IT WAS supposed to be a bit of a football morality play: Stoke’s throw-it-in-and-rough-’em-up routine against arguably the game’s sweetest practitioners.
But soon enough it was nothing of the sort. More than anything, it was another example of the dangers of trying to outsmart everybody – and not least yourself.
Emboldened maybe by his retrieval of the third-round tie at West Ham with an easy flexing of his squad strength, Arsène Wenger sent too many untested kids – three to be precise – into a place which has proved itself capable of chilling the blood of gnarled old pros.
It was a self-inflicted wound at a pivotal point of a season of promise in which the FA Cup offered itself as probably Arsenal’s best chance of ending the trophy drought of recent years. There was another familiar victim. It was the old tournament itself and any sense that it might not necessarily be doomed to the status of a cup of convenience, somewhere you commit yourself wholeheartedly only when all else is lost.
This was the third successive season in which Arsenal made an inglorious exit which brought heavy questions about their ability to settle down to some serious accumulation of lost glory. In 2008 a brilliant run in the Premiership began to unravel after a humiliating 4-0 thrashing at Old Trafford, one in which, of all people, Nani was able to strut around like some Latin reincarnation of George Best.
Last season Chelsea nudged Arsenal aside so easily it was as though they were doing not much more than removing a speck of dust from a coffee table.
Yesterday the Premier League’s foremost and arguably least scrupulous – at least in the aesthetics of the game – overachievers were allowed an almost formal passage into the fifth round. Stoke unfurled the unlovely but effective football cavemen ritual of having Rory Delap wipe down the ball with an ever-ready towel; Ricardo Fuller beat Lukasz Fabianski so easily he might have been outwitting a traffic bollard. Seventy seconds were on the clock and a familiar story was written in the grey sky.
For some reason best known to himself Wenger reckoned that such as Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Francis Coquelin and Craig Eastmond could effectively turn the clock forward while Sol Campbell and Mikaël Silvestre moved it in the opposite direction. Both theories proved ruinous either side of Denilson’s deflected free-kick, and when the cavalry finally arrived in the shape of Andrei Arshavin, Aaron Ramsey and Eduardo, they found that the authority which was poured back into the recovery at Upton Park was much more elusive this time.
Ramsey, particularly, looked immense in the final stage of the West Ham game. Yesterday he could provide only fleeting assistance to the Little Big Man, Cesc Fabregas. Where does this leave Arsenal? Back, you have to say, in the ether of seriously threatened momentum.
As a statement of priorities it was neither one thing nor the other – and also shot through with contradictions. Wenger had made a great play of alerting the referee Martin Atkinson to the physical pressure that a team of Arsenal’s style and disposition could expect at Stoke – which before the game was enthusiastically trumpeted by the two-goal hero Fuller – and then sent in some of his players least capable of withstanding such treatment.
The biggest victim was Coquelin, whose young face wore a permanent mask of apprehension until his ordeal was ended in the second half. Wenger has, of course, long been on the record with his bottom-line assessment of the value of winning the FA Cup. It is something that may please the fans, if not ultimately, and it is the kind of thing that, if you are a club of Arsenal’s ambition, can somewhat tart up an essentially failed season. But, no, it is not much of a measuring stick in the modern game, much inferior anyway to finishing fourth in the Premier League and enjoying the Champions League revenue stream.
thing that, if you are a club of Arsenal’s ambition, can somewhat tart up an essentially failed season. But, no, it is not much of a measuring stick in the modern game, much inferior anyway to finishing fourth in the Premier League and enjoying the Champions League revenue stream.
Practically speaking, Wenger is of course right. But there are important, even vital elements of football that can be lost in such calculations. Winning is a habit that can be mislaid with disastrous consequences and on a spring afternoon at Wembley winning the oldest knockout tournament of them all can still provide a powerful sense of well-being.
Chelsea, after their disappointments in the Champions League and the Premier League under Guus Hiddink, certainly seemed to benefit from the experience of pushing aside Arsenal in the semi-final and then overwhelming Everton.
After Arsenal crumbled against Chelsea, after taking the lead, Wenger shook his head sadly while praising the winning technique of his conquerors. “Chelsea are very good at pushing you into places where they want you, and then doing damage,” he said. “It comes with experience.”
If that was a salutary experience, you could hardly have guessed yesterday, especially not when Ricardo Fuller went plundering among the boys and the old men.