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Sunday 22 January 2017

Grealish stuck in neutral as Gunners go through the gears

Ruthless Arsenal leave Villa star looking like little boy lost on big stage, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

Arsenal celebrate their second successive FA Cup triumph after crushing Aston Villa 4-0 at Wembley
Arsenal celebrate their second successive FA Cup triumph after crushing Aston Villa 4-0 at Wembley

Few people had expected it to be straightforward for Arsenal at Wembley yesterday so Arsenal, being Arsenal, made it straightforward.

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The only sense that this was the Arsenal who might find a way of tripping themselves up was when they didn't have the FA Cup won by half-time. Alexis Sanchez rectified that within minutes of the restart when he hit a swerving, dipping shot that baffled Shay Given and gave Arsene Wenger's side a two-goal lead. Per Mertesacker headed in a third which was cruel on Villa's supporters but also served to emphasise how badly Tim Sherwood's side had been at all aspects of the game.

Mertesacker was standing unmarked in Villa's box when his header, which actually came off his shoulder, ensured that Arsenal would win their 12th FA Cup.

It had been a terrible day for Villa who played with none of the joy that has been their trademark since Sherwood's arrival. "I feel sick," Sherwood said later. "You can only know how good winning feels when you see the other team walking around with the cup."

Sherwood promised afterwards to change the mentality of his team - "they're used to losing football matches" - and it was a day when Villa were unable to compete with Arsenal, especially as they tried to play Arsenal's game.

Jack Grealish is not the first player to freeze in an FA Cup final and his performance might encourage those who feel he is being over-hyped. The sense beforehand at Wembley was that Grealish will decide to play for England next season and a bad day in a cup final is unlikely to alter that.

He was part of a collective seizure at Wembley but Grealish has been so central to all that has been good that when he failed, Villa failed.

Grealish couldn't get on the ball in the early stages and by the time he did, Villa were playing with the clumsy hesitancy that was an indication of their anxiety. Grealish tried to do too much which often meant he ended up doing too little.

Sanchez's goal was the highpoint of a wonderful Arsenal performance which saw them retain the FA Cup and it will also raise expectations.

Wenger hasn't had many of these days in recent years and as a great football man he deserves them. If Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are examples of the good things that happen when you spend money, Wenger still displays a reluctance to play that game.

"I'm not in a buying mood," he said last night when the talk turned to how Arsenal might strengthen. Instead he stressed that Theo Walcott should stay at the club and acknowledged that this victory was a platform for greater challenges.

If last season's final was a game that ended in triumph for Wenger, it had also been one which emphasised the great frustrations in the Arsenal side as they recovered from two goals down to win.

There were plenty of Arsenal supporters who felt that Wenger should have retired after last season's victory but the atmosphere this summer might be a little different.

There have been times this season - most notably against Monaco at the Emirates - when the self-destructive Arsenal has revealed itself, but that wasn't the case at Wembley yesterday. It was as if Arsenal had waited a year to demonstrate they have learned their lessons.

After his hat-trick last weekend, Walcott started instead of Giroud, who came on to score the fourth, but this was a collective performance, even if Sanchez and Ozil were outstanding.

Wenger said Arsenal were "at it" and they started strongly with Santi Cazorla a shimmering pest. Christian Benteke's first contribution was to chop Cazorla down as he cut in from the left-hand side. He avoided a booking but perhaps alerted referee Jon Moss to Villa's approach with Cleverley shown a yellow card minutes later for a foul on the excellent Nacho Monreal.

Villa spent the first half trying to keep Arsenal out. Given made a fine save from Laurent Koscielny, Aaron Ramsey wasted a good opportunity and Kieran Richardson blocked when Walcott shot from six yards.

As half-time approached, it looked as if Villa would have a chance. If it was scoreless at the interval, Arsenal might just think they were being too like Arsenal. Five minutes before half-time, that hope vanished when Walcott drove in the opening goal with his left-foot. The second half became a relentless demonstration of Arsenal's superiority, but there wasn't a better moment than Sanchez's goal.

With nothing to lose, Villa began to play or at least keep the ball. At 3-0 down, they ventured forward and had a couple of penalty appeals waved away, one when Grealish was brought down in the box, but they couldn't really campaign on the injustice.

At the end, Grealish sat on the ground until his team-mates came and dragged him up. He had been the player so much depended on and he may deliver on those hopes in the future. In that moment, he offered a glimpse of another Jack Grealish. He looked like a kid who couldn't understand where it had all gone wrong.

Wenger was looking forward to another night of celebration. He would be guided by his team. "I organise the whole year, tonight I just want to follow."

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