Every great visionary has a firm grasp of history and Arsene Wenger is no different. The supposed specialist in failure stands on the brink of becoming an FA Cup record-breaker with only Aston Villa standing between him and glory.
Jose Mourinho may have used Chelsea’s glitzy end-of-season awards gala to belittle his favourite foe earlier this week but the FA Cup, as it so often has during his illustrious career, will afford Wenger the opportunity to enjoy something of a last laugh should Arsenal emerge victorious at Wembley on Saturday. His focus, however, remains simply on winning.
When asked about the potential record sixth cup win on Wednesday, Wenger replied with typical diplomacy: “It’s not easy. I would love to do it. I’m not focused on that. I’m more focused on the fact we have fought so hard to get there. We went to Manchester United to get there, we had to win big games, now we want to win it.”
Wenger’s love affair with the competition stretches as far back as 1998, when goals from Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka earned the Frenchman his first taste of FA Cup glory.
That year, Arsenal had to overcome Port Vale and West Ham, after a replay at Upton Park, on penalties. They missed their No.1 goalkeeper, David Seaman, and most recognisable goalscorer, Ian Wright, for much of the season and narrowly overcame second-tier opposition in a tense semi-final. The similarities and parallels are inescapable.
COMBINED XI | Click here to see who made the grade in our FA Cup final Form XI
Arsenal’s route to Wembley has not been as arduous as last season’s journey, bar the trip to Old Trafford, nor have they had to cope with the expectancy and pressure that grew round by round on the way to ending a nine-year wait for silverware. Undoubtedly, however, this current team is displaying elements of the resilience that characterised previous FA Cup-winning teams under Wenger.
“The team has learnt from last year,” Wenger insisted. “The experience always helps because in your head you have what will happen and you know how you will deal with the problems because you have done it before. On that front it can help but let’s not be fooled – what dictates the outcome is the quality of your game on the day.
“Last year we were reminded how big the FA Cup final is. We learnt that the pressure is very big. Overall I have a good experience of FA Cup finals but at the end of the day it’s another football game so you want to play well. No matter what is at stake you just know that the quality of your performance has to be good, so you want to concentrate on that.”
Arsenal, despite their well-documented trophy drought, regularly save their best for the FA Cup. While Wenger flagrantly ignores the League Cup – instead fielding academy graduates and fringe players – he appears to treasure its older brother. He was visibly distraught when they were last eliminated – by Blackburn Rovers in 2012 – and places great value on the importance of lifting the trophy.
Despite Mourinho’s public war of words with Wenger, the fact remains that the Portuguese has won the FA Cup only once. Wenger’s record, therefore, must be placed in the highest esteem, something Mathieu Flamini readily acknowledges.
“I don’t want to comment on Jose Mourinho, we all know what Arsene Wenger did for this club, we all know what he achieved,” he told reporters. “It’s just confirmation, that all the time what he did was an amazing job.
“For the club and for the fans it’s a big achievement again so hopefully we win it for the fans and for him too.”
Wenger is hardly one for hyperbole, but to win the competition this weekend would send a significant message to his rivals. The Frenchman may still have his doubters – a third-place finish this season remains something of a disappointment, given the attacking riches within his squad – but he is a serial winner of the world’s oldest cup competition.
He has, despite a gap of eight years between 2005 and 2013, simply worked out a way to win.
Prior to that 3-2 victory over Hull last season, Wenger’s Arsenal defeated Manchester United, Southampton, Chelsea and Newcastle in their respective finals; they have lost a showpiece fixture under his guidance just once, to a Michael Owen-inspired Liverpool in 2001.
Wenger also acknowledges the importance of luck on such occasions. Taking 2005 as an example, the Frenchman deployed Dennis Bergkamp in a lone striker role against United in the absence of the injured Thierry Henry and the Gunners were dominated from start to finish.
United had 20 shots at goal. Arsenal had five. And yet Wenger emerged victorious, with Patrick Vieira scoring the decisive penalty in his final game for the club at the Millenium Stadium.
“The logic behind that, we had a passing team and that Dennis could combine well and keep the ball up front,” Wenger told Arsenal’s official website when quizzed on the final. “In fact, we were dominated in that game, we never got to Dennis, he was a bit isolated.
“I think I played with Vieira, Fabregas and Gilberto Silva in the middle of the park but they had Rooney and Ronaldo up front who were absolutely outstanding, Ryan Giggs, who was outstanding on the day, and we suffered. It’s the final but it’s basically a miracle that we have won it.
“We won it on penalties. What is symbolic in that game, it is the last kick of Vieira, with the penalty kick. He wasn’t a penalty specialist but that’s all in him there. He has the character on the day and it’s the last kick for him for the club and it gets us the cup final. In 2005, to be completely honest, we could have lost 10 times on the day but we won it.”
It could be argued that Arsenal have never been in a stronger position to continue Wenger’s romantic attachment to the FA Cup: they are better than they were in 2013, having recruited the genius of Alexis Sanchez last summer, they have fostered something of a winning mentality and have several players – including the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil – returning to something approaching their best form.
Villa, whilst a dangerous opponent given Christian Benteke’s penchant for scoring in big games, have struggled enormously in recent weeks, and were thumped 6-1 by Southampton only two weeks ago.
When Wenger leads his men out onto the Wembley turf he will be acutely aware that this is a chance he cannot allow to slip through his fingers, as he can become the most successful manager in the competition in the modern era.
Few would argue against him breaking the record, and it is down to him to make sure the Gunners climb the steps and pick up the trophy once more.