Monday 20 November 2017

Paul Hayward: Cup victory won't change reality of Arsenal's failings

Arsene Wenger looks on during a training session ahead of the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Hull City
Arsene Wenger looks on during a training session ahead of the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Hull City

Paul Hayward

Who said this about preparing to face Arsenal? "Parts of my body that had had previous injuries would be aching. And it was because my body knew I was getting ready. It was saying – I'm going to suffer."

Answer: Roy Keane, in the ITV documentary about his battles with Patrick Vieira, who is now performing a role for Manchester City that he ought to be filling at Arsenal. Like Paul Scholes – who rattled Jack Wilshere with a televised critique of the young midfielder's supposedly stalled development – Keane remembers playing Arsene Wenger's teams as a physical and spiritual ordeal. Scholes, meanwhile, was always needled by the regal bearing of Thierry Henry & Co.

Nine years ago this month Arsenal won their most recent trophy: the 2005 FA Cup, beating United on penalties at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

Another country, another era. Hull City's players talk of nerves, excitement and being the underdogs. But few would be likely to reach into Keane's vocabulary of pre-match dread. The 2014 Arsenal FA Cup side are not blessed with the steely character that marked them out before Jose Mourinho's Chelsea replaced them as United's biggest rivals.

"Very, very, very tough," was Keane's description of Vieira, who played alongside Cesc Fabregas and Gilberto Silva nine years ago in an Arsenal starting XI that could find no room for Robin van Persie, Sol Campbell, Edu or Freddie Ljungberg.

MISCHIEVOUS

The mischievous website clock shows how long Arsenal have waited to feel metal on their fingers. But it reveals nothing of how much the team and the club have changed since that 5-4 penalty shoot-out win in Wales.

Vieira, Ashley Cole, Ljungberg, Lauren and Van Persie all scored from the spot. Scholes was the one to miss for United. But that will not explain his comments about Wilshere, which were really about the whole Arsenal team, and Wenger's apparent belief in recent years that the rest of the league should stand back and applaud his creativity.

Scholes said: "Arsenal players go missing (against top teams). They go out with no discipline. It's almost as if it's: 'Go on, you four, five midfielders, do what you want, try and score us a goal, a few little nice one-twos, a bit of tippy-tappy football. Don't bother running back.' There's no leaders."

A proponent of 'less is more' in the speaking stakes, Scholes was articulating what people in the game say all the time. Yes, the drop in individual quality is indisputable (cue long discussion about the Emirates stadium and its effect on transfer budgets). The 2005 starting XI was vastly superior to the one that will take the field against Hull today.

It was: Lehmann, Lauren, Senderos, Kolo Toure, Ashley Cole; Pires, Fabregas, Vieira, Gilberto, Reyes; Bergkamp (Henry was injured). The names, we know about, but the idea also changed dramatically, so that Arsenal embraced a style of play that was all the rage with Barcelona's dominance but is now being challenged by greater tactical variation and more directness all over Europe.

So the nine-year wait is not the only thing Arsenal need to put to bed at Wembley. Since that day in Cardiff, they have reached a Champions League final (2006) and finished fourth five times and third on four occasions.

This is high-class treading water, or elegant stagnation. It is a long way from being catastrophic but is also short of satisfactory. Arsenal fans, of course, just want to go to Wembley and have some fun. They want to put the past nine years aside, forget about soaring ticket prices and not think about why Wenger has not signed his contract, despite saying it was there on the table to sign (can nobody find a pen?). Lurking, though, is the fear that beating Hull in the final of the third most important competition will persuade the board that nothing needs to change and that Wenger can go on writing his own manifesto forever.

Defeat would revive the sense of an ending that stalked the club with the 6-0 defeat at Chelsea in Wenger's 1,000th game. Victory would not alter the reality that Arsenal cannot travel to Chelsea, Manchester City or Liverpool next season with the mindset Scholes describes. Top-four opponents are not traffic cones. They are monsters who know how to disrupt Arsenal's style and how to impose their own.

The end of the Wenger years is not here yet, he says, but the end of the pursuit of hollow beauty surely is. This FA Cup final can serve as burial opportunity for the club, if Wenger and the board are inclined to heed the lessons all around them.

A different type of player, new tactics and renewed respect for the opposition are all required from August on. The next Roy Keane needs to ache again in trepidation at the thought of standing before the Gunners. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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