Every long journey needs a staging post, confirmation that the direction of travel is right. In football, victories help but trophies are better.
For Chelsea and Arsenal, an FA Cup final on Saturday represents more than an opportunity to add to an already significant history in the competition. These clubs have lifted the trophy 21 times between them.
Both have unproven managers, Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta. Both are trying to make up ground lost on English football’s elite teams, Liverpool and Manchester City. As such, this feels like part of a process.
‘An FA Cup win stays with you for life,’ Lampard said on Friday. ‘It is there for ever. But it only works as a boost, only moves you forward, if you win it, put it in your pocket and use it.
‘A top club competes for league titles every year. This game could end up being a small step towards where we want to be next year.’
Chelsea and Arsenal beat the two Manchester clubs to reach this final. Both were significant performances, displays of potential based on tactical cleverness from their coaches.
Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat of City — where Arteta worked with Pep Guardiola until moving to London last December — was particularly impressive. It hinted at the change of mentality the Spaniard had demanded when he arrived. Again, he does not deny that a trophy would help that shift.
‘It generates the trust when you win a title,’ Arteta said. ‘It generates moments when you go through good emotions and at the end it brings everybody together and you have good memories.
‘Winning a trophy is so positive for any club but when you are in a process, that makes it even more important. We have a great opportunity, let’s go for it.’
Both men have significant FA Cup memories. Lampard won it four times as a player and scored the winning goal when Chelsea beat Everton 2-1 in 2009. Arteta was captain when Arsene Wenger’s team beat Hull five years later.
Speaking via Zoom on Friday, Lampard offered a little insight into his new life as a manager. He called it an obsession.
‘I work hard here, as hard as I can,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to miss anything. I am very hands on. I rely on people around me but I can’t just go home and put my laptop down and pick it up again the next morning.
‘At the moment my wife is working on TV so she is doing her notes for three hours every evening and I am doing my prep for training the next day. That’s how exciting our lives are at the minute. But that’s the only way I can do it. I don’t know what the top managers do when they get home but I bet they aren’t flicking on Netflix and watching series after series. They are thinking about their teams and how they can get better. I do as much as I can so we’re as good as we can be.’
Chelsea have been progressive under Lampard. A fourth-place Premier League finish has guaranteed Champions League football next season and there have been isolated successes, against Liverpool and United (in the FA Cup), and City and Tottenham.
Young players such as Mason Mount have improved while former Arsenal forward Olivier Giroud comes into this game in form.
For Arsenal, progress has been slower. Arteta replaced Unai Emery at Christmas and promised to change the way his players approached their jobs. In not so many words, he said they were soft.
Some improvement has come — David Luiz was superb in the semi-final as were Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and defender Kieran Tierney — but inconsistencies remain. Arsenal followed that game with a lame defeat at Aston Villa and it is hard to assess their chances on Saturday simply because nobody knows which version of Arteta’s team will turn up.
Certainly, victory is essential for them. As unromantic as it sounds, Arsenal need the passport into the Europa League that an FA Cup triumph would bring and they also need the money — in the region of £30million.
Lampard said on Friday that was ‘Arsenal’s problem — but a good problem’ while Arteta said: ‘There’s no need for me to talk to the players about that. They are aware of it.
‘They have prepared really well this week, they look ready to go and what they have to drive them forward is the energy and ambition to grab that Cup.’
Arteta knows the importance of European football in terms of Arsenal’s finances and status. He has addressed it before.
His immediate challenge is finding a way to beat Chelsea. Against City, he employed a back three, absorbed pressure and struck on the break through his rapid front three of Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe. It will be fascinating to see if he is brave enough to try the same thing.
Lampard, meanwhile, must decide whether to reinstall his erratic frontline goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga after replacing him with 38-year-old Willy Caballero for the final league game against Wolves last Sunday. Common sense says Caballero plays, but it is the kind of decision on which Cup finals are won and lost.
Lampard spoke warmly about the competition on Friday, saying he could list all the winners of his youth if required. All that matters now, for a myriad of reasons, is who wins the 2020 version.