FA Cup 2019/20: Arsenal vs Chelsea – tactical preview
The 2019/20 FA Cup has reached its climax and with holders Manchester City out of the competition, a new winner will be crowned. Arsenal will take on Chelsea in the final and the fact that it is a London derby means that adding to the usual pressure, bragging rights are at stake. Mikel Arteta would be hoping his Arsenal side can claim the trophy for a record 14th time and end the season on a high after a largely disappointing campaign. Frank Lampard, however, would want to make his successful season even more so and with Chelsea trailing 3-0 to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, this looks like his last chance of winning silverware this season. In this tactical analysis, we will preview the tactics of both Arsenal and Chelsea and look at how the sides may fare in the final.
In the first part of our tactical analysis, we will look at the predicted lineups of both sides. We expect both Arsenal and Chelsea to play a 3-4-3 formation as this has usually been their preferred structure when playing against the top teams. Both sides have had issues in defence and when it comes to a final, we expect both Arteta and Lampard to go with this structure that gives them better protection at the back.
Bernd Leno’s injury was apparently not as bad as it seemed initially but the German would not be fit to start the final, meaning that Emiliano Martínez will play in goal. The Argentine has been excellent between the sticks and has shown that he can challenge Leno for a spot in the starting lineup next season. We expect the back three to consist of David Luiz, Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney. Luiz’s experience means that despite his error-prone season he is expected to start while Holding, owing to his aerial ability, has often started against sides that look to play long balls and crosses.
We believe Tierney would replace Sead Kolašinac as he has looked more threatening in attack and gives Arteta another option going forward. Héctor Bellerín should also return to the side and has been declared fit and we expect to see him join the promising Bukayo Saka in the wing-back role. The rest of the squad need no explanation except for maybe Nicolas Pépé, who will probably be picked ahead of the young forwards in the squad.
For Chelsea, this squad is the same as the one used on the last day of the Premier League against Wolves. Azpilicueta offers greater stability at the back and hence will likely start as the third centre-back again. Reece James has been a bright prospect for Chelsea this season and we expect Lampard to give him the chance to start in the final. Willian missed the last game of the season due to injury and with Mason Mount performing well at right-wing, we expect him to start there again.
Christian Pulisic has also had a great first season at the club and his recent run of form almost guarantees him a spot in the starting lineup. The same goes for Olivier Giroud, who has had an impressive run post lockdown and scored in the semi-final against Manchester United as well.
Arsenal to sit back
As was the case against Manchester City in the semi-final, we can expect Arsenal to allow Chelsea the lion’s share of possession. The Gunners shift their formation from a 3-4-3 to a 5-4-1 in defence and maintain a compact structure at the back. The four in midfield stay very close to the backline and hence suffocate the opposition midfielders who look to move into half-spaces. The wingers can also sometimes act as auxiliary full-backs and allow the wing-backs to move in towards the centre-backs, hence crowding the box in case a cross comes in. It also prevents the opposition from passing their way into the box as the compact structure will have few gaps and should an attacker receive the ball, he can be quickly closed down by a number of players.
We saw Arsenal adopt a similar strategy against Southampton, another side who rely heavily on wing play. The defenders and midfielders would overload their own box in order to deal with incoming crosses and ensure that they have numbers behind the ball. Any long-range effort would also have to penetrate a number of bodies in the box and this means that it will be very difficult for the opponent to create clear cut chances. We had also mentioned that Holding would probably start for this very reason and with Luiz as well, dealing with crosses should not be an issue for the Gunners.
The Gunners would also look to press high up the pitch and usually do so with four players. The front three converge on the player with the ball while a midfielder moves up in support in order to receive the ball after a tackle or a misplaced pass. The rest of the squad, however, sits back and ensures that there is sufficient cover should these players be beaten. Losing possession to these four players would be deadly though, as they could then attack a disorganised defence with great pace.
However, we fully expect Chelsea to push Arsenal as far back as possible as they did against Manchester United in their semi-final. United had opted for a more defensive structure and the Blues pushed their team forward, with the back three even moving well into the opposition half. They would need to do this in order to ensure that their players are not always outnumbered in attack and this would be their option to break the Arsenal defence that we saw earlier. While the threat of the counter-attack is always present, expect Chelsea to look to make full use of their possession and push hard for an early goal.
Chelsea to bombard the box
With Giroud playing as a target man in the side, we can expect Chelsea to bombard the box with crosses to the Frenchman. The likes of James and Azipilicueta are excellent crossers of the ball and given enough space, will almost always look for a cross into the box. Marcos Alonso often joins Giroud in the box and it is his runs from the outside that causes problems for the defence. While the defenders are busy watching Giroud and the midfielders who stand at the edge of the area, Alonso is allowed to creep in around the back and meet a fair share of crosses. This certainly provides excellent opportunities for Chelsea to score.
This is perhaps even more dangerous on the counter when Chelsea look to push up the pitch upon winning the ball and crossing the ball into dangerous positions. The wingers look to move in centrally and hence create an added threat in the box. Lampard’s tactics mean that Giroud often stays up-front and his aerial prowess requires two defenders to usually mark him. This then multiplies the threat of the other attackers who find themselves with a lot of space in dangerous areas. While this may not necessarily happen owing to Arsenal looking to hit on the counter, it may be a factor later on, should Arteta switch his tactics and look to actively push for a goal.
What this also does is spread Arsenal’s defence. The Gunner’s tactics call for them to be very compact and minimise the gap between players. However, constant crosses from the wide areas would mean that Arsenal would have to stem the flow somehow. They would have to veer slightly away from their initial tactics in order to close down the wide Chelsea players and in doing so will play right into Chelsea’s tactics. Lampard showed in the Wolves game that crossing is not his only option and with a slight tweak in tactics, is able to attack the box through the centre as well. The Chelsea wingers naturally move inwards as the wing-backs look to supply crosses and this means they have effectively passed the opposition wing-backs as well.
In this situation, Lampard sometimes switches up his tactics to attack through the centre, leaving his wing-backs further back. The opposition wing-backs have already moved further up and wider and in doing so open up space for the Chelsea wingers behind them. The initial crossing tactics have meant that the opposition has had to change their style in order to defend better, leaving room for this small change to cause great damage. It also means that the Blues can look to bombard the box in this direct manner as well and the Arsenal defence would have to be prepared for this change in tactics.
Most of the action down the wing
Both teams like to play over the wings. This leaves a huge gap between the midfield and attack where no Arsenal player drops in to receive the ball. They are not looking to play intricate passing combinations to get them into the box but rather move the ball out wide where they can then take on the defender or deliver a cross. Playing Tierney is also key to these tactics as his link-up with Saka down the left-wing offers immense threat to the opposition. He can effectively play as a left-back in a back four while Saka moves up to play as a forward. The latter is also then slightly relieved of his defensive duties and has the freedom to attack the penalty area.
Interestingly, Chelsea look to do the same with James and Azpilicueta as well. The latter moves to wider positions and allows James to move into attacking positions up the pitch. There is enough defensive cover as well and James can trackback effectively should Chelsea lose the ball. This effectively extracts James’ attacking output and he can even cut in to take shots on goal.
An analysis of Arteta’s tactics also shows the tendency of the wing-backs to underlap the wingers. When Arsenal look to counter, the wingers move wider while the wing-backs move inside and look to underlap them. This spreads the opposition defence and allows their wingers to open up bigger spaces for them to run into. With the pace of the forwards, just a little space is enough for them to run into and once the ball is fed to them, they can quickly close in on goal. The underlap means that the opposition defenders cannot commit to the wingers completely for fear of opening up space through the centre and hence are caught between two minds. Such counters are certainly key to Arteta’s tactics and we should surely expect to see this through the game.
We should also see Chelsea overloading the wings as well. An analysis of Chelsea’s style of play shows that the Blues often look to overload the flanks. We mentioned how they could shift into a back four, pushing their wing-back further up. This effectively means that the winger, wing-back and auxiliary full-back are all plying down the same line and we often see a central midfielder move in for support as well. This creates an overload down the wing and the opposition are forced to move towards the ball in order to try and win possession. The forward in Giroud also moves across in order to provide an avenue to quickly turn towards goal and with five players down the flank, Chelsea will dominate the area. Such tactics are key to what we saw earlier in our analysis, where the Blues will look to spread the opposition defence by drawing them wide.
Through this tactical analysis, we have seen potentially how the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea could play out. Our analysis highlighted key tactics of both the sides and we predicted that Arsenal will look to sit back while Chelsea attack the penalty area frequently. Through our analysis, we also predicted that most of the action would take place down the wing, with both sides able to switch their tactics to an auxiliary back four and look to make full use of their wing-backs. The analysis also showed how Arsenal look to channel their counters down the wings while Chelsea will look to create overloads in order to spread the defence.
Overall, we feel that there will be plenty of action in this final and that neither side should be taken lightly. Arsenal showed that they are capable of playing against top sides with their efficient 2-0 victory over Manchester City in the semi-final while Chelsea showed that they can break down compact defences in their semi-final victory over Manchester United. However, we feel that Arsenal’s defence is more inconsistent as compared to Chelsea and after our analysis, we see Chelsea coming out on top with a scoreline of 2-1 or 3-1. Do not count Arsenal out though, as if they get their tactics spot-on as they did in the semi-final, there is no doubt that they could emerge victorious as well.