There are times when Arsène Wenger can speak so persuasively as to be beguiling. Thursday morning was one of them. The Arsenal manager had made a comment that had prompted a fair bit of eye-rolling. “Maybe we are not at the maximum of our confidence,” he said. You can say that again, Arsène.
But the way that he proceeded to frame his team’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City at Wembley on Sunday as a shelter in the storm, an opportunity to be seized, made his audience temporarily forget the negativity that has suffocated the club since the end of January – all of the uncertainty, vulnerability and disasters lurking round corners. Wenger has been here before. This is his 11th, to be precise. He remembers the first – in 1998 at Villa Park against Wolverhampton Wanderers, when Christopher Wreh scored the only goal of the tie.
Wenger has won seven and lost three, with one of the defeats coming after a replay to Manchester United in the 1999 epic, and what has struck him every time has been the noise and the colour, with the neutral stadium split evenly with opposition supporters. To him the environment on Sunday will be key, in that it will represent a break from the Premier League hot-house.
“It’s a different competition and every competition brings a psychological atmosphere,” he said. “We have many times seen teams not doing well in the championship and, when it is a different competition, suddenly they are doing very well. They don’t carry the negative vibes of bad experiences into the competition. When you walk out, half of the stadium is red and half is blue, so you realise it is something different.”
It is easy to see the parallels between Arsenal’s appearance in the 2014 FA Cup semi-final against Wigan Athletic at Wembley and the present day. Then, as now, Wenger was approaching the end of his contract – while revealing nothing as to his long-term intentions – and the pressure around him and on the team was excruciating. Arsenal would squeak past the Championship club after a penalty shootout before beating Hull City in the final, so ending a run of nine years without a trophy.
“It was special pressure in 2014; this time it is a special opportunity,” Wenger said. “It was difficult for us in 2014. We were super-favourites. We also had not won a trophy for a long time and people questioned us about that. We had the opportunity in the semi-final [against a Championship club] to go to the final and win the Cup. Overall, the pressure was big. This time, it is really a 50-50 game. If you ask the neutrals, maybe they will say City are favourites, even.”
Arsenal’s dismal recent run arguably hit rock bottom in the 3-0 defeat at Crystal Palace on the Monday before last but they restored the sheen of stability with the 2-1 win at Middlesbrough this past Monday. At full-time at the Riverside, the players did look more together as a group.
“When you have negative results like we had, it can divide or unite,” Wenger said. “At some stage you have to show you can fight together. People will say it’s normal you win at Middlesbrough but, when you go through a bad period, it’s difficult in your head to win everywhere. The fact that we fought and won had a positive impact.”
It will take more than an edgy victory over relegation-threatened opponents to cool the heat on Wenger and it says much about the mood of the Arsenal fans that, if their team were to beat City, some of them would fear a final against Chelsea or, even worse, Tottenham.
“I’ve not thought about that at all,” Wenger said. “If we had played, for example, a Championship team in the semi-final, I would honestly say, yes. But because we play City, I don’t think about it like that. It would be absolutely stupid to speculate on the final. Let’s first deal with City.”
The FA Cup is Wenger’s trophy. He has won it six times, sharing the record with Aston Villa’s George Ramsay, whose victories came between 1887 and 1920. “My memories are of the old Wembley, where we beat Newcastle in the 1998 final,” Wenger said. “When I was a kid, I watched the games at Wembley on television.
“The new Wembley is more like the new stadiums you meet everywhere but it is still massive. What is great is that you see your fans coming in and it is an experience that they and their children never forget. You want them to be pleased when they go home.”