The way Mikel Arteta remembers it, Arsenal had wanted it too much. Before the 2014 FA Cup final against Hull, when he was the captain, everybody connected to the club could feel the weight of a nine-year trophy drought. But, perhaps more than that, they could feel the future of Arsène Wenger, the architect of the modern Arsenal, was on the line. Lose and the manager would not get a new contract. That was the sentiment of the time.
Arsenal were 2-0 down after eight minutes and it would have been three had Kieran Gibbs not cleared off the line from Alex Bruce. The atmosphere at Wembley was frenzied and Arsenal’s players, temples pounding, looked punch drunk.
“Probably, we had too much energy on the day,” Arteta, now the club’s manager, said. “We wanted it so much we were probably too excited and then we were shocked when we started losing.
“I mention Arsène because we felt the responsibility to respond to him. He really deserved it because of the way he defended us. He protected all the players through some difficult moments and it was a moment of gratitude towards him from all of the players to say: ‘He deserves it, we want to stay with him.’ The best possible way to help was to win that trophy.”
Having diced with disaster, Arsenal turned it around. It had been the same story in an emotionally draining semi-final against Wigan, when Per Mertesacker’s late header forced extra time. Before that, it had felt as if it was the end for Wenger. Arsenal would win on penalties. Against Hull, Santi Cazorla’s 17th-minute free-kick “changed the game completely, you could sense it” – to quote Arteta – and, slowly but surely, with the maximum of drama, Arsenal clawed their way to a 3-2 extra-time victory.
Arsenal specialise in putting their fans through the mill; knife-edged jeopardy is their long-time mistress and it frames their involvement in Saturday’s Cup final with Chelsea. Whereas their opponents have secured Champions League qualification via Premier League position, Arteta’s team know victory – after an eighth-placed finish – would bring only an invitation to next season’s Europa League. Yet that would be preferable to no European football at all for sporting and financial reasons.
When Arsenal made it to the final of last season’s Europa League and were beaten 4-1 by Chelsea, they earned a little over £40m. As an aside, Chelsea had already qualified for the Champions League whereas Arsenal needed victory to enter Europe’s elite competition. In other words, there was more pressure on them.
This time, Arsenal are estimated to have made £25m-£30m from their run to the last 32 of the Europa League – they were knocked out by Olympiakos – and so not to play in next season’s tournament would dent their budget at a time when the Covid-19 crisis has already blown a hole in it.
Stan Kroenke, the owner, has restructured the club’s debts to save around £20m a year in capital and interest repayments and allow for access to a reserve fund of £36m this summer. But it has placed more debt on Arsenal and it is unclear what interest Kroenke has sought for the new loan.
The upshot is greater short-term flexibility at the cost of possible longer-term pain but it is unlikely the move will have any significant bearing on Arteta’s transfer budget. He has made it clear he wants to strengthen; he wants the club to find the means to back him in the market for fear of falling further behind those in the Champions League – even if it feels risky. And so back we come to the importance of Europa League revenues.
“Financially, it would be really helpful,” Arteta said. “Obviously, in the sporting side as well because to play in Europe for this club is a must. We have the opportunity to do both.”
The repercussions extend to convincing the key players to remain invested in the project – chiefly the captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose contract expires next June. Arteta was asked whether he feared the final would be Aubameyang’s last game. “No, I don’t have that fear,” he replied.
Arteta’s messaging on Aubameyang’s future has been positive, although he did accept that winning the Cup would strengthen the feeling Arsenal was the place to be. “Absolutely,” Arteta said. “Winning the trophy helps you to really believe and feel: ‘Wow, I want to experience more of these moments.’ If you are wearing the armband and you are able to lift that cup, it’s such a moment – this is going to help for sure.”
Arteta’s task on taking over from Unai Emery before Christmas was to harden the squad’s mentality; everyone knows it has been Arsenal’s biggest single problem for years. Under Wenger, the eternal purist, there was often the sense that he wanted nothing more than for his players to feel the ball at their feet in training.
Arteta wants pleasing football but his priority is winning and getting his charges to show the same accountability he did during his five seasons as an Arsenal player. He was one of only two members of the dressing room who routinely fronted up to the press after defeats – the other was Mertesacker – and, if it seems like a minor detail, it offers a window into the strength of character needed.
Chelsea have long had these kind of players and, since 2004-05, they have distilled that drive into the hard currency of 16 major trophies, including five Premier Leagues and one Champions League. In the same period, Arsenal have won four – all FA Cups. Arteta said he was determined to replicate Chelsea’s win-at-all-costs attitude.
“They have had some very important core players in those winning teams and it’s something that has probably given them a platform to be consistent,” Arteta said. “But they weren’t a winning team before and they managed to change the mindset, to convince players and put the pressure towards everybody that the only thing allowed was to win. When that happens, everybody performs better.”
How to make Arsenal perform in the final against a backdrop of such pressure? How to play the game and not the permutations? How to have clarity at the outset, unlike in 2014? It is the defining challenge of Arteta’s short managerial career.
“The players do not need any more pressure,” Arteta said. “They need to feel free to enjoy the moment. They just have to go and express themselves, compete and be a team.”
It will be an FA Cup final like no other – without fans and colour at Wembley – at the end of a season like no other. For Arsenal, it has taken in managerial change, pandemic pay cuts and plenty else besides. A silver-lined finale is within reach.
“It generates trust when you win a title,” Arteta said. “It is so positive for any club but, when you are in a process, it makes it even more important. We have a great opportunity. Let’s go for it”