Gunners aiming for lucky 13th win in succession in Cup that saved Wenger
Where would Arsenal be without the FA Cup? Where would this fourth iteration of Arsene Wenger's team be without those two overdue trophies won in each of the past two Mays?
Arsenal begin their defence of the Cup at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon, against a Sunderland side who would rather be trying to find a way to stay in the Premier League. The home side, too, might have their eyes on bigger prizes. They are top of the Premier League and have a Champions League tie against Barcelona next month.
Yet so much of that progress is owed to those two Wembley wins, the first nervous, the second emphatic, which transformed the direction of the whole Arsenal enterprise. The 3-2 defeat of Hull City in 2014 could be one of the great pivotal moments in the club's modern history. Had they lost it would have been difficult to see how Wenger could have continued at the helm. But they won, and quenched their trophy drought.
"It was vital," said Wenger, looking back yesterday. "I never forget that we were 2-0 down after 20 minutes and could have been three. It was vital, because you had that pressure to win trophies. We were consistent in our presence in the Champions League but it was vital to win trophies. For me, it was an important step."
This competition has always meant a lot to Wenger. He is not a manager who leans too heavily on records or history, but spoke with some pride yesterday about his own achievements in the cup. "I've won the FA Cup six times, that means I take it seriously," he said. "In the whole history, nobody won it more. I show that I care about this competition, and if nobody wins it more often than I did, that is some way I can justify what I have said."
Wenger can match another record if Arsenal win it again, making them the first team since Blackburn Rovers in the mid-1880s to win three in a row. "Three times [in a row] would be great but one of the most difficult rounds is the third round," he said.
"Once you are in the competition the players get slowly in it. But the first game is always a bit difficult to get in there."
This afternoon's game against Sunderland is not likely to be Arsenal's most taxing, despite Wenger's protestations. "I've been in the job long enough to not expect any weaknesses from Sam Allardyce," he insisted. "I know him well enough to know that his team will be focused and motivated no matter who plays."
Of course, Wenger has a better squad of players to pick from than Allardyce does. Even if he rotates his team today he will not lose very much in terms of firepower. While Allardyce has to prioritise his resources for the battle to stay up, big teams can aim to win every game. It is a very different mindset.
Arsenal do not have to worry about their Premier League survival, which makes life easier. They have an important league game at Anfield on Wednesday, but it does not have the same desperate feel as matches for the teams in the bottom half at this time of year.
"Normally the top clubs play their best teams," Wenger said. "For example, with Sunderland what is at stake with the Premier League teams is that they are scared to go down with the new TV deal coming in next year. They are more scared to go down."
Arsenal, then, can afford to only look upwards. "We want to win every competition we participate in," Wenger said. "The FA Cup is one of them, and is an important competition. Confidence is a global thing and you cannot really separate it from one competition to another. You want to feel as well that your team is ready for every single challenge."
There is a theory that Arsenal's Cup success in the last two years represents a rebalancing of priorities from the big Premier League teams. Back at the end of the last decade, when English sides dominated in the Champions League, the FA Cup was third in the pecking order for the biggest clubs.
England provided three of the four Champions League semi-finalists in 2007, 2008 and 2009, and 12 of the 20 between 2005 and 2009. With the biggest sides duelling for Premier League and Champions League crowns, the Cup had to take a back seat.
This decade has been very different. Since 2010, the Premier League has provided just three of the 24 Champions League semi-final berths, as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich sew up the final stages between them. The Premier League's big guns now have more time on their hands than they are used to in March, April and May. Suddenly the FA Cup comes back into play. Wenger agreed with this theory when it was put to him yesterday, saying that "of course the Champions League teams want to win trophies".
The fact that his own Arsenal side have made a recent habit of going out in the last 16 of the Champions League has given them more physical resources over the final stretch.
"There are some dates of the quarter-finals of the Champions League that can conflict [with other competitions]," he said. "Because you went out, there was more energy available maybe."
Not that Arsenal are currently thinking of anything other than beating Barcelona, the European champions, over two legs.
"When you are in January, you do not speculate that you will go out," Wenger said. "I don't know, do you think we will go out against Barcelona? The FA Cup is a big competition. You do not just choose to go out of the FA Cup." Nobody does that. Not even Sam Allardyce.
Arsenal v Sheffield United, live, Setanta Irl, 3.0