Contrasting fortunes of London’s best
Contrasting fortunes of London’s best
When Harry Maguire turned the ball past his own goalkeeper, Chelsea’s path to the FA Cup final was secured. The clock had yet to run out, of course, but you wouldn’t expect a Manchester United side that had been quite poor so far to come back from three down. There was a penalty, as there always is in a Manchester United game these days it seems, but that was more the result of Hudson-Odoi’s inexperience.
A day earlier, Arsenal had produced a defensive masterclass, led by a fantastic David Luiz, and sent the defending champions packing. Before the game, few gave Arsenal a chance, even fewer thought Luiz would be rock solid at the back. But Arsenal were the better side, and they prevailed. And then there were two.
So there was an all-London final. With apologies to Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea are the two biggest clubs in London. Considering the one-sided nature of last year’s Europa League final in Baku, one would be forgiven for thinking this would hardly be a nail-biting end-to-end game. But both sides have changed a lot since that day. Chelsea’s infuriatingly inconsistent form has stemmed from a similar inconsistency at the back, while Arsenal’s defenders have hardly covered themselves in glory.
Arsenal and Chelsea, in recent times, have been quite dominant in the FA Cup. Three titles, and a fourth FA Cup final in the last six years for Arsenal, while for Chelsea, a third FA Cup final in four years, with one title in the cabinet. So it was certainly a matchup between two of the best FA Cup teams of recent times.
The added incentive of Europa league football was there for Arsenal. A dismal season with an eighth-place finish, and a Europa exit at the hands of Olympiacos - and one game to somewhat salvage it all. And in the end, they did what was needed when the time arrived. When the in-form Christian Pulisic scored within six minutes, everyone thought this would be a Baku-style game. But credit to the north Londoners for bouncing back. They produced a fine performance, defending well and attacking the correct areas, although they were aided by Chelsea’s problems. The blues lost their captain Cesar Azpilicueta to a hamstring injury, although he may well have seen a red card earlier when giving away a penalty to the quicker Aubameyang. Christian Pulisic was the best player on the pitch for 50 minutes, and his injury sealed the game in Arsenal’s favour, as did the quite questionable sending off of Mateo Kovacic. It’s fair to say referee Anthony Taylor didn’t have a good game.
A fourteenth FA Cup trophy glosses over a disappointing season, and for now, at least, keeps them alive. A bit harsh for a fantastic Wolves side missing out on European football next season, but it is what it is. Arsenal have some more room in the transfer market now, and they are in serious need of reinforcements. In contrast, Chelsea have been very active in the transfer window, with the pandemic hardly seeming to affect them. Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner have arrived. The sight of the German walking out with the rest of the squad onto the Wembley pitch before the game, must have delighted the fans. Kai Havertz is set to arrive this week, while Ben Chilwell has joined and Thiago SIlva will follow, and provide some much-needed defensive reinforcements. Malang Sarr, a young centre-back who is a free agent since leaving Nice has also signed, although the talented French defender will likely go on loan if he joins. Kepa Arrizabalaga’s dismal form means he is unlikely to remain Chelsea’s number one next season. While their Declan Rice pursuit might have to be put off this summer, they are likely to bring in a goalkeeper, with Rennes’ Edouard Mendy, Lille’s Mike Maignan, Ajax’s Andre Onana, Burnley’s Nick Pope, and Atletico Madrid stopper Jan Oblak all linked in recent weeks. Jose Gimenez, Kalidou Koulibaly, Ben White and John Stones continue to be linked, although whether any of them end up at Stamford Bridge this season remains to be seen.
Arsenal have fallen behind their rivals, and other teams have already begun strengthening. Manchester City have already signed Ferran Torres as a replacement for Leroy Sane, who departed for Bayern Munich, and have shored up their defence with the talented Nathan Ake. Liverpool, the champions, are already a fantastic side, but have signed Kostas Tsimikas from Olympiakos to provide cover at left-back, and Thiago Alcantara looks likely to swap the Allianz Arena for Anfield, even if they didn’t have the funds to secure Werner’s signature. Manchester United spent 200 million pounds last summer, and one of Jadon Sancho or Jack Grealish looks destined to arrive at Old Trafford, even though Dortmund’s Michael Zorc has insisted he will stay put. Douglas Costa and David Brooks are some more players linked with moves to Old Trafford. Tottenham Hotspur have managed to go from fourteenth to sixth in the table, and have something to build on under Jose Mourinho. They have already signed the defensive midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojberg from Southampton, and are close to landing Matt Doherty to add some quality in the problematic right-back position. It doesn’t seem like their business has ended, with Aurier’s departure to AC Milan and more possible signings on the radar. New boys on the block Leicester City and Wolves are sure to improve as well, although holding on to their top assets is a priority for them. Leicester have lost Ben Chilwell, but have already sounded out Ajax’s Argentinian left-back Nicolas Tagliafico as a replacement.
The task, then, is that much more difficult for Arteta. Questions were raised of their pull power, but the Europa league will stand to alleviate that somewhat. Pablo Mari and Cedric have been signed permanently, while William Saliba is expected to be an upgrade on their current crop of defenders. Keeping hold of Aubameyang will be crucial, as will the recruitment of a defensive midfielder - something they haven’t really had since Gilberto Silva, brief flashes from Francis Coquelin, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi aside. Thomas Partey has been linked, but Atletico are tough negotiators, and it will be a difficult deal to get over the line. Willian has switched from blue to red in a bid to remain in London next season, but his end product has never been particularly inspiring. He brings experience and quality, and should link up well with Aubameyang. They have agreed a fee for Lille’s Gabriel Magalhaes, and the defender is expected to agree personal terms amidst interest from Napoli, and both Manchester clubs. Alexandre Lacazette looks likely to leave, with new Juventus coach Andrea Pirlo reportedly looking to sign him. One of Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathapoulos will likely leave if Gabriel arrives, while permanent exits of Mohamed Elneny and Henrikh Mkhitaryan might help balance books and secure more funding. Houssem Aouar is the latest to be linked, although he will likely incur a significant cost.
While Arsenal do seem to be active in the transfer market, their move to lay off 55 employees in this pandemic is unlikely to be received well. None of the top clubs have taken this step, with Liverpool tracking back on their decision to furlough employees after widespread criticism. Arsenal have let go of their experienced scouts, and Raul Sanllehi has departed as well. The club statement noted that this move would “allow them to continue investing in the team”. To lay off employees in order to help transfers is hardly a positive move. Here’s hoping they better their administration now.
Right now, Chelsea’s intelligent transfer strategy means they have inched ahead of their London Rivals. Significant funds available at their disposal, with the transfer ban and the fees received for Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata. More exits are expected, and they might end up with seven or eight new players. One can’t help but think that this season the two sides were comparable in composition and performance, but unless Arsenal recruit well, Chelsea will build a big divide.
About the Writer:
Anubhav is an engineering student from Kolkata who is extremely passionate about football and loves watching the beautiful game.
Connect with him on his LinkedIn handle here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/anubhavaero