Wenger's future in the balance as Gunners bid to finally bring nine-year trophy drought to end
Arsene Wenger will lead Arsenal into the Wembley sunshine this afternoon promising that he will see his team and his fans again. Today's FA Cup final is not just the last game of the season, but the last of the contract he signed in August 2010.
For months Wenger has been insisting that he will sign a new deal, to be announced when the time is right. But with no news yet, Arsenal fans could be forgiven for wondering whether today might be something other than a coronation.
This match – against a Hull City side more than capable of throwing a spanner into the works – and the next few days and weeks will, one way or another, be a decisive period in Arsenal's modern history. Of course, Hull could win, and if they did it would be a perfect climax to two years of impressive improvement under Steve Bruce. It would be the first major trophy in the club's history, but that 110-year wait, important as it is, is not an English obsession, not like Arsenal's recent run.
This is Arsenal's first final for more than three years, their first FA Cup final since 2005 and a glaringly good chance to end their nine-year trophy drought. If they won, it would make some sense of their difficult last decade and could be – as Mikel Arteta said this week – a "great turning point" in the club's history.
Victory would cast Wenger as a heroic figure, who led the club safely through the enforced austerity of the new stadium years, emerging out of the other side with status intact and back amongst glittering silver.
Defeat, though, would be a disaster. Not only would it feel worse than any of their other recent final losses – 2006 to Barcelona, 2007 to Chelsea, even 2011 to Birmingham City – but it would dissolve much of the support Arsenal fans have for a new Wenger deal.
Even beyond any effect it might have on the Frenchman's own enthusiasm for the future – he has kept his thoughts very much to himself all season – it would be far harder to break the news to the supporters should the unthinkable happen today.
The mutinous atmosphere which seeped through during the 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa on the opening day of the season, nine months ago, has been largely subdued ever since. Defeat today would risk releasing it again, tainting the whole summer in such a way that it is hard to see an outcome that pleases everyone.
Wenger, though, speaking to the press this week, was in no mood to comply with anyone else's narrative. For him, the last nine years have not been about the absence of trophies, but the consistent presence of Champions League football, hard-earned for 18 straight seasons.
"It has become a way to think for everybody like that," Wenger said. "If you look at the overall consistency, nobody has finished in the Champions League in England for 18 years. Nobody. But it is true that because we were used to winning every year, basically, and suddenly you don't win it becomes a way of thinking and a way of making press conferences."
For Wenger, Arsenal's record is subject to far more scrutiny than that of other teams, and betrays skewed priorities. "You could go to some other clubs: 'why did you not win the championship for 20 years?' Nobody asks them the question. It has just become the non-creative way for everybody to organise press conferences. Having said that, of course, we want to win every year but it's difficult."
Wenger did concede that something is missing, that Arsenal's consistent record was not backed up by silverware. "It matters for your fans. It matters for us. It's a concrete sign that you win. That's what we want to do. I love to win. Your fans love you to win. Your fans will be happy when you win trophies."
But when it came to the psychological importance of a win, and how that might launch Arsenal into a more successful future, Wenger was not particularly keen to reflect too much. "I don't know," he said when asked about such a boost. "The last thing in my mind is all that. It is the next game. I want to win the next game. It's an FA Cup final. I want to win the FA Cup final."
Wenger could certainly be forgiven for trying not to paint the final as a mental test for his team. The history of the last nine years is not only about diminished performance but the inability to close anything out or see anything through. They have lost their last three finals, and another three semi-finals, as well as fading in title challenges, this season, in 2010-11 and 2007-08.
Among all those painful moments, their last final, for the League Cup in 2011, was probably the worst. Arsenal were playing Birmingham City – who were subsequently relegated – but lost the game with a terrible last-minute defensive error. It sent the team into a negative spiral – they lost Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri that summer, and were beaten 8-2 at Old Trafford at the start of the following season – which took them almost 12 months to recover from.
Had Arsenal won, they would surely have gone on to do far better since. Wenger, unsurprisingly, was in no mood to dwell on those memories or to draw comparisons. "I don't reflect at all, it was a different game," he said.
It was a very different Arsenal side – including Patrick Vieira, Gilberto Silva, Kolo Touré, Jens Lehmann and Ashely Cole – which won their last Cup final, on penalties against Manchester United in 2005. Wenger described that win as "ugly" and "lucky" but that is nothing to be ashamed of; none of his sides has been able to win like that since.
Three years before that – remember that Arsenal won three FA Cups in four years just a decade ago – Wenger dropped Richard Wright for the final against Chelsea, having played him in all the previous rounds. Lukasz Fabianski could suffer the same fate today, but Wenger says you need to be ruthless.
David Seaman played instead, and Arsenal triumphed 2-0 thanks to goals from Freddie Ljungberg and Ray Parlour. Arsenal won the Double that season, the Cup the year after and were invincible the year after that, as Wenger's great sides collected trophies almost at will. Arsenal have travelled very far since then, but not in the right direction.
Today's game should suggest whether they have remembered how to win, and what path they will take next. (© Independent News Service)
Where are they now? Arsenal's 2005 FA Cup winners
Jens Lehmann - Works as a coach, speaker and football pundit
Lauren - Retired in 2010
Kolo Touré - Plays for Liverpool
Philippe Senderos - Plays for Valencia
Ashley Cole - Plays for Chelsea but doubts persist over future; retired from international football
Cesc Fabregas - Plays for Barcelona
Patrick Vieira (captain) - Head of elite development squad at Manchester City
Gilberto Silva - Left Atletico Mineiro last year
Robert Pires - Retired in 2011, now a pundit
Jose Antonio Reyes - Won Europa League with Seville this week
Dennis Bergkamp - Assistant manager at Ajax
Fredrik Ljungberg - Retired in 2012
Robin van Persie - Plays for Manchester United
Edu - Corinthians director of football
Manuel Almunia - Watford captain
Sol Campbell - Involved in charity work