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MARTIN SAMUEL: Back bold Mikel Arteta and Arsenal finally CAN move forward

Always forward. Arsenal‘s social media team wasted no time getting the messaging right minutes after their 14th FA Cup final victory. And it truly is a remarkable record. 

There have been 139 FA Cup finals, meaning Arsenal have won approximately one tenth of them. As their first was in 1930, they have won more than 16 per cent of the finals since that year.

Equally, European football. When Arsenal compete in the Europa League next season, it will be their 25th straight European campaign, beating a record for English clubs set by Manchester United between 1990-91 and 2013-14. 

Arsenal’s current sequence began a few weeks before Arsene Wenger arrived in 1996.

Arsenal celebrated their FA Cup victory by pressing the motto 'Always forward' online

Arsenal celebrated their FA Cup victory by pressing the motto ‘Always forward’ online

Even so: always forward? That depends. Time was, an FA Cup victory would have been the cherry on top for Arsenal, not the last desperate route into the lesser European competition. 

This success is relative. It is brilliant for Mikel Arteta, a first trophy as manager, impressively earned, and a thorough vindication of his methods. It earns him the right to shape the club from here. 

Yet the reason this counted as such a forward step for Arsenal is that they have spent so long travelling backwards in recent years. Further progress now depends on the events of this short summer, with keeping Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang surely top of the agenda, now he has re-engaged.

The player who took the FA Cup away from Chelsea on Saturday — he could have had the first final hat-trick since Stan Mortensen of Blackpool in 1953 had he not missed a sitter in the third minute — could not have looked less interested when Project Restart began, away at Manchester City.

He appeared to have his mind on a summer move, shielding his body in readiness for a switch to Real Madrid. In the first five games when football recommenced, Aubameyang’s only goals were against Norwich. 

He didn’t even make the team when Arsenal played their quarter-final against Sheffield United. The two Wembley fixtures, however, have seen a revival. 

Aubameyang now joins a very short list of players who have scored two goals or more twice at Wembley as a neutral venue, alongside Bryan Robson, Ian Rush, Ian Wright and Eric Cantona.

Mikel Arteta has refashioned Arsenal and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang dazzled at Wembley

Mikel Arteta has refashioned Arsenal and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang dazzled at Wembley

Maybe it was the occasion, more cynically the attraction of the shop window. Yet if Arteta can harness this Aubameyang and persuade him to stay, then he is right: a team can be built around a player of his quality.

‘To be a forward is the most difficult thing in football, but he makes it look simple,’ said Arteta. 

‘Look at the second goal he scored. We always had incredible strikers at this club and he deserves to be compared with those big names. The biggest problem was to convince him to work the way he is now working. 

‘He was going to get more rewards and respect. Admiration from his team-mates and also the fans. Now the way he is conducting himself on and off the field, he has got that.’

More troublingly for Arteta, Aubameyang moved almost as quickly, dodging questions about his future as he did eluding Chelsea’s defence to create the first goal. 

Forward momentum would certainly be harmed if this has all been a means to an end, a live highlights reel for suitors in Spain who would view a berth in the Europa League as the most appalling failure.

There will no doubt be plenty around Aubameyang telling him he could do better, but whether that is true in the current economic climate — when even Saudi Arabian investment funds are tightening the reins — is another matter. Arsenal deserve assurances, too. 

Retaining Aubameyang will be very expensive, and, if the club pays up, the player cannot feel he is doing them a favour, as seems to have happened with Mesut Ozil. He must be prepared to buy into Arteta’s methodology, into a project that aims to re-establish Arsenal as contenders.

A real sign of whether Arsenal can move forward will be if they can retain their talisman

‘I have presented my vision and my plans to them,’ confirmed Arteta. ‘I didn’t want to add too much pressure to the players before this game but I knew how important it was for us to be in Europe. It is a must for our club financially, and this is a bigger step in allowing us to do more in the future and have a better structure.’

Arteta has laid down one marker with his treatment of Ozil and Matteo Guendouzi, neither of whom were even present at Wembley. In hindsight, collecting the trophy, his stance does not appear radical, yet what if Arsenal’s season had not concluded in triumph? 

By leaving out Ozil, Arsenal’s highest-paid player, Arteta is as good consigning £1.2million of the club’s money, monthly, to the bin. Guendouzi, still only 21, was considered one of the most promising young players in the country and a future star. 

Arsenal are a selling club and Guendouzi could have been worth a fortune, had he been indulged and nurtured. Arteta has spurned that, too, by identifying him as high maintenance and unruly and banishing him from the side.

Imagine if Arsenal had then been eliminated from the FA Cup by Sheffield United, and finished eighth. Arteta could have emerged from his first months in charge painted as divisive and intransigent, a dangerous stoker of conflict. 

Instead, he made some extraordinarily bold moves and his actions have been justified. Those who remain will follow him from here; and he deserves to be followed. His rehabilitation of Granit Xhaka and David Luiz has been outstanding.

Arteta has rehabilitated many players and the shift couldn't be more apparent in David Luiz

Arteta has rehabilitated many players and the shift couldn’t be more apparent in David Luiz

Yet while this should be a new beginning for Arsenal under a bright, young manager, there can be no guarantees. It is quite a to-do list. 

Keeping a focused Aubameyang and making the Dani Ceballos loan permanent would be a start, as would the acquisition of Thomas Partey from Atletico Madrid. 

Yet much will also depend on sales, with Arteta’s options limited unless funds arrive. And like the rest of football, he needs a top-quality centre half, his Virgil van Dijk. Luiz has been brilliant in the two Wembley matches, and at home to Liverpool, but how long will that run of form last?

Sometimes, with Arsenal, it seems as if we have seen it all before. In this case, we pretty much have. 

In 2017, having missed out on the Champions League, Arsenal defeated Chelsea 2-1 in an FA Cup final, with a few mistakes from the referee, Anthony Taylor, and many positive signs. 

Xhaka outplayed N’Golo Kante in the heart of midfield, just as his partnership with Ceballos had the beating of Chelsea on Saturday. 

Mesut Ozil has been relegated to the sidelines as Arteta demands ultimate commitment

Mesut Ozil has been relegated to the sidelines as Arteta demands ultimate commitment

The game was played against a backdrop of dissatisfaction with the stewardship of Stan Kroenke, speculation over whether the best player, Alexis Sanchez, would leave, and doubts over what could be done about Ozil’s commitment and consistency. 

Defensively, Arsenal were better than expected and deserved to win, but doubts remained. Soon after, Wenger confirmed he was staying.

What happened next? The following season, Sanchez was sold to Manchester United and Wenger stood down. That day’s match-winner, Aaron Ramsey, later left for Juventus. Xhaka and the club’s fans went to war. The defence demonstrated wild inconsistencies. Ozil remained as problematic as ever.

Kroenke is a very unpopular owner. And the drama continues. Arteta could be great for Arsenal, given the right backing. But always forward? Depends where you start.  

Arsene Wenger lifts the FA Cup in 2017 after Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 in the final at Wembley

Arsene Wenger lifts the FA Cup in 2017 after Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-1 in the final at Wembley

Original article: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-8585865/MARTIN-SAMUEL-bold-Mikel-Arteta-Arsenal-finally-forward.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ito=1490&ns_campaign=1490

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