The League Cup, whether fronted up by sickly sweet or alcoholic drink sponsorship, has never been touted as the most important piece of silverware for English managers, particularly when expectations are set as highly as Pep Guardiola’s. However, Sunday’s Carabao Cup final victory will still have been a relief to the Manchester City manager, who secured his first trophy in English football.
The two managers cut contrasting figures at full time
On a day of contrasting fortunes and futures, the result and course of this match should also not be overlooked in its significance for Guardiola’s managerial opponent. It has so often been the case in recent years that victory in a cup final has proven to be Arsène Wenger’s elixir of life in an otherwise disappointing season, yet the two managers cut contrasting figures at fulltime. Guardiola relaxed on the Wembley pitch and chatted with his disciples, leaving his sky blue superstars to ascend the stands without him and raise (after a few comical false starts from the stadium announcer) their green-bannered prize. Wenger, on the other hand, hastily removed himself from proceedings with a visibly strained expression that has become ominously frequent.
In truth, City were not at their best and nor did they need to be. The slick short passing and interplay between their attacking front five we have marvelled at this season only came in fleeting bursts. Simple exchanges frequently went astray and the intricate passing out from central defence often broke down.
The first goal exemplified what seems to have become an endemic lack of mental and physical sharpness of Arsenal teams over the past decade. Whilst City did not add to their lead in the first-half, Arsenal barely threatened Bravo’s goal.
The second half brought a divergence of performances from both teams. City improved but their opponents, not uncharacteristically, deteriorated. The second goal, diverted past Ospina by Vincent Kompany, came from a short corner to Ilkay Gundogan, who was able to steer the ball into the path of his club captain from an unmarked position on the corner of the penalty box. For Arsenal, these further defensive failings were thankfully overshadowed by the redemptive moment for Kompany, whose season has once again been repeatedly disrupted by injuries. He wheeled away to jump maniacally in front of the City fans behind the Arsenal goal before being engulfed by his teammates and substitutes. Bravo’s arrival from the other end of the pitch to join in the celebrations not only illustrated the Belgian centre-back’s popularity at the club but showed that his team felt the game’s outcome was now a mere formality.
Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey were painfully off the pace
If Kompany’s emotional moment pointed Arsenal’s fans towards Wembley way, David Silva’s clinical steer into the bottom right-hand corner ten minutes pushed them through the stadium exits. Aguero was taken off, with Gabriel Jesus being given the chance to begin his comeback from injury, and the game drifted towards an inevitable conclusion.
As City effortlessly managed proceedings, the final twenty minutes presented an opportunity to reflect on Arsenal’s familiar shortcomings. Whilst they have so often been a side to raise the level of performance in cup finals, this showing was surely one that was not unsurprising in the context of the last decade. Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, although the latter’s fitness may have been overlooked due to his record in cup finals, were painfully off the pace in central midfield. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cut an isolated figure up front and was largely nullified by Kompany and Nicolás Otamendi. Given the physical, mental and emotional sacrifices professional footballers make during their careers, one should not lightly accuse them of a lack of effort. However, there did not seem to be any other explanation for many of the Arsenal player’s performances following City’s second goal. Whatever people may say about Jack Wilshere’s temperament, he was the only one who truly continued to show commitment, even if it came in the form of a booking for dissent.
The source of suffering is unequivocal – it is Wenger
This match brought together the various tell-tell signs of Arsenal’s decline over the past decade. A lack of tactical awareness, defensive organisation, toughness and simple undiluted effort has all been symptomatic of this team in recent years. Whilst the primary symptom of the Arsenal ailment will continue to be debated by their fans, the source of suffering is unequivocal – it is Wenger.
A barometer for measuring a football manager’s success, as with any job, is a combination of various things. As Wenger’s North London counterpart Mauricio Pochettino has advocated, it is more than just the number of trophies won. It is the style of football, the results achieved on the pitch, the players signed in the transfer windows and ultimately the overall satisfaction of fans expectations in achieving an aim or a “project”. Indeed, it will be some time before Pochettino’s Spurs can claim to have matched what Wenger has achieved with Arsenal since the turn of the century.
However, during his last ten years in charge at Arsenal, Wenger has presided over a drop-off in each of the various components for managerial success. The club’s absence from the Champions League this season has not been soothed with any improvement in performances on the pitch. Only the winning of trophies has offered Wenger continued success. With his continued presence at Arsenal having only being maintained by annual victory in a cup final, Sunday’s result at Wembley may prove to be more significant in a wider context.
Guardiola pushed Wenger’s time at the club closer to extinction
Defeat to Manchester City, coupled with an FA Cup third-round exit at the hands of Nottingham Forest earlier in the year will surely leave no debate as to the future of Arsenal’s longest serving manager come the end of the season. The Europa League offers not only a last opportunity of silverware but also a Champions League berth, with a top four finish in the Premier League a pipedream at this stage of the season. However, a home defeat (albeit aggregate victory) against Östersund in the last 32 suggests that their continued participation in this competition will also soon be concluded.
Arsène Wenger is the last of the current footballing era to truly be a long-time serving club manager. It seems cruelly fitting that it was Guardiola’s Manchester City, a club symbolising the total dominance once perpetuated by Arsenal, that on Sunday pushed Wenger’s time at the club closer to extinction. The annual tickertape parade now looks to have also gone and Arsenal’s long serving and long-suffering manager along with it.
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