The trophy was dropped by victorious captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the moments before the relocated pitch-level FA Cup final pot-lift, although on balance it was no less surreal than celebrating to empty Wembley stands – or indeed that it was Arsenal who were doing so.
A rookie managerial season like no other for Mikel Arteta, who was appointed in a crisis at Christmas and over the following months presided over some familiar Arsenal calamities in the league and Europe. Yet here he was at the final whistle rushing onto the pitch to embrace his players who had delivered a trophy out of the blue that should future-proof their manager’s reign for some time to come.
Can we discern the shape of the Arteta era in this FA Cup run in which first Manchester City and now Chelsea have been dispatched at Wembley? Pragmatic at times, with a reliance on the pace and skill of Aubameyang, their matchwinner who might yet have a better option this summer. But also a ruthless bunch who pushed hard for cards for Chelsea players and got them on this occasion. Arteta has shown Arsenal a route out of the mediocrity and that might be enough for now.
This was a FA Cup final full of all the dramatic stuff: great goals, big injuries, and a mistaken red card for Mateo Kovacic dished out by Anthony Taylor with the game in the balance. The second yellow for the Chelsea midfielder was revealed to be for a challenge in which his toe in fact slipped under the foot of Granit Xhaka and the video assistant protocol being what it is, there was no recourse to Var. Frank Lampard’s problems had already started with the injuries to Willian and N’Golo Kante that meant they played no part, although they did not end there.
There was what looked like a torn hamstring for his captain Cesar Azpilicueta and then another at the beginning of the second half for goalscorer Christian Pulisic, ending both their finals early. There was even a dislocated shoulder to send Pedro on his way, the last act in a Chelsea shirt for the substitute who seemed determined to sign off with something special but ended up on a stretcher. In the stands, Timo Werner watched from behind his face mask.
There was misfortune with injuries but also the nagging sense that Lampard missed a chance here against an Arsenal team with their own problems. Pulisic glided around Kieran Tierney for the first goal of the game on five minutes but Chelsea never again really exploited that creaky Arsenal defence and Arteta’s players, as they had in the semi-final against Manchester City, grew in confidence as the game progressed. Aubameyang’s 67th minute winner was the second half’s only attempt on target for both sides.
In the midst of it, Arteta’s boys roughed it out. The Arsenal manager, the first to captain and manage Arsenal to an FA Cup final victory, was also the first of the club’s managers to be booked in a final. His complaints and opinions finally tipping Taylor into action and that bad feeling between the two sides was discernible, although this time it was Arsenal demonstrating that they could be just as ruthless.
Certainly Arteta, whose highest paid player was nowhere to be seen – Mesut Ozil later tweeting his congratulations. For the manager who won the 14th FA Cup in Arsenal’s history, to add to the two he won as an Arsenal player, there was also a place in next season’s Europa League. Even more important, the endorsement of his managerial reputation and with it the reinforcing of his power within the club. This manager will be able to make demands of Arsenal’s embattled owners. He asks a lot of his players and he will now be in a position to ask for the players more capable of delivering it.
Much came down to the finishing of Aubameyang who switched the ball from his right foot to his left for a sublime second goal. Before then he had taken Azpilicueta to places the old defender just does not want to go these days, specifically sprinting towards his own goal in races he can never hope to win. From the moment he set off in pursuit of Aubameyang in the 26th minute, the Chelsea captain was grasping desperately for a handhold and eventually found it with his left hand on the striker’s right shoulder.
The Arsenal captain delayed his tumble until he reached the area. He dispatched the penalty with the look of a man who had never considered missing. Azpilicueta had long been off injured by the time Aubameyang scored his remarkable second. The ball was carried forward by Hector Bellerin who was challenged by the substitute Andreas Christensen in another of those pivotal moments to the game. It went from Nicolas Pepe to Aubameyang and there was nothing Kurt Zouma or anyone else could do about the skill that took the Arsenal captain clear, or indeed his finish.
Yet Chelsea had the better of the start to the game, when Pulisic had started the move that ended with him gliding past Kieran Tierney before the Scot, playing as one of three Arsenal centre-halves, could even think about safely offering a challenge. The United States international became the first American to score in an FA Cup final, and he might have scored again in the minute after half-time but his muscle tore as he prepared to shoot.
Later on there was another moment when Emiliano Martinez looked like he might have handled outside his area although the replays appeared to show that while his feet were over the line his hands were the right side of it. The game could have swung back Chelsea’s way and then Kovacic was shown the red card and it looked like this very open game at last had a winner. Taylor booked Dani Ceballos for demanding the second yellow card before he then belatedly gave that second yellow to Kovacic – a bad decision which Var could not rescue him from.
Chelsea finished the 11 minutes of time added on with nine players after Pedro’s departure despite making five substitutions, and there was to be no way back for them. There were ten points and four places between these two sides in the league which is some ground for Arteta to make up next season although this represented a very good start on that.