I nearly submitted this piece yesterday, having churned out several thousands words in anger, criticising everything from the referee, to the pre-match preparation, to even things totally out of control like the kick-off time. Instead, I’ve taken a deep breath and sifted through the rage to try and create 7 coherent, succinct and ultimately cathartic points which hopefully serve to capture how I feel – and indeed how I imagine a number of Chelsea fans feel – about the FA Cup Final loss.
1- We weren’t good enough on the day
Before delving into the other points on this list, it’s important to address the facts of the matter. After a promising start, which saw us go 1-0 up and have several chances to extend the lead, we switched off. Credit must go to Arsenal for switching tactics, going longer and exploiting the higher line, but in truth, we are equally culpable. Far too many players started to coast along, particularly in the middle and defensive third.
It is important to remember Arsenal had already spurned 3 openings down the wings before Azpilicueta pulled Aubameyang down for the penalty. The team didn’t react and didn’t learn fast enough, and ultimately they paid the price. Lampard alluded to passive play in the midfield, too many sideways and backwards passes and not enough progressive movement. This was a huge factor in stunting our forward momentum and presenting Arteta’s side with a way back into the game. If we controlled the first quarter, Arsenal certainly dominated the second and fourth quarters, with the third being marked with scrappy, bitty play from both sides, punctuated by an excellent finish.
Which brings me to point 2…
2 – The defence and goalkeeping situation needs addressing
There used to be a time when you could look at a Chelsea defence and goalkeeper and confidently predict, barring any individual errors or moments of true genius from the opposition, that we would keep a clean sheet.
This time is a long time ago, but even still, I was bitterly disappointed with the manner of how we conceded both goals yesterday. The first goal is a lack of defensive awareness and understanding. There is no reason on earth we should have been trying to play a high line against Arsenal, especially with Aubameyang’s ability to run in behind and break offside traps, coupled with the inexperience of Reece James and lack of height from Cesar Azpilicueta. Liverpool exploited this against us and Arsenal did the exact same. I’ll be a bit kinder on James as he is still young and learning his trade, but equally, he needs to take some of the blame. He relentlessly tried to go toe-to-toe with Maitland-Niles, leaving the line in disarray. However, he wasn’t helped by the fact neither Zouma nor Rudiger instilled any defensive confidence and Alonso is notoriously lax in this regard. Even Azpilicueta, who is usually reliable had a poor performance, punctuated by the cheap penalty and compounded with his injury.
The second goal, however, was utterly unforgiveable. I’ll come onto the midfield in my next paragraph, but Ashley Cole was spot on when he said Antonio Rudiger’s rashness caused the second goal. When Bellerin was running over the half way line, he still had to beat the German international, as well as Pedro and Kovacic in pursuit. Obviously, the Croat couldn’t pull him back – we’ll see later that Anthony Taylor had his own role to play – and Pedro didn’t have the steam to catch up with him, but once again, rather than just standing him up and forcing Bellerin to play a pass, Rudiger dived in. Unsurprisingly, the Spaniard skipped past him, before being halted by Andreas Christensen’s sliding tackle.
Which brings me to the next point. When the ball squirts away to Nicolas Pepe, Alonso is positioned awfully. He still needs to turn to actually face the action and this gives the Ivorian ample time to control the ball. Of course, rather than try and force him onto his right, Alonso isn’t close enough and so Pepe can play a simple pass across the box for Aubameyang. At this point, Reece James is slowly getting back. He should have been in position, as otherwise, Zouma is pulled out of the defence…
Which is exactly what happened. Aubameyang stands up Zouma, sells him with a simple feint and skips past him, before dinking the ball up over Caballero. For starters, Zouma should have anticipated Aubameyang going into the space. Although he is right-footed, there was no way on earth he was getting a clean strike off due to the presence of Alonso and Jorginho. He was clearly going to go that way. Secondly, I’m not sure why Caballero felt the need to come steaming out of his goal as this made the decision easy for the Gabonese striker. He didn’t actually take a great touch and had narrowed his angle, especially with the covering players, but Caballero made it easy for him to just dink it over the top. He even drops onto his knees, making the target even larger. A tiny bit of credit to Alonso for trying to anticipate it, but he was never stopping it going over the line.
In all honesty, there are three of those defensive players that realistically should never start for Chelsea again, let alone in a Cup Final. They just aren’t good enough at the very top with our current system.
3 – We badly miss N’Golo Kante
If N’Golo Kante had been fully fit, I don’t think Lampard would have gone for the 3-4-3 and I think you’d have seen a totally different game. The early chances for Chelsea, and indeed the early dominance came from pressing Xhaka effectively and causing him to panic, which in turn led to mistakes. If N’Golo Kante had been sat in front of the back four, Chelsea could have used Mount and Kovacic in front of him and they would have pressed much more effectively than Jorginho and Kovacic. The latter certainly did try, but he was hamstrung by his early yellow card.
As for Jorginho, I’ve nailed my card to the mast before. He’s a good player, but not for the current system and not for how Lampard wants to play. Mobility is key to Lampard’s system being successful and even last week against Wolves, it was Kovacic taking the plaudits for tracking back and sweeping up. Although Jorginho played a couple of promising passes in behind, he was largely a by-stander for the game and I think he would have been subbed off early in the second half if Lampard had not already had to make two changes.
I also stand by the fact that the second goal never happens if Kante is playing, as we are much better at defending transitions with the Frenchman and additionally, he is one of the few players that have the nouse to commit cynical fouls to stop counters. He certainly would have pulled back Hector Bellerin. Even if he was only 70% fit, Lampard should have taken a chance in my opinion as we look much more balanced with him.
4 – The referee was awful
I’m afraid I can’t be quite so eloquent as Tom in his video, but I do have to say that the performance from Anthony Taylor was a true omnishambles. We might call ourselves ‘the best league in the world’ and we might have the best players, best teams and even best managers, but until we can sort out the officiating, we’ll be a laughing stock in the eyes of other European leagues.
The FA Cup Final is meant to be a once-in-a-career moment for a referee and awarded for consistent quality performances. However, due to COVID-19, Anthony Taylor was presented with a chance to referee a second Final. A chance to redeem himself for 2017, when he harshly sent off Victor Moses and missed a blatant foul in the lead-up to an Arsenal goal?
The exact opposite. Taylor seemed determined to award absolutely everything to the Gunners, ranging from niggly fouls, to contentious throw-ins. Mateo Kovacic tackled Granit Xhaka, catching the Swiss midfielder – booked. Dani Ceballos made the exact same challenge moments later and it was ‘play on’. You can’t question the penalty – the alternative would have been a free kick and a red card to Azpilicueta – but it was the 2nd half when Taylor really showed his true colours. Mateo Kovacic again with a fair but firm tackle, where he may have just caught Dani Ceballos. The Spaniard screamed at Taylor, baying for a second yellow, joined by Arteta. Initially, it seemed Ceballos was booked for protesting. However, almost a minute later, Taylor walked over and dismissed Kovacic. It was comically bias, driven purely by the reaction of the team in red.
There were further flashpoints. A coming-together on the touchline of Arteta and Rudiger which sparked a mass-gathering, resulted in no further action besides Rudiger being booked. I’m not sure why he was cautioned for collecting the ball. However, on the 80th minute, it was less a case of decision being given, and more of one being ignored. Emi Martinez came steaming out of his box and caught the ball. He was teetering on the edge of his box and arguably the initial contact on the ball was outside. It would have been a straight red card and very promising free kick – not to mention that Arsenal would have had to rely on the inexperienced Matt Macey for 10+ minutes. Instead both Taylor and linesman failed to indicate for anything and next time the ball went out of play, no signal was made for VAR to intervene. I refuse to believe that decision was clear and obvious.
There was one final farce as Taylor ignored Pedro being barged over on the edge of the box by Sokratis with seconds left on, but by this point, it wasn’t a surprise. Perhaps none of it should have been – this was the same referee that cautioned Alonso after Gazzaniga assaulted him in December against Spurs, and the same one that missed Maguire stamping on Batshuayi when Chelsea met Manchester United earlier this year.
5 – Lampard isn’t hiding behind excuses
Frank’s post-match interview was – excuse the pun – frank indeed. He was hugely disappointed with the result, but moreover, he criticised the performance and rightly slammed the team for not showing enough desire to win the cup.
This has been one of the refreshing things this season – when we do lose, it is very rare that Lampard criticises the officials, instead looking to acknowledge and reflect on where the team, and more important where he himself could have improved. For the record, I think Lampard got tactics wrong yesterday and should have made changes at half-time, but the injury to Pulisic undoubtedly affected the team and stunted any momentum that Lampard’s half-time gee-up could have given.
This is a man who knows the club inside and out, and I trust him to bring success in due-time. I also trust that he and Cech know exactly what we need this summer and are prepared to take the necessary steps in order to make the team and squad stronger next season. Lampard has already shown that he can make difficult choices and be harsh when required, and I suspect this ruthless trait will only be further heightened after this disappointing loss.
6 – Pulisic is becoming a talisman for Chelsea
Christian Pulisic is becoming integral to everything good about Chelsea and whisper it quietly, he might even have had a better first year than a certain Belgian superstar managed when they first rocked up to Stamford Bridge.
He took his finish well from close range, but besides that, it was the quality all round. He had Rob Holding on toast every time he took him on and surged through the Arsenal defence several times, once getting a shot off which was scrambled away by Martinez. Even when Arsenal were controlling the game, Pulisic was a threat on the break and every time the American attacked, the Arsenal defence looked scared.
Barely a minute into the second half, the American surged forward again, past Holding and Bellerin when the unfortunate injury occurred. His hamstring went ‘ping’ instantly and despite the winger bravely getting into the box and taking a shot on – which diverted wide, his game was over and with it, a lot of Chelsea’s attacking impetus went too. Pedro has been a great servant for the club, but he lacks the pace and guile of Chelsea’s No. 22.
Get well soon Captain America. Chelsea needs you back.
7 – The future looks bright
It’s still not unreasonable to say that Frank Lampard has overachieved this season. When you consider that we were thrashed on the first day of the season, have the worst defensive record in the top ten, had a transfer ban, sold our best player and had to rely on players that have very little experience, if any at the highest level, then a domestic final and a spot in the Champions League next year is a fantastic outcome.
Secondly, Lampard’s already added clear quality to the squad. Proven goalscoring talent in Timo Werner. Creative dynamism in Hakim Ziyech. Whether Chelsea sign Germany’s brightest star, Kai Havertz seems a matter of when, rather if. When you combine these players with other potential links – Declan Rice, Nico Tagliafico, Ben Chilwell, Alex Telles, Gabriel Magalhaes, Jose Maria Giminez, Jan Oblak, Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, Nick Pope, Dean Henderson, Andre Onana – all of these names add something to our squad and enhance it at a time when we need some new faces.
Further factor in that people like Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and especially Christian Pulisic – who have had stellar first seasons at the top level for Chelsea- are only going to get better and more consistent with age and experience, and you can see that the future looks very promising indeed.
It’s now up to Frank Lampard, Jody Morris and co. to make sure that bright future becomes tangible success and silverware.
Overall, it was a bitter pill to swallow, but we need to move on, trust the process and back the players and the manager. Roll on September 12th.
Written by Rob Pratley