Sunday, August 2, 2020

Gunners Beat the Blues in Empty Wembley

THE 2020 ALL-LONDON F.A. CUP FINAL

An empty national stadium for an eventful and entertaining F.A. Cup Final was just and fitting.

'The restart' has been a surreal experience for everyone for many reasons. For me the most jarring change to the norm has been the piped crowd noise absurdly stuck on to televised matches.

THE 2020 ALL-LONDON F.A. CUP FINAL

Sky TV started adding a constant roar to live broadcasts soon after the birth of the Premier League, an aberration immediately seized upon by supporters.

As the Covid lockdown eased, all the TV broadcasters went further and added a soundtrack to matches played in empty stadia. It was weird without fans but that was the reality.

Listening to matches on the radio was an especially unusual and eerie experience, but I made myself accept it because it was the truth.

The closest experience was watching a training match but the shouts of the players are at least authentic.

The TV experience with fake crowd noise was a denial of reality. It is not just that hearing thousands cheering while watching an empty arena suggested England's 20 Premier League teams are followed by invisible spirits who take a couple of seconds to register a goal scored.

The addition of canned cheering implied the football could not stand alone when the tactical evolution has never been more admirable or analysed. Yes, the sport is 'nothing without its fans' etc but surely we can live without fake crowd noise for a few weeks.

Thank God today's match was live so I could mute the noise and place myself in earshot of the players and coaching staff instead. That facility alone has been a rare treat. The closed stadia also let us hear Frank Lampard's recent petulant tantrum against Jurgen Klopp when normally we would have been none the wiser.

Plus today it meant Ian Wright could bellow instructions from the BBC commentary box to his beloved Arsenal players and they could hear him, as confirmed by Gunners defender Rob Holding afterwards.

The final was unusually open, particularly the first 45 minutes. One suspects this was because there was no crowd present but it is impossible to say.

Had 90,000 people been there one wonders if passions would have really spilt over on that humid afternoon into a real card fest with crowd trouble outside between the two sets of London fans.

Chelsea had plenty of cause to feel aggrieved with the penalty award for Arsenal's equaliser, Mateo Kovacic's two yellow cards and the wretched misfortune of injuries to Cesar Azpilicueta, Pedro and Christian Pulisic.

The Blues' defeat following such a positive start and goal scored by the sublime Pulisic was a textbook example of how the 90 minutes is a game of phases. The extra drinks breaks and additional substitutions gave Mikel Arteta the chance to play psychological cards and change the flow of play.

Why Lampard did not react accordingly and prolong the pressure his side were applying from the off is an interesting question. After being on the back foot for 15 minutes, Arsenal began to play long channel balls to exploit the space vacated by Chelsea's advanced wing-backs and the tide had turned from what had looked like a repeat of last year's Europa League final.

The Gunners' sustained possession play approaching half time appeared to come straight out of Arteta's pupillage under Pep Guardiola. Chelsea seemed to have bounced back after the break, bossing a new phase of the game, before the Pulisic injury disrupted their game plan.

Both sides should feel content. In Lampard's first season in charge, Chelsea qualified for the 2021 Champions League and with new recruits like Timo Werner on tap, are sure to be title challengers as well.

Finishing eighth is not good enough for a club of Arsenal's stature but a new coach promises much as well and today's victory at Wembley ensured a happy ending of Europa League football. 

Neither is yet at the level of Liverpool or Manchester City, however.

Although the Champions and Europa Leagues will not conclude until the 21st and 23rd of August respectively, at least the domestic season is over in England.

Moaning about the lack of football seemed churlish at the height of a deadly pandemic, although there was still a residual regret that Liverpool's long quest might be kiboshed by a most unexpected virus.

When the new Premier League season starts on the 12th of September there could still be closed arenas and canned crowd noise. 

Maybe by then we will have all accepted this is the 'new normal'.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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