Arsenal vs Chelsea: It all comes down to this- Salvation for Arteta and Arsenal?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
On Saturday evening, we play for the future of this football club. The 11 players that cross that white line in front of an empty and somewhat eerie Wembley stadium will be burdened with the pressure of single-handedly determining what direction this club goes in in the next few years. Defeat, and mid-table mediocrity could be on the cards as the club sinks into this mindset- it can be a difficult situation to escape. Victory, and the club will be drastically boosted in their pursuit of a rebuild- the upward trajectory can commence. Last year, against the same opposition, they weren't up to the task, and a very poor season followed as a result. Please, please do not repeat that. It's pay Baku time (shoutout deputy editor Daniel Finton).
This has been a torrid season. Turbulence and turmoil has ensued on and off the pitch as the club has experienced it's worst season for 25 years. Yet, there could be light at the end of the tunnel. A 14th FA Cup triumph would represent redemption for this team. A diabolical league campaign but a trophy won will mean this won't be an absolute waste of a season. This club prides itself on consistent success, and silverware is the main component of what makes a club successful. Victory on Saturday and we'll be very clear of Manchester United as the most successful team in the history of this competition. Victory on Saturday will mean salvation for our coach and players who have been from hell and back this season. It'd be a mental relief, escaping from the traumatic experiences we've had to undergo time and time again this season.
So, how can we win? Well, it won't be easy. Chelsea have finished the season in good form, winning all but three of their games since the restart, including victories over Manchester City, United and Wolves. Olivier Giroud is on fire, Mason Mount is rediscovering his early season form and Christian Pulisic is demonstrating just how good he is. Frank Lampard seems to have found a three at the back shape (similarly to Arteta) that suits the personnel available to him, and allows him to play his aggressive pressing system.
However, this system has only recently come good. Lampard used it occasionally in the early part of the season, and they struggled with it at both ends of the pitch. At the Emirates in December, in Arteta's first home game as head coach, Arsenal controlled and nullified Chelsea in the first half when they played with a 3-4-3. It was only in the second period when the English coach switched to a back four when their fortunes changed and they went on to snatch the three points late on.
Arteta must match this shape if we want to be successful in this game. Man for man, our wing-backs possess better quality than our counterpart's, and this could be a key area where the game is won. Both Marcus Alonso and Reece James lack positional discipline, and they'll leave space for us to get in behind. It's blatantly obvious that pressing Jorginho is pivotal to stopping Chelea's creative heartbeat, so Alexandre Lacazette will be instructed to drop off and do this.
If we try to set up and go toe to toe with Chelsea, they'll unfortunately rip us apart with their superior quality going forward. Like we saw in the Semi-Final, I'd expect Arteta to set up in a more pragmatic way, sitting in a low compact block, building intricately from the back and hitting them on the counter. Giroud undoutedly makes playing against this type of system a lot easier, so Arteta must instruct David Luiz to stay very tight to the Frenchman, and stop him from linking play and combining with the likes of Mount, Willian or Pulisic.
Chelsea's press can be ferocious at times, so the quality of our build up play must be as good as it was against City. They pressed United into submission in their semi-final, so moving it quickly and positioning players in the right spaces when playing out from the back is absolutely essential. If we can play through their press, we can definitely get at their vulnerable backline and goalkeeper.
As for our line-up, in order to pull out a similar performance to the CIty game, I'd be looking at playing a very similar team to the one Arteta put out in that game. In goal, despite a late Bernd Leno resurgence to training, Emi Martinez is expected to retain his place. With that 3-4-3 working so well against City, I don't see any changes, even with Shkodran Mustafi out. Rob Holding will most likely take the place of the German, in what will hopefully be a repeat of his 2017 masterclass against the same opposition. Luiz will be deployed in the centre of the three, with Kieran Tierney completing the backline on the left-hand side- I don't want to see Sead Kolasinac anywhere near the team.
Across the midfield four, I'm expecting Hector Belllerin to come back in, as he's supposedly been passed fit for this game. Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos will continue their excellent partnership as our double pivot, with Lucas Torreira failing to impress when given rare opportunities of late. On the left-hand side, perhaps contentiously I'd opt for Ainsley Maitland-Niles. He was excellent at Wembley two weeks ago, and offers more defensive security than Bukayo Saka, which is pivotal if we're going to play in a cautious manner.
Finally, I don't think there's much debate for our front three. Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyng will start alongside Lacazette, in what could be his last game for the club.
Arsenal: Martinez, Holding, Luiz, Tierney, Bellerin, Xhaka, Ceballos, Maitland-Niles, Pepe, Lacazette, Aubameyang.
Chelsea: Caballero, Azpilicueta, Zouma, Rudiger, James, Jorginho, Kovacic, Alonso, Mount, Giroud, Pulisic.
Score Prediction: Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea (gotta back us)