Football Features

‘World-class’ Aubameyang and Arsenal’s street-smarts decide the FA Cup final v Chelsea

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 21:20, 1 August 2020 | Updated: 21:59, 2 August 2020

Arsenal claimed a record 14th FA Cup trophy after coming from a goal behind to defeat Chelsea 2-1 at Wembley.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was once again the Gunners’ hero in what turned out to be another historical performance by the Gabonese marksman.

The victory ensured European football at the Emirates Stadium next season, with Mikel Arteta’s men securing a Europa League berth, and they can now also look forward to a Community Shield date with Premier League champions Liverpool.

As for the Blues, their season isn’t over yet as there’s a small matter of a Champions League Round of 16 second leg tie with Bayern Munich in a few days time, but very few are betting on them overturning the Bavarians 3-0 aggregate lead.

With the dust starting to settle, here are five things we learnt from this pulsating encounter in London.

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1. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: Statue or transfer?

To say Aubameyang leads by example is an understatement. Arsenal’s skipper was tireless and energetic throughout. He never stopped running and would often chase down lost causes.

This spirited approach seamlessly played to Arteta’s side advantage. Chelsea’s decision to play a high line ultimately backfired on them when the former Borussia Dortmund star chased a long ball and found himself one on one with Blues captain César Azpilicueta, who can no longer be classified as nimble. Forced into making a split-second decision, the Spainard had no choice but to bring him down, and although his transgression initially occurred just outside the penalty area it continued into Willy Caballero’s box, leaving referee Anthony Taylor with no choice but to award the Gunners a spot-kick.

Aubameyang, brushing off that old Arsenal tradition of the fouled player not taking the ensuing kick, comfortably slotted past Caballero and in the process became his club’s oldest FA Cup final goalscorer since 1932, when Bob John netted for the Gunners against Newcastle, and he wasn’t done for the day.

Minutes after the hour mark, Aubameyang found himself eyeing up Chelsea’s goal before a neat piece of skill that saw him wrong-foot former Saint-Etienne teammate Kurt Zouma in the box allowed him to chip the ball over Caballero. An exquisite strike worthy of any final.

“It was like Wrighty in the 90s,” he told BBC Sport, grinning, before adding: “Zouma knows me well. I’m right-footed, so that’s why I said ‘OK, I go on the left, and that’s it”.

This was yet another landmark moment. By registering a brace, he subsequently became the first Arsenal player since Reg Lewis against Liverpool in 1950 to score twice in English football’s showpiece event. Former academy graduate Chuba Akpom was in no doubt as to how much Aubameyang does for Arsenal.

But for how much longer will Arsenal be able to rely upon him?

Longer than the 12 months left on his current, is the hope for those closely affiliated with the club such as Ian Wright (who described ‘Auba’s’ second effort as “A world-class finish”) and, naturally, the partisan pundit.

And when asked what he had to say about his future, Aubameyang wasn’t giving anything away. “Nothing,” was his response to BBC Sport. “Today it’s just about the trophy”.

His manager Arteta thinks otherwise. “I want to build a squad around him,” he said post-match. “I think [he’ll stay].”

To lose him will be a major blow. Even though Arsenal are not quite challenging for the league, no player in England’s top division since his arrival has scored more goals. Today’s work moves, Aubameyang onto 70 goals, which is two more than Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah.

2. Pulisic is a warrior

Due to a transfer embargo imposed by Fifa as punishment for breaching rules on signing young players, Christian Pulisic was the only new face at Chelsea last summer after completing his move from Borussia Dortmund earlier in January of 2019. His switch coincided with club legend Frank Lampard taking over the reins from Maurizio Sarri, who swapped west London for perennial Italian champions Juventus.

Breaking into the Blues’ first-team and becoming a regular starter wasn’t on the menu for Pulisic at first. Even though he featured in Chelsea’s opening four Premier League games, he’d only complete the full 90 minutes once before sitting out their next three outings. A run of 10 consecutive appearances followed, during which period the 21-year-old American international registered four goals, and the majority of those came in a sensational hat-trick on the road at Burnley.

It was around this stretch many started to feel Pulisic was coming into his own, and then a serious muscle injury forced him to miss eight games.

But since the restart, he’s been nothing short of great. Heading into today’s FA Cup final showdown the Hershey-born forward bagged four goals and four assists in nine outings for Lampard’s men. Now comfortable in his new surroundings, Pulisic has been undroppable and even made his FA Cup debut last month, playing 72 minutes in their 1-0 quarter-final win away to Leicester City.

After sitting out the semi-final win over Manchester United as an unused substitute, he started against Arsenal (with Willian his rival for a spot being left out completely through injury) and Pulisic again repaid Lampard’s faith by finishing off a well-worked move in the fifth minute. This effort, his 11th of the season, makes him the first US native to score in a FA Cup final, as well as leaving him behind only Tammy Abraham (17) in the club’s top-scorers chart for this campaign.

Pulisic wasn’t able to add to that tally as a hamstring injury would force him off four minutes after the restart. Replay showed clearly the pain in his face at precise moment the injury was sustained. And yet before going to ground, the Blues youngster still tried to put the chance away. It no doubt would have endeared him to supporters, some of whom may have been indifferent towards him just a couple of months ago.

3. No more Mr Nice Guys

Since being appointed Gunners boss last December and picking up the pieces left by the Unai Emery administration, Arteta has attempted to add some bite in this Arsenal team who for so many been deemed too easy to play against. Far from the finished article, their progress in these last few weeks has been encouraging. Wins over Liverpool, Manchester City and now Chelsea confirmed that feeling.

Even today, we saw his players dabble in the dark arts. You could argue it was the dramatics of tenacious Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, who doesn’t need a second invitation, that got Mateo Kovacic sent off deep into the second half. And replays showed it may even have in fact been Xhaka who trod on Kovacic. Elsewhere, Dani Ceballos had a strong game alongside Xhaka and seemed to dabble a little in attempting to influence the referee himself, Mason Mount’s booking being one such example.

On the other side of the coin for this kind of ultra-competitive behavior, Arteta, whose apprenticeship under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City ensured he was ready for this gig, found himself in Taylor’s book.

This was a far cry from the time Jamie Carragher described those in that fabled red-and-white jersey as “cowards”, the kind of ‘nice guys’ any father would be happy to see their daughter bring home.

The performance earned comnentator Danny Murphy’s seal of approval. “There’s a group of players out there playing for their manager with a sense of purpose and a plan,” he said.

4. Tale of two ‘keepers

A penny for Bernd Leno’s thoughts? Up until his injury, sustained in their 2-1 loss at Brighton early into the restart, he was Arsenal’s undisputed number one. That position no longer seems so secure. Chances are the German shot-stopper will reclaim it once back. Though given the performances of deputy Emiliano Martínez, the former Bayer Leverkusen ‘keeper has a fight on his hands.

Talk about making the best of an opportunity. It wasn’t long ago when the 27-year-old Argentine, who has been with the club since 2010 and loaned out several times , considered saying goodbye permanently. But his nine recent league outings saw Martínez keep three clean sheets while shipping in nine goals, the same number of shutouts across six FA Cup games. But most importantly, he’s a perfect fit for the way Arteta wants Arsenal to play now.

On the opposite side, Kepa Arrizabalaga was conspicuous by his absence on the pitch. Lampard has never been averse to dropping the world’s most expensive goalkeeper. At one point this season it seemed his days at Stamford Bridge were numbered as the veteran Caballero usurped him. The Spaniard won back his spot, but it’s becoming increasingly likely the Blues will dip into the transfer window and sign a new ‘number one’. André Onana of Ajax has been heavily linked and could even cost them £30m, according to reports.

Luck hasn’t been on Kepa’s side, but the same cannot be said for Martínez today. The Arsenal ‘keeper came very close to handling the ball outside the box as Chelsea attempted to get back into the game with 10 men. Nevertheless, he was solid, and in the process earned his captain’s respect. “The best, the best. It’s him!” interview-gatecrasher Aubameyang said post-match as Martínez was choking back tears.

5. Inevitable

When the semi-final draw was made, even the most optimistic Arsenal supporter would have placed their side as outsiders. If they were to get past defending champions Manchester City, the second-best club in England this season, then a meeting with Manchester United or Chelsea awaited them on August 1. All of which makes this latest success even sweeter.

Aubameyang, again, put City to the sword in only his second appearance in English football’s oldest club competition. A double on that occasion (coupled with another strike in a 3-1 loss to Man Utd last season) means he’s scored five times across three outings.

Today’s result enhances the Gunners’ reputation as FA Cup wizards. A fourth title in seven seasons is a record most would be proud of. Now on 14 titles overall, there’s clear daylight to the next best (Man Utd on 12).

But we’ve been here before. Winning a trophy is often seen as the springboard for greater things, and Arteta must now seize this moment in a way Arsene Wenger didn’t quite manage in their last three FA Cup triumphs.

Under Arteta, Arsenal have proven they can be more than the sum of their parts. A top-four finish must be his next objective; the disruptive nature of their season meant they ended 10 points behind the Champions League places. It was that failure that could ultimately see Aubameyang, who turned 31 last month, leave for pastures new.