A fortnight ago most of us expected the FA Cup final to be an all Manchester affair, given that the other two semi-finalists have been inconsistent, clumsy, and unpredictable in the midst of transitional seasons.
But two shock results at Wembley have set up the third Arsenal versus Chelsea final of the century and undoubtedly the lowest quality of the three; leaving the semi-finals aside, Arsenal and Chelsea have won just five of their last ten matches combined.
The upshot of that is we don’t really know which version of either team we will get on Saturday, whether or not they can rise to the occasion, or even what the broad strokes of the tactical battle will look like.
Arsenal could press high and hard to unsettle Chelsea’s volatile defence. Frank Lampard’s side could sit deep and play long balls over the top on the counter-attack as they did in the 2-1 win over Manchester City.
Or the two sides could simply cancel each other out in a nervy stalemate.
3-4-3 v 3-4-3 could create a stodgy game
The most likely scenario is that Arsenal and Chelsea will be mildly overawed by the occasion and find their respective formations jarring uncomfortably on the Wembley turf. Of all the systems to mirror one another, 3-4-3 is fundamentally the least likely to yield an end-to-end game by nature of being symmetrical.
The formation is largely designed to sit directly in the spaces left empty by a more traditional 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, essentially lying on top of the opposition formation to create a tessellating shape.
When 3-4-3 meets 3-4-3, it becomes difficult to gain an advantage anywhere on the pitch. It is heavily reliant on the wing-backs to provide width (by sitting in-between the defensive and midfield lines), and so when up against another pair of wing-backs the flanks can get cancelled out. The back three can focus on the front three, and each pair of central midfielders struggles to gain a numerical advantage.
Arsenal’s shape is constantly improving under Arteta but they are still in the learning stage, meaning low-tempo interchanges are common. Chelsea are far more chaotic in their structure, but the occasion could get to them – all of which points to a bit of a slog, making under 2.5 goals, at 10/11, a decent bet.
Pulisic and Saka the key players in a tight contest
If this does happen, then Christian Pulisic or Bukayo Saka will most likely make the telling difference. Pulisic’s form, with six goals or assists in his last ten games, has been exceptional recently as the American takes on a Hazard-esque influence from the left flank at Chelsea. His ability to weave through tight spaces and conjure a goalscoring opportunity out of nothing has been the club’s main counter-attacking weapon.
Rob Holding, from the right side of central defence, may lack the agility required to win any one-on-one battles with Pulisic, and it isn’t hard to imagine David Luiz getting pulled out of position should the Chelsea winger be on form. Hector Bellerin has been caught too far forward on numerous occasions recently, suggesting Pulisic can roam into spaces behind the Arsenal wing-back to isolate Holding. Back Pulisic to score in 90 minutes at 9/4.
For Arsenal, the influence of their key player could be more subtle. Saka’s tendency to drift away from his right inside forward position and appear, unseen, in central midfield provides Arsenal’s midfielders with the out-ball when their 3-4-3 starts to look flat. The 19-year-old’s exceptional positional play means he moves into space on the blind side of the opponent and, receiving the ball on the half-turn, gets Arteta’s side into the final third.
Saka ought to be effective doing this on Matteo Kovacic’s side of midfield, particularly up against a hesitant Chelsea defence that is unlikely to be organised enough, or confident enough, to step out and meet the youngster.
Chelsea may sit deep and hit on the break
However, we cannot safely predict this game will, in fact, be tight or edgy.
One possible permutation is that Lampard deliberately sets his team up to sit deep and absorb Arsenal pressure, just as he did in a 2-1 win over Man City in which the Blues held just 35% possession and scored twice on the counter-attack. Arteta’s side, heavily influenced by Pep Guardiola, could be lured up the field by stagnant possession.
This is a newly emerging pattern at Arsenal. Following Tottenham’s 2-1 win earlier this month Jose Mourinho used his post-match press conference to detail his tactical success, highlighting a deliberate ploy to invite the Gunners forward before breaking into the gaps either side of their three-man defence. Lucas Moura and Heung-Min Son easily countered on the outside of the centre-backs once Arsenal had been drawn out.
Similarly Aston Villa created several chances via simple counters through Jack Grealish on the left, and comfortably held out as 1-0 winners at Villa Park by holding a deep line (31% possession) and watching Arsenal pass harmlessly in front of them. If after ten minutes of Saturday’s game the pattern has settled into Arsenal dominating the ball, then back Chelsea to win at 11/10.
Arsenal press could target vulnerable centre-backs
Alternatively, if Arsenal show up they have the tenacity and willpower to expose all of the flaws that have undermined Lampard’s first season in charge.
It is certainly plausible that Chelsea’s error-prone defenders will cave under the pressure of Arsenal’s high-pressing front three, mimicking the Gunners’ semi-final win over Man City and Chelsea’s 5-3 defeat to Liverpool last week. Kurt Zouma and Antonio Rudiger hardly inspire confidence at the moment, and if the 3-4-3s do cancel each other out then Chelsea’s defenders could make major errors when harassed without an easy passing option out from the back.
But Arsenal’s press isn’t just enacted from opposition goal kicks. They may choose to hit Kovacic and Kante in that under-stocked Chelsea midfield, an area of the pitch Arteta will know has caused Lampard problems all season; from the very first game of 2019/20, a 4-0 defeat to Manchester United, Chelsea have struggled to re-compress their formation after losing the ball, repeatedly getting hit on the transition from attack to defence.
So when Chelsea probe, Arsenal can pincer press in key midfield areas to expose Lampard’s side. Or Chelsea will sit deep and hurt Arteta on the break. Or an even game with two identical formations will never really get going. That’s the problem with previewing two volatile and emotional clubs in mid-transition: more or less anything could happen on Saturday.
Odds correct as of 1400 BST on 30/07/20
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