LONDON – Having broken a historical record by winning the FA Cup for the seventh time, Arsene Wenger also broke the habit of a lifetime. He will this time keep his winner’s medal.
The Arsenal manager usually gives them to his backroom staff or those that don’t get a medal that he feels deserves one, but not this one. This one, as he said himself, is “special”.
“For once I have taken my medal so that means it’s a special night for me.”
A last night? A last medal? A perfect way to say goodbye?
The fact alone that he has kept that memento will lead to an awful lot of analysis and reading between the lines about what happens next, especially since Wenger himself was so unwilling to discuss it.
The only thing he let slip was the implication that the board will decide if they want him, and then he will decide whether he wants to stay, in what seemed conspicuously like a bit of a power play.
“I believe that I just want to do well for this club and apart from that, I think it’s down to the board members if I am the right man to lead this further and for me to decide if I am the right man to lead this club further.”
He was also unwilling to go further, and drew a line under it when pressed further.
“Look, let’s enjoy the win tonight, not worry about the future, and live in the present.”
In that present, it was impossible not to be profoundly happy for Wenger, as he smiled in the press conference room with that medal in his pocket.
Even if you think he should still go now, even if you think he should maybe have gone five years ago, all those football debates fade against the fundamental humanity of a great and decent man ending a hugely difficult and tormented season with a moment of happiness; with a moment of vindication.
He actually went so far as to describe it as one of his “proudest moments” precisely because of those difficulties; precisely because of the criticism – and abuse – he has received this season. Memories of banners and ridiculous airplanes came to mind, as Wenger was at last able to put that nonsense to the back of his mind.
“It is one of my proudest moments because nobody gave us a chance, and we responded with attitude and class. We have seen that today.
“I feel I know I am in a public job, I accept to be criticised and I accept people don’t agree me. But once the game starts and you are a fan, you stand behind the team. That’s what I did not accept during the season, and I will never accept it.
“I feel this club has special values and we have shown that today. The rest is not acceptable. Outside the game, I accept I never had any word with any journalist in 20 years if they criticise my decisions or my opinions. It’s the same with the fans. But when the game starts, the game starts and you support your team.”
It should also be acknowledged that, even aside from just winning the trophy, there was enough in this game to support the idea that Wenger can be capable of some change; that there can be a bit of hope for next season about something different.
Victory in this game after all came after a fine recent winning run, and from the type of bold decision that no-one thought Wenger capable: a sweeping and decisive tactical switch, as he moved to three at the back.
On the day, it meant that Arsenal actually outmanoeuvred Chelsea, the old legend in Wenger outfoxed the bright new champion in Conte, with his side also outfighting the title winners. Arsenal were impressively compact at the back but, much more impressively, repeatedly and rampantly got in behind Chelsea’s own display to create a series of chances.
It was an impressively complete display, itself completed by the psychological conviction of responding to what could have been a ruinous late Chelsea equaliser for Aaron Ramsey to score the winner.
That brought the third FA Cup in the last four years, but perhaps the best performance in all that time, as it could well have ended 4-1 or 5-1 against the champions. That is no exaggeration.
“I’m especially proud of the way we won this season because in the semi-final, we had to play against Man City here and in the final Chelsea here, and you can’t get tougher. They were two outstanding performances, so this cup we won with special spirit and special attitude.
“I would say if you look at recent performances, we have won seven out of eight in a very convincing way with great performances, and if you look at us until December, we had 20 games unbeaten, more than ever. I think this season has been hurt by some dip in March as well, and I am convinced we were hurt by the uncertainty about my future with the players.”
Yes, that future. For all that, it’s equally difficult not to think that this might be the right way to say goodbye, given there were so many times this season when it seemed like he was in danger of leaving in humiliation; that it was only going to get much worse. It instead got better, and Wenger was asked exactly that. Is this the “perfect way” to go?
“There is no perfect way,” he said, before adding how imperfect it would be if any decision would be made because of that.
“I believe that it’s a positive trend, but it would be ridiculous if 20 years depends on one game or the future of the club depends on one game. Overall, we will know more next week.”
You get the sense Wenger already well knows his own mind, even if there is still a bit of politics to play, a bit more manoeuvring.
Whatever happens in the future, though, he has in the present made history.