Arsenal suffering ends unconvincingly
Once-beautiful friend, it looked like this could be the end. Arsene Wenger has been Arsenal's greatest manager, but calamity against Hull would surely have been the felling blow. Instead, the Emirates trophy room finally has a major addition. The manner of victory did not suggest that Arsenal are back as a coming force, but their fans were understandably jubilant. Their suffering is over, even if their team had put them through seven shades of hell before Aaron Ramsey scored the winning goal deep into extra time.
"I always said my future didn't depend on this," said Wenger in the immediate afterglow of victory. He can now sign his new contract as the trophy winner he used to be. This was his fifth FA Cup, making him the modern game's most prolific collector of the world's oldest competition.
"We wanted to make history tonight and win the game, and we made history in both ways -- how not to start a cup final and how to come back," he admitted with a smile.
Hard on Hull, but their fate was apparent once Santi Cazorla had scored Arsenal's first goal utterly against the run of play. "We just ran out of juice just that little bit too much," admitted Tigers manager Steve Bruce.
Those clad in amber gave Wembley a sense of occasion. When provincial clubs visit there is always an added frisson. Like Stoke and Bradford in recent years, the underdogs' fans were noisy, happy to be present. They were a credit to their club. Arsenal supporters only truly found their voice once Laurent Koscielny had levelled the score at 2-2. Until then, tension had throttled them.
In truth, Hull supporters could enjoy their day, come what may. Unlike Arsenal, their fans and manager, failing to win was no Sword of Damocles. East Yorkshire's finest gave the atmosphere a throwback quality. An enthralling match was played in the style of when the FA Cup final was the biggest match of the season. Both teams rattled with nerves -- Arsenal when going two goals down, and Hull once Cazorla had scored and the final whistle neared on the horizon. By the time Koscielny equalised, Hull had retreated in a bank to the edge of their penalty area, the adventure of the opening minutes now a painfully distant memory.
On first look, James Chester's opener looked inadvertent, yet replays showed he meant to redirect Tom Huddlestone's volley. Arsenal goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski was caught flat-footed, and Wenger began anxiously pacing his technical area. Four minutes in and the anguish had already begun. He had been punished by a training-ground routine of the type that is beyond his team.
When Hull's lead was doubled by Curtis Davies' neat finish after Alex Bruce's header had rattled the post, Wenger cursed; his team did not build an attack. Steve Bruce's careful planning had again borne fruit. Meanwhile, Arsenal were playing like a group of chaps that had only just met for a friendly.
They began in the ruinous fashion which caused them to be brutally punished at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Hull were not supposed to be so capable, but the Tigers were dishing out a similar mauling. Alex Bruce's header moments later was clawed away by Fabianski; that would have made it all three Hull centre-backs scoring. City had full aerial control while Arsenal's feet were stuck in the starting blocks.
Cazorla's free-kick goal in the 17th minute was the first meaningful moment from a Gunner. It came from long range; Arsenal had not actually been in the Hull box at that point. The Spaniard provided a gift that the Gunners' previous ineptitude had not deserved. Even then, their play for much of the rest of the first half was still rotten. Olivier Giroud in particular was playing as if he did not appreciate the importance of the match while Mesut Ozil's usual body language was not masking a good performance this time; the German was peripheral.
Compatriot Lukas Podolski was subbed on the hour having made just as little impression on the occasion. When Yaya Sanogo arrived in his stead, Wenger reverted to the type of 4-4-2 he once made arcane in English football. His team still overpassed the ball, reluctant to pull the trigger. Ramsey was rarely seen on the ball until the latter stages of the 90 minutes. Sanogo caused plentiful trouble, and his bumble through the box should have set up a normal time winner for Kieran Gibbs, only for the fullback to blaze over. The young Frenchman's extra physical presence had contributed to Koscielny being able to score. If he actually got goals, then Sanogo might become very useful indeed.
Giroud rattled the crossbar in extra time with a header as Arsenal woke up to the idea they could actually win. Sanogo was the sole substitution that Wenger made until the 106th minute. His frequent absence from the sideline suggested an absentee landlord happy to sit back and watch, rather than affect the patterns of play.
As Ramsey scored the winner, Hull had died on their feet, the dream of an upset disappearing with their legs. Wenger rose to his knees, a nervous smile on his face. The moment had finally come, even if there was still time for Sone Aluko to miss an open goal and Fabianski to flap. Nerves clearly got to the Pole in his final minutes as a Gunners player.
"They showed an incredible amount of courage," said a bitterly disappointed Bruce of his stricken players. "I always believe that your name's on it and at one point I thought it was our name on it."
"I've praised many times the spirit of this team and I'm very proud of that today," said Wenger.
Wenger did not contain his clear delight as the moment of truth arrived, and when he got to hold the Cup itself. The drought is over, even if Arsenal did not suggest that a flood of trophies is to follow.