Gone are the days in which the FA Cup final was seen as the pinnacle of the football season. The race for the top four and the prize of Champions League qualification now takes precedence over the chance of domestic silverware for the majority of the biggest clubs in the country. This is further evidenced by the last four finals which have featured Wigan Athletic, Crystal Palace, Hull City and Aston Villa, whilst none of those can be considered in any way small clubs they still can not be considered as leading clubs.
This year, however, we are looking forward to a final between Chelsea and Arsenal, two leading clubs in domestic football who are coming off of very different seasons. Whilst Chelsea have enjoyed success under first-year head coach Antonio Conte having won the title in some style, we have seen Arsenal under long-serving manager Arsene Wenger fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in twenty years. Given the relative form of the two sides, it seems reasonable to view Chelsea as favourites in their bid to secure the domestic double.
Chelsea are worthy champions having impressed with their style of play and tactical flexibility under Conte with the Italian coach having introduced a variant of the 3-4-3 system that he used in stages whilst at Juventus and with the Italian national team. The switch of systems in the early stage of the season seemed to catch their opponents off guard with teams struggling to find a way to match up with the various attacking threats utilised by the London side.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have remained very much stagnant with questions arising over the ability of Wenger to continue to adapt and keep pace tactically with the new breed of coaches at the top level. In the latter stages of the season, Wenger experimented with a back three system but there are still real issues with the players at his disposal being able to adapt to the switch.
For this match, I see Chelsea as being the clear favourite and I expect the champions to want to end their domestic campaign in style by forcing their opponents on to the back foot and attacking from the off. I expect Chelsea to score early and to score in each half as they assert their dominance over what has been a relatively poor Arsenal side defensively.
Chelsea strength in the attacking phase
One of the most impressive aspects of Chelsea’s play since the switch to the back three has been the ease with which they create opportunities to overload the opposition in the attacking phase. Conte has given the wide attackers in the system freedom to operate either in the half space or even in pure central areas freeing up space for the wingbacks to advance in the wide areas thus stretching the opposition defensive structure to breaking point.
The wingbacks and wide forwards are then able to connect and link with one another creating opportunities for the vertical penetrative pass to breach the opponents back line. Couple this with the all-action style of Diego Costa as the lone striker and you have an attacking force that is extremely difficult to contain effectively.
Here we see Chelsea attacking from the left-hand side with no significant presence in the central areas. The key here lies in the initial spacing between the Chelsea players who all have individual zones that they are occupying.
This spacing stretches the defensive structure of the opposition and creates spaces through which Chelsea can play as they look to penetrate into the opposition’s penalty area. Movement and structure like this from Chelsea can be especially dangerous given the defensive issues that we have seen from Arsenal this season with large spaces being opened up and exploited between the defensive and midfield lines over and over again.
As the play develops it is Willian attacking from the left-hand side who eventually finds himself free in the penalty area to finish a well-worked move.
On this occasion we see Chelsea take a much more direct route to goal as they transition very quickly from the defensive phase to the attacking phase. Again there have been times this season in which Arsenal have found themselves exposed defensively to sides that are willing to play quickly and vertically from back to front.
With the ball initially in the Chelsea half, we see possession rotated around until Cesc Fabregas takes the ball in the central area. He is able to play a vertical ball into space for Diego Costa to run on to and the Spanish international is then able to pull the ball back into a dangerous central area where Eden Hazard can attack the ball and score.
Arsenal continue to struggle defensively
One of the themes of the season for Arsenal has been their inability to defend effectively or to see out matches in tight situations. These defensive woes further validate the narrative that the club have been missing a true defensive midfielder for several seasons now and that the refusal to address this position has led to mistrust between the fan base and Arsene Wenger.
Last summer saw the signing of the Swiss international Granit Xhaka from German side Borussia Monchengladbach but he has not proven to be the defensive solution sought by the club, Against Chelsea with their capacity to overload either flank or the central area at any given moment the lack of defensive support from the midfield for the defensive structure could well prove to be catastrophic.
Here we see a goal scored in the North London derby which serves to further illustrate the defensive issues that Arsenal need to address.
When the ball goes out for a throw in the midfield unit for Arsenal appears to switch off and they are caught off guard by the throw over the top. Even when Spurs look to build off the platform given to them by Harry Kane, however, there was still a lack of effort from the Arsenal players to get back and cut off passing lanes.
As the play develops Arsenal are second to every ball and there is no surprise when Deli Alli is eventually able to turn the ball into goal from close range.
Here we see Arsenal in the attacking phase in a match against Manchester City. As they attack down the right-hand side and the ball is played centrally they lose possession having committed a lot of players forward.
All that it then takes is for one vertical pass to release Aguero through on goal to score. Chelsea are more than capable of attacking in this manner themselves and often we see Eden Hazard pull off in high areas to find space that he can attack from in quick transitions.
Given the way that both clubs have performed this season I can only see a Chelsea victory. Whilst Arsenal are more than capable of scoring in their own right with the likes of Alexis Sanchez, in particular, looking to prove a point ahead of a potential move in the summer.
I expect that both sides will look to attack from the outset but that in the end, the stronger tactical organisation of Conte and Chelsea will prevail in this match and that they will run our comfortable winners.
If you are thinking of having a bet on the match tomorrow, considering everything we have talked about above this would be our pick of the best bets available. Good luck!