Arsenal Football Club and Chelsea Football Club squared off in the 135th FA Cup Final today, beating Chelsea 2-1. The oldest competition in all of soccer showcased quite a few eventful matches, and Cinderella teams of the lower divisions conquered some of the elites in the Premier League. Black players (including those of African descent and across the Diaspora) have made a significant impact in the FA Cup. Here are the 11 that I have identified.
Goalkeeper: Jordan Archer
The goalkeeper for the League 1 outfit Millwall FC played a tremendous part in his team’s unlikely run to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. During that span, Archer recorded four clean sheets, three of them against Premier League opposition (Bournemouth, Watford, and Leicester City) although conceding six against a formidable Tottenham team (his former team as well) in the quarter-finals was an outlier. He is an invaluable member of the team, having been voted Millwall’s Player of the Season in his first season (2015-2016).
Left Back: Gaël Clichy
One of the few consistencies in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City defense. There isn’t really anything special about Clichy, but he quietly does the job he is supposed to do defensively. At the left back position, he has the speed to keep up with pacey forwards, pinning them to the touchline and limiting their mobility to get passed him. In the semi-final against Arsenal, Clichy did neutralize the effectiveness of Mesut Ozil, albeit in a losing effort. Overall, he’s a very consistent player and will be missed by Manchester City as he leaves at the end of the season.
Center Back: Kortney Hause
Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers delivered one of the upsets of the Third Round by defeating Liverpool FC…at Anfield. The 21-year-old defender exhibited a great amount of composure as he faced a decent Liverpool squad that fielded a mixture of youngsters and experienced players. It was still somewhat competitive. But we should not let that discredit the performance of Hause. His task in that game was to mark Divock Origi, in which he did an adequate job, up until the 86th minute where he scored a goal that wasn’t enough to keep Liverpool’s FA Cup run alive.
But in the game before this, Hause had a fantastic game against Stoke City. Hause completed 100% of his tackles (4/4). He also completed 83% of his passes. But the stat that stands out was his aerial duels won. In the game against Stoke City, he was involved in nine aerial duels, and he only lost three. Not to mention, he was facing strikers Marko Arnautovic AND PETER CROUCH, 6’4″ and 6’7″ respectively (and he’s 6’2″). He is definitely Premier League material.
Center Back: Yann Songo’o
Not Yaya Sanogo, but Yann Songo’o of Plymouth Argyle. The Cameroonian international led the defense against Liverpool in a goalless draw at Anfield. His team faced a very young Liverpool squad, with Origi, Lucas Leiva, Emre Can and Alberto Moreno as the only experienced players in that game. Songo’o committed no fouls, cleared the ball nine times, and won 100% of the balls he challenged in the air. In the replay, Songo’o exhibited his strength in the challenges he made as he continued to man-mark Origi. He was culpable in the penalty given to Liverpool, but Origi missed it terribly. Maybe Songo’o can be credited for his physical defending in making Origi miss. Overall, the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily an impenetrable wall in the defense, but he does have the ability to stifle attackers.
Right Back: Shaun Cummings
The Jamaican international played an integral role in Millwall FC’s tremendous cup run from the First Round to the quarter-finals, eventually losing to Tottenham. During that run, Millwall defeated (and kept clean sheets) against three Premier League teams: AFC Bournemouth, Watford, and Leicester City. A versatile player, he can be deployed as a center back as well, as he did against Bournemouth. In addition to the clean sheets he helped maintain, Cummings demonstrated his attacking ability, scoring two goals against Premier League teams Bournemouth and Leicester City. The goal against Leicester was a last minute winning goal that took his team to the quarter-finals. What is amazing about that game is that the right midfielder, Jake Cooper, earned a second yellow card early in the second half, making Cummings do a lot of running on the right-hand side of the pitch. Clearly a versatile player, Cummings demonstrated his defensive adeptness against big clubs while also proving to be a scoring threat. A double-edged sword indeed.
Holding Midfielder/”Makelele Role”: N’golo Kanté
Enough cannot be said about this guy. PFA Player of the Year. FWA Footballer of the Year. He’s in the PFA’s Premier League Team of the Season. In the FA Cup, his performances did not falter. Although he only started two games in the competition (as Chelsea manager Antonio Conte fielded Nathaniel Chalobah in his place against Peterborough United FC and Brentford FC). But when it mattered most, Kanté delivered, especially in the Quarter-Final matchup against Manchester United. He stifled Paul Pogba outpassing him by 30 passes and beating him in various duels. In addition, he scored the only goal of the game, a fantastic strike from outside of the box. Many attribute this game as the one that really questioned Pogba’s transfer fee, wondering if he was really worth that much when Kanté, worth a lot less, delivered such a dominating performance. Against Tottenham, Kanté played his usual controlled game, dictating the pace as well as dispossessing players like Dele Alli. He is a reliable player that quietly goes about his task on the field.
Right Central Midfielder: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
The English press has wondered when the Arsenal player would have his break-out year, when he would fulfill his potential. It is fair to say that this season, especially in the latter half, the Ox has revealed what he can really do when given more playing time. The Ox exhibited his versatility in the FA Cup, as he was deployed as a winger, a central midfielder and, a number 10, right wing-back and, most recently, a left wing-back. He can do it all. Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger believes his future is as a central midfielder. Playing in the central midfield role in the FA Cup, he showed his passing ability. In the second goal of a 5-0 rout against Southampton, his long ball over the top to Danny Welbeck was delightful. (Go to 1:05 for the second goal).
As a right wing-back in the Manchester City match, his first FA Cup game in that role after a change in formation by Wenger, the Ox showcased his direct dribbling ability, taking on Gaël Clichy and delivering a beautiful cross to Nacho Monreal for the equalizing goal. He is a talented player, one that hopes to stake a permanent place in the Arsenal starting eleven next season.
Left Central Midfielder: Dele Alli
A modern-day Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard, one that gets in the double-figures in goals per season for Tottenham FC. This Englishman, with Nigerian heritage, is a force. He seems to always be in the right place at the right time. He exhibits a striker’s instinct. And he’s just turned 21. A big game player, there’s no doubt about that. There isn’t much left to say.
Left Winger: Hélder Costa
The Mozambique-born player is adeptly talented. I watched the Wolverhampton Wanderers man play against Liverpool for the first time and it was evident that he controlled the game. He was always postitive in his movement, going forward with his passing and dribbling. In the victory against Liverpool, he provided two assists. He also had an amazing run too and if he had scored that, it would have been a contender for FA Cup goal of the year.
Costa and his team were unlucky to face an unbeatable Chelsea side in the fourth round of the Cup, losing a respectable 2-0 away from home. But Costa’s movement and energy were very evident to me.
Right Winger: Willian
The FA Cup has been the Brazilian’s refuge, his time to shine, after being a bench player for the majority of the Premier League season. He accounted for 40% of Chelsea’s FA Cup goals, scoring four and assisting two. He scored two against Tottenham in the semi-final, one of the goals being from a spectacular free-kick. Willian was the only player to produce last season during Chelsea’s abysmal season so he is a critical player to have. His agility and speed, as well as his dribbling and willingness to penetrate the defense, are traits that he consistently exhibited in the FA Cup, making him a must have in the lineup.
Striker: Marcus Rashford
The Manchester United youngster matured in this competition, demonstrating his ability to serve as a Number 9. He was given that opportunity and did quite well, scoring three goals in the process against Reading FC and Blackburn Rovers FC. In the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the quarter-final game against Chelsea, Rashford was called upon to challenge Chelsea’s back line with his speed. On one occasion, he beat (DAVID LUIZ?) and was one-on-one with Thibault Courtois, but the Belgian goalkeeper saved his effort well. The opportunity of equalizing the game was squandered and Manchester United was eliminated from the competition. Here is the chance against Chelsea:
That experience, I believe, influenced him to be more clinical in front of goal as he dispatched a similar chance in the Premier League against Chelsea in a 2-0 victory. Here is the goal he scored against Chelsea a few weeks later:
Rashford matured in this competition. He was given the chance to play the Number 9 role in Ibrahimovic’s absence, and he did well.
Manager: Chris Hughton
Manager of Brighton Hove & Albion, the team that finished second place in the Championship this season and gained automatic promotion to the Premier League. His team didn’t have the greatest of campaigns in the FA Cup (losing in the fourth round to Lincoln City) but still, he is a manager that can positively influence a team. Plus, there’s like no other Black/African-descent high-profile manager in England so he’s the number one choice.