Friday 19 January 2018

Rampant Arsenal still need touch of beast to go with beauty

Arsenal 4-0 Aston Villa

Henry Winter

Wembley has not witnessed such a wrecking ball turning such a proud, historic institution into rubble since the old stadium was demolished.

Arsenal's destruction of Aston Villa was the most emphatic FA Cup final victory at the new Wembley, or during its temporary exile at the Millennium in Cardiff, or even at the old Wembley since Manchester United were taking apart Chelsea in 1994 and also Brighton and Hove Albion in the 1983 replay.

Arsenal's triumph deserves placing in a historical context because it was so complete, so thrilling.

Arsene Wenger, the manager, got his selection right, especially the deployment of that likeable streak of lightning Theo Walcott through the middle to exploit Villa's naive high line.

The players all delivered from Wojciech Szczesny in goal, to Hector Bellerin rampaging down the right and Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin owning central midfield so totally that Villa's shocked players hardly dared even trespass.

Alexis Sanchez was again a vivid splash of colour on Wembley's greensward, scoring his fifth in four appearances for club and country.

Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal players outside the Town Hall yesterday
Arsene Wenger and his Arsenal players outside the Town Hall yesterday

Mesut Ozil, a chess grandmaster thinking two or three moves ahead, saw passes few could, and then placed the ball there.

Yellow-shirted individuals shone in showing their technical class, but also in their hunger to retain the Cup. Arsenal's work rate was vastly superior to Villa's, probably the most damaging charge that can be levelled against the vanquished.

Arsenal wanted this more and their ambition and ability was celebrated with sustained acclaim.

Their supporters, revelling in their team's mastery of ball and opponent, will recall that the last time they won FA Cups back-to-back (2002 and 2003), they went through the following league season unbeaten.

An omen?

This is the challenge for Arsenal now.

The euphoria on Saturday was understandable, but the enduring criticism of the post-Invincibles Arsenal is that they lack mental toughness.

There are individual issues, such as the need for a top-class goalkeeper like Petr Cech, although Wenger lauded Szczesny, saying: "He was very good."

But seriously, could he hunt down Chelsea and Manchester City with Szczesny and David Ospina?

"If you look at the stats, Ospina is the best keeper in the league,'' Wenger replied, to some raised eyebrows.

But surely he had to get Cech? "I don't know at the moment. We have just won the Cup."

When the party ends, Wenger surely knows he also requires more authority at centre-half and central midfield and a sharper centre-forward as well as Cech, but the main critique of Wenger's men has been their mindset.

If Arsenal can acquire that resilience in adversity, that cussed indomitability that characterises serial winners like Chelsea, they may compete for the title next season, or at least narrow the gap.

The Cup final showed their beauty, but they need a touch of the beast.

Wenger must be more cautious at times, and his team displaying greater concentration and consistency, but their mentality is strengthening, according to the manager.

"Yes, we have seen that since January,'' Wenger said. "We have made progress on the mental side and on mastering our games and on being less naive and better balanced and knowing what to do and when. It is intelligence. I feel we have moved forward. We still have some way to go. I am conscious of that, but I am conscious as well that mentally we are stronger, and tactically we are stronger. And the technical quality is not bad.

"Chelsea surprised everybody this season by the start they had. They had a very balanced team with quality everywhere.

"We have made some ground up during the season. Now it's about the start. But Man City, Liverpool will buy. Tottenham will buy. I don't know how good all these teams will be. But the quality we have to add is in short numbers, that is for sure."

Wenger will not be joining Chelsea, City and United in chasing Paul Pogba, the all-action Juventus midfielder priced at £70m upwards.

"No, because we have not spent that kind of money. People forget that for years we had to sell our best players (to pay for the Emirates Stadium). That was a very difficult period. Since we buy again, we slowly come back to a more competitive level.

"You speak maybe about stratospheric numbers where we will not be involved."

So, he would not be involved in the Pogba pursuit. "Not at that level. For financial reasons. It's simple."

Wenger complained about lack of finances, but that is when coaches can really go to work, performing as Diego Simeone did in guiding Atletico Madrid to La Liga glory and the Champions League final last year.

Arsenal are hardly broke. Villa's starting XI cost £40.7m, £2m less than Ozil, who accounted for £42.5m of Arsenal's £123.7m. "Santi Cazorla (£15m) has been voted man of the match,'' Wenger countered.

"He has not cost £150m. Coquelin (who joined at 17) was one of the best players on the pitch. You have to always look at the real quality of people.

"I am not against spending money. I have shown that recently.

"But I want a good rapport between price and quality."

There was plenty of memorable quality in Arsenal's moves and goals. Walcott swept in the first, Sanchez drove in the second from 25 yards before Per Mertesacker headed in Cazorla's corner and Olivier Giroud applied the coup de grace from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's clever cross.

The awkward truth for Villa is that Reading of the Championship gave Arsenal a harder time at Wembley in the semi-finals.

Tim Sherwood's tactics played into Wenger's hands. High balls towards Christian Benteke fell invitingly for Mertesacker.

Tom Cleverley and Fabian Delph have been terrific since Sherwood arrived at Villa, but they just ran around, chasing zephyrs called Sanchez, Cazorla and Ozil.

Charles N'Zogbia's sulky, impoverished shift should ensure he never pulls on that famous claret-and-blue shirt again, although his high wages could deter potential suitors.

There is a good player somewhere inside N'Zogbia, but it would need an experienced search party with plenty of time to find it. Gabby Agbonlahor should have started.

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