Just for a moment, unfettered by the constricting context of this turbulent season and the grisly dance around the topic of that contract, the sun broke through. Arsène Wenger stood in his technical area and the body language all around him was positive. Gabriel Paulista – a player apparently reborn during the course of the match – won another battle of wills with the threatening Leroy Sané. Mesut Özil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shared a boosting handshake as they passed each other on the pitch. The German juggled the ball casually as he waited to restart the game. Behind them, the Arsenal supporters waved their flags and basked in the glow of the goal from Alexis Sánchez that eventually put their team into yet another FA Cup final.
In that pause in the match nothing much mattered apart from the fact that for once just about everyone associated with Arsenal looked happy. The possibility, the hope, that all football clubs need at a very basic level, opened up. There are still big conversations to be had but that’s for another day.
In the past couple of years the FA Cup has been Wenger’s saving grace. The Wembley experience has not always been enjoyable – the equivalent semi-final when his contract was last winding down was one of the most excruciating matches of his 21-year tenure. Arsenal squeaked past Wigan on that occasion in 2014 and Wenger spent most of the afternoon pacing, barely able to watch, wearing a tortured expression before release came via a penalty shootout. Football, bloody football.
The strangest thing happened to Arsenal during this semi-final. Over the course of the 120 minutes they visibly rediscovered how to battle and scrap, to reboot the confidence that had shrivelled up during a generally fraught 2017.
Confidence, as Wenger has often said, is the easiest thing to lose and the hardest thing to gain. For a team whose belief has resembled melting marshmallows during their worst humiliations this season, this tussle against Manchester City allowed Arsenal to reacquaint themselves with that invaluable friend. Wenger’s patented handbrake, which has been sticky for ages, slowly loosened up.
Even when he looks half-finished the old fighter in Wenger never feels like giving up, and the tweak in his tactical strategy turned out to be an important factor. A largely fruitless search for a reliable lineup since the turn of the year – one with the required mix of attacking composure and defensive stubbornness – led him to break with tradition and shuffle his pack tactically. The back three suddenly introduced at Middlesbrough last Monday (last used 20 years before) was retained at Wembley against far more dangerous opposition. It was a mechanism designed to try to rebuild faith, to try to remind the players how to play football without tension, as much as anything else.
Initially there were some familiar sights that a tinkered tactic could not fix. A propensity to stand off, allowing City periods in the opening exchanges to have a quick think about life, the universe and everything before picking a pass, was alarming.
Riding their luck in the first half, with City’s frustrations about the loss of the midfielder David Silva to a stray knee in the back of a thigh compounded by a disallowed goal, one thing Arsenal did show was an improved sense of how to scrap and hang on in there.
On the back of that they began to feel some freedom, some enthusiasm, returning to their game. Wouldn’t you believe it, that suckered them into conceding the opening goal.
With so many Arsenal players up the pitch in search of a breakthrough, Aaron Ramsey’s concession of possession was calamitous. A pinpoint release from Yaya Touré sparked one of those moments when every pair of eyes in the stadium widens, when every heartbeat stutters for a moment to see what happens next. As it happened Sergio Agüero’s touch was heavy enough to have given Petr Cech the encouragement to consider running out to claim but the experienced keeper hesitated. Agüero had all the time in the world to execute his finish.
It felt ominously telling. The three centre-backs selected by Wenger were all high up the field when Ramsey blundered. Switched formation, same old Arsenal? Not quite. Where a situation like this has led to panic in Wenger’s ranks recently, this time they refocused quickly and energetically. The equaliser was another consequence of the new tactics as the move was made by a combination between the two wing-backs. The excellent Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arsenal’s most direct and inventive presence in recent weeks, hooked the ball across for Nacho Monreal to jab in at the near post. With his wrong foot. This was different, all right.
Arsenal’s resolve, in responding rather than folding at the hint of a setback, stood them in good stead. Although they rode their luck when City twice struck the frame of the goal, as the game wore on they showed more intensity at both ends of the pitch than is normally the case when they are exposed to big game pressure.
Arsenal, and Wenger, march on.