So it’s congratulations to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, less than a week after the quadruple dream came to an unexpected end at Wigan the first leg of a possible treble and very likely double was completed at Wembley.
City were not at their best in the final, particularly in the first half but it simply didn’t matter- Arsenal were awful producing one of the worst cup final performances in living memory and casting fresh scorn on Arsene Wenger’s reign at the Emirates.
It wasn’t the defeat that will hurt Wenger’s position; City started as favourites but the manner of it was shocking. For all the brickbats Wenger has taken in recent years the 2 defences his advocates have always pointed to are his record at getting performances in big domestic cup ties and his annual delivery of Champions League football- both those defences have now gone.
The last time I saw a side perform so poorly in a Cup Final came when Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds capitulated 3-0 in the 1996 League Cup Final and it’s a game that provides more parallels for Wenger than just the scoreline and occasion.
After taking charge of the Elland Road outfit in 1988 Wilkinson had taken Leeds from the bottom of the old Second Division to the very top of English football in less than 4 years- a staggering achievement. But 4 years on and the natives of West Yorkshire were getting restless, Leeds fans had seen their all-conquering ’92 side slowly regress into Premier League also-rans, their most popular player sold to Manchester United and the manager unable to replace champions with players of similar character or ability- sound familiar?
But the ’96 final promised to offer Wilkinson respite if he could deliver the trophy and its complementary route back into Europe, but his side crashed due to poor defending, strange tactical decisions and downright ineptitude again the parallels with Sunday afternoon are there. It finally broke the residual confidence Leeds fans had in their title winning manager with even the placid local press calling for change. Seven months later they got it with Wilkinson fired after a poor start to the 96/97 season.
This feels like a similar moment for Arsenal- the point of no return when things can’t simply be put right by a good run of form in the league and late season climb up the table; there are almost no allies left for the manager in the stands.
Wenger’s position isn’t helped by an unusual amount of activity in the Arsenal boardroom that saw a potentially disastrous January transfer window provide the club with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, swap the wanatway Alexis Sanchez for Henrikh Mkhitaryan and sign Meszut Ozil to a long-term deal. Having invested so heavily and retained a top 6 level squad Arsenal’s top brass must now question if they have the manager to direct their expensive squad to future success?
Wenger does of course have one card left to play. Despite the embarrassment of a near exit to Ostersunds FK on Thursday Arsenal are still alive in the Europa League, they’re in the last 16 and remain amongst the favourites to lift the trophy and with it gain access to next season’s Champions League. The route to the final is tough with Italian aristocrats AC Milan standing in their way next month. But beat Milan and Sunday’s humiliation at Wembley could be glossed over. But with the top 4 now seemingly out of reach there’s no margin for error- Wenger must lift that trophy in Lyon this May or it is surely the end at Arsenal.