Arsenal v Chelsea: Jonathan Wilson’s tactical preview of the FA Cup Final


Chelsea, as ever, are at full strength while Arsenal, as ever, are riddled with injuries, particularly at the back. Laurent Koscielny is suspended after being sent off against Everton last week, while there are doubts over Shkodran Mustafi and Gabriel who missed the Everton game with illness and a knee injury respectively. If both are out and Arsenal persist with their back three, it’s not clear who would play alongside Nacho Monreal and Rob Holding in the centre of defence.

Monreal, in fact, may be needed at left wing-back given Kieran Gibbs is doubtful with a thigh injury. On the other side, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is definitely out with a hamstring problem, although that is less of an issue given Hector Bellerin’s comfort in the position. Santi Cazorla is still out.



Those thoughts that Chelsea might be wobbling and might be about to let Tottenham in seem a little strange now. Since losing at Manchester United in mid-April, Chelsea have won seven in a row in all competitions, dismissing Tottenham 4-2 in the Cup semi-final and scoring nine in their last two games – and that despite resting a number of key players. Arsenal, though, are also in fine form. Since the switch to a back three, they have won eight out of nine, the only blip being the emphatic defeat at Tottenham. There has been a growing sense that they are becoming used to the system.



Arsene Wenger has won only two of his last 13 encounters with Chelsea: last season’s Community Shield and the league game at the Emirates earlier this season when Arsenal won 3-0, forcing Antonio Conte into the switch to a back three that ultimately proved decisive. That seemed typical of Wenger’s luck: even when he beat Chelsea in a major game, it proved counter-productive. Having made the tactical adjustment, Chelsea comfortably beat Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in the league in February, winning 3-1 but never looking in danger.



Arsenal will be the tenth side this season to decide that the best way to try to face down Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 is to match them shape-for-shape – assuming a dearth of defenders doesn’t force them into a reversion to a back four. That may make tactical sense, but it’s no guarantee of success. Of those 10 sides, only two have won.

When it comes down to a head-to-head battle, Chelsea have an edge, partly because their players are more used to the system and partly because – certainly when matched against Arsenal – they simply seem a quicker, stronger side. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine how Arsenal can possibly gain control when their central square of Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez is matched against Eden Hazard, Pedro, N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.



The picture is no more encouraging for Arsenal on the flanks where Victor Moses would seem to have a clear edge of Kieran Gibbs. On the other side, Hector Bellerin is quicker than Marcos Alonso, which may force the Chelsea man to play slightly deeper than he has tended to this season. Alonso, though, has had a superb season, both defensively and, increasingly, on the front foot and it’s far from inconceivable that he could take advantage of Bellerin’s attacking instincts and get in behind him.



Olivier Giroud came off the bench to score against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and is manifestly in better form than Danny Welbeck at the moment. But it’s hard to see how he can unsettle the Chelsea back three. Where Alexis Sanchez, deployed as a lone forward, could pull wide and deep and search for space, Giroud will essentially be a fixed point, and he does not have the beating in the air of either Gary Cahill or David Luiz.

On the plus side, that means it hardly matters whether Bellerin or Gibbs can find attacking positions on the flanks, but it does make Arsenal heavily reliant on Ozil picking out a pass. That may be another reason for a reversion to the 4-2-3-1.



There’s a reason Chelsea are 1.76 favourites to win. They finished 18 points ahead of Arsenal in the league, have rarely struggled against them in recent seasons and have an intimidatingly implacable aspect. Add in Arsenal’s habit – which they eschewed in the semi-final – of crumbling in big games, plus their defensive injuries, and there’s little justification for doing anything other than backing a Chelsea win. They’re 2.35 to win -1 on the Asian handicap.