More than anything, Arsène Wenger looked happy. For months, the Arsenal manager has furrowed his brow and tensed his body as the blows have rained down on him. He has sensed conspiracy at every turn; a trap in every question. There have been enemies everywhere, including within club ranks. It has been draining.
At Wembley on Saturday, the worry lines could finally soften and the enduring image of Arsenal’s FA Cup final victory over Chelsea was that of Wenger’s smile. Even those who have hounded and denounced him might have felt its warmth.
When the full-time whistle went, the old fighter balled up his fists and shook those long arms. He strode on to the pitch and sought out everybody who had helped him to a record seventh FA Cup for an embrace. The overall impression was of childlike delight. This is what Wenger lives for. It is the reason he suffers.
Rewind to the previous weekend. Arsenal had completed their Premier League campaign at the Emirates Stadium – in fifth place – and Wenger had stayed away from the players’ lap of appreciation. He said that he had wanted them to have “the quiet lap of honor they deserved” but it felt like an acknowledgment of the divisive status he has come to bear.
Wenger had no second thoughts about walking towards the Arsenal end at Wembley and there were roars when he pumped his fists high above his head. “No, never, there was no reluctance,” Wenger said. “I meet many Arsenal fans who are absolutely fantastic. I have just said there have been maybe one per cent [who have behaved badly] but 99% of our fans are absolutely fantastic. We play for them.
“I don’t think that we are human beings if we can say: ‘Oh, fantastic, I enjoy that [abuse].’ There’s a kind of violence in our society now where everybody has opinions and we have to live with it.
“The only thing I say is that during the game, you want people who are fans to be behind the club. I will never accept [otherwise] during a game. If people want me out, they want me out. I can accept that. During the game, you support the team.”
The season – surely the most punishing of Wenger’s career – has been scarred by fury and protest. Who can forget the planes trailing messages in the skies or the mutiny among the traveling support after the humiliation at Crystal Palace?
“I am a forgiving man,” Wenger said. “This job is basically about trusting human beings so, if you cannot forgive, you cannot trust. The only thing I advise to young coaches is that if you have a tendency to paranoia, don’t do this job.”
Wenger fished into his suit trouser pocket and pulled out the small, dark leather case containing his winners’ medal. Normally, he gives them away but, as this represented a piece of history, he said that he would keep it.
Obviously, he was asked about his future. The idea was to continue at Arsenal, right? “Look, you ask me that question at least one time every week,” he said. “Give me a little breather.” Wenger can appear pathologically conditioned to dodge and deny. But he was in relaxed mood and he talked with real feeling about what continues to drive him.
“I’m a very young man but I don’t look very young,” he joked. “That’s the difference. I have desire. I love my job. I love to win. I love to build. I love to get people going. I love what I do. It’s as simple as that. I invite you, for one day, to live with me and one thing you cannot question is my commitment.
“To me, the FA Cup is about the intensity of the emotions. Where else can you get that? Cup finals are hugely popular in every single country. It’s just the explosion of the passion of the people.”
Wenger’s triumph against Chelsea, the recently crowned league champions, owed everything to character and it was particularly evident when his team hit back immediately after Diego Costa’s equalizer. At that point, Chelsea looked on for the Double, despite having been reduced to 10 men after Victor Moses’ lamentable dive. But Aaron Ramsey’s winner would come three minutes later.
“I’ve won a few Doubles and I know that when a team is on a high, it takes something special to break that,” Wenger said.
“When they equalized, I thought: ‘Here we are. That will give them momentum. We will feel guilty and they will take advantage.’ I was worried at that stage. But we responded straight away.”
Wenger’s back line had stretched the definition of makeshift. Per Mertesacker made his first start for 13 months and he had never played in the middle of three central defenders while Alex Oxlade‑Chamberlain, who returned from hamstring trouble, had never played at left wing-back.
“I think I said a few weeks ago that I might play left-back soon,” said Oxlade‑Chamberlain, who has occupied a wide variety of roles. “I was only joking. For it to happen in the final was a bit of surprise.”
It was comfortably the biggest game of Rob Holding’s career but, together with Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal, he stood up to Costa. Mertesacker said that Holding had been the bad cop to his good cop. “We went to work on Costa,” he said. “Rob was giving him a really hard time and I kept patting him on the back. I was being friendly while Rob kept on talking to him. It was a good double-act.”
Arsenal had gone into the final on a run of eight wins in nine games and with what Mertesacker described as a “new direction”, since Wenger’s switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation. They were still the underdogs but they found a way to the upset. “It’s very exciting to see how quickly things can turn,” Mertesacker said.
Wenger’s smile betrayed vindication but, more importantly, hope for the future. The frustrations are practically a part of the Wenger Experience. Why can’t Arsenal play like this every week? We will miss him when he is gone.