It may not have been enough for redemption, but it was certainly a step in the right direction. Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Manchester City in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final at Wembley provided Arsene Wenger with a rare moment of joy this season, with the triumph important enough to unite the club’s fan base behind the Frenchman once more – at least for now.
They needed this. Ahead of Wednesday night’s clash with Leicester City, Arsenal’s Champions League hopes are hanging by a thread: although they have a game in hand on fourth-placed Manchester City, the Gunners are currently seven points adrift of the qualification spots. Prior to the semi-final, they had won just five of their 13 matches in all competitions since late January, with two of those successes coming against non-league opposition in Sutton United and Lincoln City.
Off the pitch, dissent and dissatisfaction have reached new levels. Anti-Wenger demonstrations have been held outside the Emirates, and although the manager has largely escaped abuse inside Arsenal’s stadium, supporters in the stands have regularly made their feelings about chief executive Ivan Gazidis and largest shareholder Stan Kroenke abundantly clear. In the nadir that was the 3-0 away defeat by Crystal Palace, meanwhile, the visiting fans informed the players in no uncertain terms that they were not fit to wear the shirt.
The prospect of a big day out at Wembley, then, brought nerves as well as excitement. Wenger looks likely to extend his tenure at the club beyond this season, but a heavy loss on such a stage – particularly as the north Londoners have nothing else to play for in the remaining weeks of the campaign – would only serve to create yet more division at a club who were expected to challenge for the Premier League title this term.
That is exactly what seemed to be happening in the first half on Sunday. City, themselves drinking at last-chance saloon in the fight for silverware, were dominant and could easily have taken a commanding lead into the interval. Arsenal stood firm, though, and turned the match around in the second period; although Sergio Aguero gave Pep Guardiola’s charges the lead shortly after the hour-mark, goals from Nacho Monreal and Alexis Sanchez ensured it was Arsenal who advanced to next month’s final at the same venue.
In many ways, this was an uncharacteristic Arsenal performance. Wenger lined his side up with three at the back for only the second time since the late 1990s. Arsenal were aggressive and combative, committing 12 fouls in the first half alone as they sought to break up City’s rhythm. Content to sit deep and counter-attack, they finished the game with just 35 per cent possession. In the end, it proved to be a winning formula.
Wenger’s elation was evident when the final whistle sounded: the 67-year-old punched the air in celebration, before composing himself and shaking Guardiola’s hand. The manner of the display must have made the victory even more pleasing for Wenger, who has frequently been criticised for his perceived stubbornness and lack of tactical flexibility in recent seasons.
The question now is whether or not the morale-boosting defeat of City is enough to unify the club until the final, when Wenger can overtake former Aston Villa boss George Ramsey and become the single most successful manager in the history of the FA Cup. As ever, much will depend on results; although the majority of Arsenal fans have probably accepted they will not be participating in next season’s edition of the Champions League, they will still want to see their side remain competitive in the closing weeks, particularly in Sunday’s north London derby against Tottenham Hotspur and the following weekend’s meeting with Manchester United at the Emirates.
Whatever happens between now and May 27, Wenger’s men will almost certainly be underdogs against Chelsea at Wembley. That was also the case on Sunday, however, and Arsenal showed then that they are willing to fight for their under-fire manager.