Tony Adams thinks Arsenal can win the FA this weekend.

Adams, who captained Arsenal to the FA Cup victory three times during his distinguished 18-year career in North London, believes his old club can prevail again on Saturday at Wembley when Arsenal meets Chelsea in the FA Cup final. “At the moment, Chelsea is dominating possession, but it will suit Arsenal. They won’t have to defend individually. Arsenal will get people behind the ball and counterattack,” the Arsenal legend told me. 

Arsenal has been a club in motion since its last FA Cup triumph in 2017, a 2-1 nail-biter against the Blues. Chelsea visited the Emirates Stadium in December as well in Mikel Arteta’s first home game. It was a match pocked with individual faults that have long blighted Arsenal and driven both managers and fans to despair. Unai Emery and Freddie Ljungberg, the latter on an interim basis, have come and gone as coaches. Arteta arrived in North London with an impeccable CV and a strong real-life skill set, but navigating a club with systemic flaws and a toxic ecosystem from Robbie Lyle down at Arsenal Fan TV all the way up to the aloof owner Stan Kroenke has been very testing. 

Arsenal’s last few matches were a snapshot of the club’s endemic inconsistencies with defeats against Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa and outstanding wins against both Manchester City, in the FA Cup, and Liverpool. In the league, they slid to an 8th-place finish, their lowest top-flight since the 1994/95 season. 

“The league table doesn’t lie, year in year out,” assesses Adams. “This is where Arsenal are at. You have got a very good cup team because they have a phenomenal goalscorer, Aubameyang. He is a good example of a player that you need to keep hold of. To improve, you need to get better players, to get into the top six you need better players.”

Last summer, Arsenal acquired Gabriel Martinelli, Kieran Tierney, David Luiz and Nicolas Pépé, the club’s record signing at £72 million. Dani Ceballos and January-arrivals Pablo Mari and Cedric Soares were reinforcements on loan, but too many of the newcomers failed to impress. 

The young Tierney has been an exception. Arsenal signed him for just £25 million and the Scot has become a key feature in Arteta’s team, providing energy on the left as well as assists and goals. “He has got fantastic attitude, but if you continue to play him left-wing back, left-back, or left-sided center back, he is not going to learn his trade,” says Adams. “Every full-back that has come to the club over the last five to ten years has not improved. We go back to Gaël Clichy’s days and Kieran Gibbs. It is because they have been rotated so much and sometimes we don’t teach them how to defend. In the first minute, Tierney made a good tackle against Manchester City, but at the moment he is offensively perhaps better than defensively. In the North London derby, he lost his header to let Spurs score. Those are the things that should be pointed out to him.” 

At the Emirates Stadium, Bukayo Saka has also been a revelation. He switches positions with all the ease in the world and defies the idea that contemporary players can only excel in specialists roles. The 18-year-old has played as left-back, a right-winger and on the left of a midfield three.

His development has been remarkable, but Adams cautions against employing the youngster in too many different roles. He believes it will inhibit his progress and prevent him from cementing his place at the club. 

“You become what we called a jack-of-all-trades back in the days and a master of none,” says Adams. “It is a very good figure of speech for the learning process, which is not happening. I am not saying Arteta isn’t capable of doing this. It is not a time where he can actually do that. You can’t judge the coach as yet. You can definitely analyse the recruitment process. Tierney and Saka are very good, bright stars, but you need to play them in their right positions and, two, you need more of them.”

That is Adams’ biggest qualm with his old club, where he won the Premier League
PINC
twice and the European Cup Winners Cup in 1994 as well. In his view, Arsenal’s recruitment policy leaves a lot to be desired.

In the last years of his tenure, Wenger loosened the purse somewhat and signed marquee players like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. In his first season, Pépé record-signing has been a disappointment, often too peripheral in matches. His skill set remains unpolished as well. 

“It is about recruitment in this industry and about players,” says Adams. “You have got the players, you win the league, you know. Arteta is a very good coach, but there is only so much the head coach can do.”

In June, Arsenal’s new deals for Luiz, Mari and Soares prompted controversy and speculation that agents rather than the club itself were guiding Arsenal on the transfer market. All three players were linked to agents with ties to either Edu Gaspar or the club’s head of football Raul Sanllehi. Kia Joorabchian negotiated deals for both Luiz and Soares. The British-Iranian agent is on good terms with Gaspar. 

“There are people in positions that have got to do their job,” says Adams diplomatically. “Arsenal needs to up their game in recruitment in order to get that part of the jigsaw streamlined, but my argument is theirs as well. You need a bit of time to get systems in place.”

“You can only work with the tools that you are given so my assessment of the club is that it is actually – the recruitment process needs to be looked at. They retired Steve Rowley and let 13 scouts go. It has only been a relatively short period, whereby they have chosen to go down the route of counseling agents rather. There is a big difference in working with agents or working for agents. It is a very fine line that you have to walk as head of football operations at any club.”

Irrespective of the recruitment problems and the shortcomings of the squad, Adams thinks Arsenal will win the FA Cup, perhaps nicking a 1-0 win, the George Graham way. Silverware, in the domestic cup, would be a fine way for Arsenal to conclude the longest season yet. 

By his own admission, Adams will be a keen spectator on Saturday. His charity, Sporting Chance, that provides mental and emotional support including addiction in the sports industry, is one of four charities that has been working alongside the FA in the Heads Up initiative. This weekend’s final has been named the Heads Up FA Cup final to highlight mental health awareness. 

The Arsenal veteran founded Sporting Chance 20 years ago and up to 14 stakeholders, from the Premier League to the ATP tennis tour, support the project. Following the coronavirus lockdown in the UK, Adams, who spent all of the pandemic in the Cotswolds with his family, believes mental health to be more important than ever.

“It is never been so important to talk about our thoughts and feelings,” says Adams. “A lot of people have really had a tough time during lockdown.

“Everyone goes through periods of emotional turmoil. Some people aren’t lucky enough to have the support network of family during those difficult periods. Private, confidential and trustworthy safe spaces where people – men, women, children: everyone – can talk and just share, are needed more than ever.”

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