An analysis of the battles all over the field and how Arsenal secured their record 13th FA Cup at the expense of the champions…
First of all, congratulations are in order to Arsenal. The better team on the day won this match, despite the controversial nature of the opening goal.
Putting that decision aside, here’s how the battles all over the pitch affected each side during Saturday afternoon’s FA Cup Final between the blue and red halves of London:
Battleground #1: Wing play
Much has been made of Chelsea’s and many other Premier League teams' shift to variations of three-at-the-back formations this season. Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte, has been repeatedly lauded for saving his team’s season with the change in system, while Arsene Wenger’s men have lost just once since making the change themselves in mid-April.
But when the teams met Saturday afternoon at Wembley for the final game of their respective seasons, the area of the pitch that proved most vital to one’s defeat and the other’s victory was certainly the wide areas occupied by familiar faces Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses for Chelsea, and Hector Bellerin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arsenal. The Arsenal duo worked tirelessly up and down the wings as any successful wing-back should, with their influence playing a huge role in pinning their counterparts deeper and deeper inside their own half. As Marcos Alonso in particular was negated, so too was Chelsea’s star man, Eden Hazard, who has thrived off of the Spaniard’s overlapping runs and precise crossing ability all season. While Hazard’s poor performance arguably may have stemmed from a number of other factors, stripping this option from the Chelsea star certainly hampered his ability to attack defenders down the left wing, leaving him isolated with fewer passing options.
On the opposite wing, Victor Moses was relatively more successful popping up to aid Pedro in attack, yet repeatedly struggled to defend Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace and ability on the ball while in defense. What was already a miserable afternoon for the Chelsea wingback was compounded by the baffling decision to go to ground untouched midway through the second half, an act that would justifiably cost him a second yellow card and reduce Chelsea to ten men for the final twenty minutes.
The league champions have predicated their attacks all season on creating numerical overloads out on the wings, allowing diminutive forwards like Hazard and Pedro to exploit 2-on-1 matchups with their overlapping wing-backs providing the majority of the width. But with that option masterfully taken away from them for the most part by Arsenal, play gravitated to the center of the pitch.
Battleground #2: The Midfield “Battle”
I say “battle” because there really was none. Arsenal predictably controlled the center of the park through strong performances from the deep-lying Granit Xhaka and the more forward-thinking Aaron Ramsey, while also receiving aid whenever necessary from Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez dropping deep from their forward positions to grant the Gunners an extra man or two in midfield.
Chelsea countered by sending out the tried and true midfield duo of Nemanja Matic and Premier League Player of the Year, N’Golo Kanté. While this combination had successfully shielded the Chelsea backline all season long to the tune of twenty-seven league wins and a league title, the pair struggled to limit the space between themselves and their defense while effectively pressing their opponents in possession. Matic’s lack of pace is usually overcome with a keen sense of deep positioning while Kanté works tirelessly to win the ball further up the pitch. But on this day Arsenal pulled them both out of position time and time again while simultaneously outworking them, a combination that proved deadly to the Blues chances at achieving the double. Chelsea usually counteract any numbers advantage their opponents may have in midfield by either dropping Hazard or Pedro deep from their forward positions like Özil and Sánchez would for Arsenal, or by encouraging one of César Azpilicueta or David Luiz to advance forward from the back line in order to win back possession. But credit must be given to Arsenal’s well drilled midfield, who read these positional shifts beautifully and used them to play balls into the vacated spaces in behind or back to their own rear guard when necessary.
Battleground #3: The Rear Guards
When the matchday squads were released an hour before kickoff, the majority of the public feared the worst for Arsenal and their seemingly makeshift back line. Rumors of David Ospina’s inclusion at the expense of veteran first-choice goalkeeper Petr Cech had swirled during the latter half of the week and many were already aware that Arsenal would be without preferred center-backs Laurent Koscielny, Shkodran Mustafi, and Gabriel Paulista. In their place stepped forward Per Mertesacker at the heart of Arsenal’s back three, flanked by the relatively more familiar Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal. What looked to some like a death wish, proved to be a masterstroke from Arsene Wenger as Holding and Monreal continued their impressive work on the right and left side of the back three respectively, while Mertesacker and Ospina complimented each other excellently.
If you’re not aware of the scouting report on them both, Ospina can be briefly summed up as an excellent shot-stopper and perhaps one of the best backups in the Premier League, but at 6' feet tall, many believe he lacks the size to command his box on aerial balls to the level of many of Europe’s elite keepers. Mertesacker stands 6'7 and excels at reading such balls, but lacks the pace to play the high line Arsenal usually seek to establish in attack. While the combination of Holding, Mertesacker, and Monreal excellently monitored whatever aerial threat Chelsea could have possessed on set pieces or open play, they allowed their opponents the occasional chance to shoot from distance, which allowed their keeper’s shot stopping ability to shine.
Conversely, Chelsea’s more established back three of Azpilicueta, Luiz, and captain Gary Cahill struggled mightily with the aforementioned space afforded in midfield to the Gunners. As each attempted to cover for the other and for their wing-backs, they were picked apart on multiple occasions by the intelligent runs of Danny Welbeck, who failed to score despite numerous chances, and Alexis Sánchez. While conceding the early goal certainly didn’t help, with a vast majority of the game left to play Chelsea shouldn’t have been forced to chase the game the way they did. What resulted was a number of chances both from the counter-attack and more patient possession that perhaps on another day could have resulted in a repeat of Arsenal’s 3–0 shellacking of Chelsea last September.
At the end of the day, it’s clear that Arsenal won the individual and group matchups in all phases of the game, struggling only to put the ball in the back of the net. The Gunners did enough to secure the result their performance so well deserved by outworking their opponents and daring them to beat them through the middle of the park. They were repaid for their efforts with one of the poorest performances from the champions that we’ve seen all season and were just clinical enough to claim the silverware. It may not restore Arsene Wenger’s image among his detractors who claim he’s no longer suitable to lead the club into the future, but it could prove to be enough of a step in the right direction to keep the club from falling into obscurity.