They’ve won the English FA Cup more times than any other team. In the 21st century alone they’ve lifted the trophy six times and the final only lost once — to Liverpool in 2001. Arsenal, it’s fair to say, have the FA Cup in their DNA. Mock their lack of Premier League trophies since the invincible season of 2003/4 all you like; the fact is, as they prepare to face Chelsea in the FA Cup final on Saturday, the competition has come to have huge significance for Arsenal.
“It’s just a fantastic day,” says former Arsenal right back and three-time FA Cup winner Lauren from his Spanish home. “When you come from a different country you really don’t understand how big the FA Cup is; the final is just an incredible experience.”
Lauren’s first FA Cup final appearance was actually against Chelsea too, in 2002 (he’d been an unused substitute in the defeat to Liverpool the year before). That final was notable for two sensational goals from Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg — “they were both brilliant efforts, and Freddie did it with red hair too!” — but Lauren himself had a fantastic chance to open the scoring, a point-blank header skimming the bar in the first half.
“Well, I do think about that now,” he laughs. “But of course the most important thing was to get that trophy. It’s a great gift to receive but also to share with your teammates and fans.
“It’ll be different of course on Saturday in an empty Wembley. The pressure — and the happiness — will not be the same. We play these finals for the fans and at difficult periods during the game, the players will miss their backing.
“But having said all that, I think we are all glad to see football back — and personally I am really happy to see Arsenal in a big final.”
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Victory in 2002 came a week before Arsenal won the Premier League. The next season, they won the FA Cup again — and the year after Lauren was a key member of The Invincibles, winning the Premier League without losing a game. Mikel Arteta might be a few years away from a league title, but the point remains: winning trophies becomes a habit. Which is why, for Lauren, this FA Cup final is crucial for Arsenal.
“Whatever the competition, winning things is so important,” he says. “It gives everyone — the players, the coaching staff, the fans — confidence that all the things you’ve worked on, all the effort you’ve put into improving, has a reason, a conclusion. Don’t let anyone tell you the cups aren’t important; in a dressing room it is a huge thing to win one."
A victory, too, might convince the likes of Aubameyang to stay or the board to heed Arteta’s warning after the surprise victory against Liverpool recently that “you need to improve with quality, quality players in the squad.” Lauren, who is completing his coaching badges in Spain, has been really impressed with the Spaniard’s work so far.
“The team are playing with a new concept now and tactically they approach the games differently too,” he says. “The young players now know that if they do well, they’ll get a chance in the first team. So a win would reinforce the job Arteta’s done so far and maybe give him a bit more freedom and power. Don’t forget it would also get Arsenal into the Europa League, which would be really important for Arteta’s plans and the image of the club.”
It’s interesting to hear Lauren, who is an ambassador for Arsenal in Africa, talk of image. It certainly feels like a reset of sorts is taking place at the Club, with former player Arteta as head coach, Lauren’s former teammate Edu a year into his role as technical director and Ljungberg as assistant coach. With Per Mertesacker as Academy Manager too, the FA Cup-winning DNA of Arsenal is certainly now present off the pitch.
So with Lauren’s Uefa coaching license on the horizon, maybe he’ll be the next former player in a tracksuit at the Emirates Stadium.
FA Cup final
Arsenal v Chelsea
Wembley Stadium, London
Kick-off: 8.30pm (UAE)
“I haven’t spoken to Arsenal,” he jokes. “Seriously, I want to take this step by step. My intention first is to get all the knowledge — as a former footballer we think we know it all, but honestly there is so much that is different about being a coach.
“It’s more than 24 hours a day, there are so many different issues to deal with — which you then have to put together every game day. So hopefully I’ll start with a local team in Spain and see if I can express my ideas with youngsters. I’m not going to rush. I need to be properly prepared for it.
“Look at Arteta himself: he did over three years with Pep Guardiola and only when he felt ready did he take the final step.”
When Lauren does take the plunge, though, it will be fascinating to see his approach. After all, he was part of an Arsenal team who didn’t lose all season, but had a legendarily fierce dressing room, full of furiously competitive winners.
“Now that was an experience that might help me in the future” he smiles. “You have to know in a dressing room who will be a problem, who will give you 100 per cent and how to deal with them all. Your philosophy, your mentality, your idea of football. It will all be fine in your head, but you have to convince 24 players in your squad.”
If Arsenal win their 14th FA Cup on Saturday, Mikel Arteta will have begun to do just that.