Respect was hardly in abundance at Wembley for the beleaguered elder statesmen of Islington. First, a betting company, one it would be best not to dignify by naming, indulged in some crass guerrilla marketing by staging a ‘Wenger-endum’ outside the stadium, inviting Arsenal fans to file underneath ‘In’ or ‘Out’ banners, depending on their belief in Arsène Wenger’s durability. Then, a light aircraft showed its colours in the Jeremy Corbyn debate by trailing a ‘Corbyn Out’ banner overhead.
It was not the most convincing argument for North London solidarity. So, the occasion was apt for Arsenal to demonstrate to their delirious supporters a new-found cussedness that propelled them to an eighth FA Cup final of the Wenger era. The Frenchman’s victory pose, screaming to the heavens with his eyes closed and fists clenched, spoke volumes about the sense of catharsis.
This was, hypothetically, the type of game Arsenal had forgotten how to win: a tense and needling semi-final against opponents marshalled by Pep Guardiola, a sorcerer in tactical sophistication. Arsenal, or so the logic went, were a team whose stature developed in inverse proportion to the stakes, whose 10-2 aggregate thrashing against Bayern Munich in the Champions League stood as testament to their indolence. Little wonder, then, that Wenger grinned his way through every post-match interview like Pepé Le Pew.
While not an affirmation of his fitness to lead for years to come – the final on May 27, against Chelsea, will be the crucial litmus test for his future – this result has cemented Wenger’s right to leave at the hour of his choosing. It has also shown up the ‘Wenger Out’ mob, comprising a band of fairweather fans determined to hound a man of unimpeachable integrity out of the Emirates, to be less carriers of a legitimate grievance than rogue voices whose entitlement has spilt over into perhaps the most preposterous persecution complex in sport.
Hard done by? Arsenal’s recent record reflects a veritable banquet for their supporters: three Cup finals in four years, second in the Premier League last season, and still a realistic chance to qualify for the Champions League for the 21st straight time of Wenger’s reign. Jose Mourinho can call him a specialist in failure all he likes, but the FA Cup is one competition where this manager has never let good habits slip. Of the 11 semi-finals Wenger has reached, he has won eight.
Few have been so gratifying as this. In Guardiola, he encountered an adversary taut and wired with the pressure of the moment, desperate to succeed in one last tilt at a trophy to justify that £15 million-a-year contract. And still he outsmarted him, courtesy of this masterclass in the rope-a-dope absorption of pressure, followed by the most uncharacteristic show of obstinacy. It looked for all the world as if Sergio Agüero’s goal would deflate Arsenal like a bird strike on a helium balloon, but the riposte channelled through Nacho Monreal’s equaliser and Alexis Sánchez’s scrambled finish proved a doughtiness of character not often seen in this side.
One interpretation of this result was that Wenger had bought himself some time. Another was that he never needed it in the first place. Stan Kroenke, Arsenal’s remote and reticent majority shareholder, appears to regard Wenger as a soothingly enduring monarch, a beacon of constancy in a world of impatience and churn. There are, indeed, parallels between Wenger and royalty: spool back to 1996 and one remembers that he was appointed in September but did not take charge of his first game until October, rather like an heir awaiting coronation. Ever since, he has ruled apparently impervious to outside noises, incapable of being removed from power other than by his own decree.
The frustration with Arsenal is how they seem to turn these performances off and on. How does one reconcile this obdurate victory with a 3-0 capitulation to Crystal Palace 13 days earlier? How can Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, an anonymous substitute on that wretched evening, rebound to deliver such a game-changing turn at Wembley?
Aaron Ramsey thought that he had the answer: a desire to reward Wenger himself. “We have let him down at times this season,” the Welshman reflected. “We want to win it for him and ourselves.” In this respect, Arsenal’s travails contrast with those of their rivals. Where Chelsea’s players gave every impression of having downed tools during the dismal last days of Mourinho’s second spell, any Arsenal deficiencies are plainly not the product of diluted loyalties.
It helped that Wenger displayed a willingness yesterday to experiment, introducing an unfamiliar back three, and it was from here that the inspiration sprang. Both Gabriel and Rob Holding delivered outstanding resilience to expose the verdicts upon Arsenal’s soft centre as premature.
Monreal, similarly, was not cowed by his tentativeness in the build-up to Agüero’s opener. For once, they issued a statement brimful of fortitude and heart.
There will still be murmurs that Wenger is fortunate, that he ekes out such surprises just when all bets are on him being ushered gently towards the exit. He knows all about auspicious timing, that much is true, but his ability to keep writing unexpected epilogues in his extraordinary career is integral to his longevity. Just when Arsenal are engulfed by gloom, he summons an effort from his players that flicks the switch to euphoria.
Yes, the past decade has brought far more near-misses than Wenger would like. But as he put it last night, his detractors can second-guess his decisions all they like. Never, though, can they doubt the intensity of his commitment to the club. The hope is that he can yet confound his critics with a record seventh FA Cup triumph here next month, eclipsing the benchmark of Aston Villa’s George Ramsay, a manager born in 1851. That, surely, would stand as his ultimate rebuke to the wolves at the door.