final, Luiz once again demonstrated leadership and composure. His didn’t put a foot wrong against his former side. And after the match, he and Arteta shared a massive, well-deserved hug.
It was a tough season for Arsenal, particularly tough for Granit Xhaka and David Luiz. I’m more than happy to give them the recognition they deserve for fighting through adversity.