Jose Mourinho’s tactical masterclass against league-leaders Chelsea last weekend has set a tone of redemption for this one: like the Manchester United manager, Arsene Wenger needs a big performance to prove he is still tactically astute – and still relevant as an influx of young coaches reshape the landscape of English football.
Another FA Cup final would barely soothe the dissenting voices inside the Emirates, but to out-think Pep Guardiola – the nation’s favourite emblem of tactical sophistication – would be a major symbolic moment for Wenger.
Arsenal’s recent 2-2 draw with Manchester City in the Premier League suggests a win is certainly possible, while Guardiola’s 2-1 defeat at Chelsea three days later provides Wenger with a few more tactical clues. Based on these two fixtures in particular, here’s how Arsenal can win their FA Cup semi-final on Saturday:
1) Press the back four to disrupt City’s passing and cut off their attackers
A key feature of Arsenal’s game on Apr. 2 was how aggressively they pressurised City’s back four and goalkeeper, which forced Willy Caballero to consistently abandon his attempts to build attacks gradually from the back (he attempted 26 long passes and just 14 short passes). Guardiola’s entire philosophy is built on carefully choreographed short passing, in which the team move gradually up the pitch by moving and replacing each other in carefully demarcated zones between the opposition’s formation lines. This is why, in such an aggressive and direct league, Guardiola’s methods have not always had the desired effect so far (and why he won’t shut up about the “second balls”).
As a result of Arsenal’s pressing, City increasingly decompressed; the back four pulled shorter to Caballero as the forwards drifted away in preparation for longer passes, which made City disjointed and blunt. Unsurprisingly, this over-expansive formation led to stilted, low-tempo football. Arsenal must repeat this model, although things may be considerably more difficult on Saturday: Yaya Toure and Claudio Bravo are back in the side, adding stability and composure at the base of midfield and better technical ability in goal.
2) Isolate Yaya Toure by doubling up on the Ivorian
Chelsea’s biggest mistake against City was dropping off too quickly after an early press, giving Fabian Delph and Fernandinho too much time on the ball to thread passes into the final third. David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne shuttle alternatively in the number ten zone, and both consistently received the ball between the lines thanks to clever one-twos by the forward-thinking Delph. He is unlikely to start on Saturday, although Toure will do something similar.
Arsenal, then, must suffocate City’s attacks at their source, by pincer-pressing Toure. Granit Xhaka must stick tight to the Ivorian, with Aaron Ramsey or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain quickly moving infield to support this action. If Arsenal can mark Toure out of the game, then Silva and De Bruyne will struggle to receive the ball in the holes, thus forcing them to come shorter and limiting creativity.
3) Target Navas on the counter-attack
Wenger will not mind playing largely on the back foot, and should instruct his team to quickly distribute the ball to Alexis Sanchez on the left flank as soon as a counter-attacking opportunity arises. Not only is the Chilean clearly Arsenal’s quickest, most creative player, but on Saturday he is up against Jesus Navas – who remains vulnerable when left one-on-one.
Arsenal’s second goal against City came from a corner, which was conceded after Navas abandoned his post - rashly pushing forward and leaving Nacho Monreal in space to cross into the box. The Spaniard has played at full-back in each of the last four City matches, and although he has performed the job admirably his positional play leaves much to be desired. Up against Eden Hazard, Navas made one interception and no tackles at Stamford Bridge.
It should be obvious to Wenger to attack predominantly on Navas’ side, meaning Mesut Ozil must drift to the left and provide close support for Sanchez.
4) Ensure Monreal and Bellerin sit deep and stay tight to the centre-backs
A major tactical flaw of Wenger’s over the years has been allowing his full-backs to hold a very high line, creating a formation that is far too expansive to defend counters. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling hug the touchline in City’s latest guise, waiting for De Bruyne and Silva to find enough space centrally to slip a pass between the centre- and full-backs. The out-to-in arcing runs of Sterling and Sane are the biggest threat at Wembley.
To counter this, Monreal and Bellerin must be cautious - and ignore their instincts to follow City’s wingers to the flanks. Too often opponents, fearful of Sane and Sterling, drift out to meet them, which is opens up space on the inside for those late arcing runs. If Arsenal’s full-backs stay narrow, however, the threat is largely nullified; neither City player has much interest in crossing from the byline.
5) Revert to the old 4-2-3-1 formation
There have been calls for Wenger to continue in a 3-4-2-1 shape for this one after their 2-1 victory against Middlesbrough on Monday. However, this tactic would not be suitable against City’s formation.
Wenger’s switch on Monday was designed to limit the impact of Boro’s long balls and inject greater purpose out wide – something necessary against ultra-narrow, ultra-defensive opponents like Middlesbrough.
A 3-4-2-1 formation against City could be disastrous. Using only two central midfielders would give David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne plenty of room to overwhelm this zone, while deploying wing-backs would see space develop on the flanks for Sterling and Sane (see above). Counterintuitively, it is Wenger’s old – often outdated - formation that gives Arsenal the best chance of reaching the FA Cup final.