FA Cup Final: Arsenal vs Aston Villa tactical preview and key battles


Ahead of the FA Cup final at Wembly, Ryan Wrenn analyses where the match will be won and lost

Arsenal head across London to Wembley Stadium to play in their second consecutive FA Cup final. Last season’s victory in extra time over Hull City earned the Gunners their first trophy in nine seasons. Their campaign to this year’s FA Cup final has seen them win over perennial rivals Manchester United but struggle against a resolute Reading side in the

Last season’s victory in extra time over Hull City earned the Gunners their first trophy in nine seasons. Their campaign to this year’s FA Cup final has seen them win over perennial rivals Manchester United but struggle against a resolute Reading side in the semi-final.

It’s Aston Villa who are the real surprise package though. They spent half the season in the morass of Paul Lambert’s management only to be rejuvenated by former Spurs head coach Tim Sherwood. Under his guidance, they beat local rivals West Brom and put on a masterful display in their FA Cup semi-final win over Liverpool.

You’d be forgiven in thinking that a meeting between these two sides would be an exercise in tactical contrast. Arsene Wenger has famously moulded his Arsenal side into a patient, passing side that dominates possession as they grind out wins. Sherwood, on the other hand, has often been labeled as a classic English coach bound to a more ‘primitive’ playing style, far more likely to yell for a punt up-field from the sidelines than use a dry-erase board full of Xs and Os in the locker room.

Neither of these assumptions is entirely correct, however. Both Arsenal and Aston Villa have proven this season that they’re capable of a bit more nuance and a lot more surprises. This FA Cup final will be the final test of both manager’s innovations this term, and might indeed go a long way in determining how each team proceeds into the next season.

Let’s take a look at the probable line-ups ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup Final.


Arsenal will likely field a team that shows how far the North London team has come in the latter half of this season. Many of the players on defensive side secured themselves as regular starters only in the past few months. The key to the solidity of Arsenal’s third-best defense has been the introduction and subsequent impressive performances of midfielder Francis Coquelin. The Frenchman’s dominance in the area just ahead of the defense has not only contributed to the Gunners’ defensive record but also proven to be a vital new tool in Wenger’s overall tactical approach.

The primary weakness of Arsenal sides from seasons past is their vulnerability on the break. So much of their play is reliant on creative players pressing higher and higher up the pitch that it often leaves them exposed when they end up losing the ball. Coquelin is the remedy for that. Perfectly capable of contributing to that pass-drunk press, he’s also positionally intelligent enough to not leave too much space between his midfield and the defense behind him. When Arsenal’s attack breaks down he’s been that vital first line of defense before the back-line is overrun.

Conquelin’s value is borne out in the numbers. In the fifteen league games prior to his first start this season, Arsenal gave up an average of 1.2 goals per game to the opposition per Who Scored. In the 22 league games he has started since, that number has fallen to 0.81 goals per game. For a bit of perspective, Chelsea fielded the best defense in the league and conceded 0.84 goals per game this season. Stoke City were scored on about 1.2 goals per game and finished ninth.

It’s been in the bigger matches, the ones that pit Arsenal against their fellow teams in the top four, where the difference Coquelin makes becomes truly evident. His presence in midfield isn’t just a failsafe. It also allows Arsenal to sit deep, absorb pressure and play direct on the counter against those sides that would attempt take the take the game to them. Last term the North London side took a mere 5 points from a possible 18 in matches against other top teams. This season threatened to be more of the same until Coquelin’s arrival. Since then, they’ve beaten Manchester City at the Etihad and drawn against strong Chelsea and Manchester United sides.

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  • While Coquelin has performed the role impressively, there’s nothing new about employing a deep-lying defensively-minded midfielder. Indeed, the press and fans alike have been calling for such a player at Arsenal for years. What makes Coquelin especially remarkable is what he represents. Acknowledging the need for balance or a Plan B is a tiny bit of heresy on what has become something of a fundamentalist system for Wenger. Such a change does not come lightly, and it might end up defining how Arsenal continue into next season.

    Coquelin isn’t the only telling change Wenger’s made to his approach. Last summer’s blockbuster acquisition of World Cup star Alexis Sanchez was the first hint that Wenger was reconsidering his methods. Sanchez is a spectacular player, but not one that many would have thought would fit in at the Emirates. Indeed, the Chilean had previously struggled at a Barcelona consumed by a similar passing and possession fetish as Arsenal’s. That Sanchez has been Arsenal’s standout player this season suggests just how much Wenger and Arsenal have changed to accommodate his style of play. His directness and ability to stretch defenses deep as well as wide have been as crucial as Coquelin’s midfield influence to Arsenal’s third place finish.

    It’s precisely Sanchez’s success with a direct approach that will earn Theo Walcott a start. Prior to a lengthy injury spell, the English winger provided something similar to Sanchez insofar that his pace and acceleration often caught defenses flat-footed. His hat trick on the final game of the season against West Brom prove how ideal a weapon he can be against sides that might try to stifle Arsenal’s less direct creative efforts. If he starts, he’ll likely be put up top, drifting to the right to bring Sanchez into the game from the left.

    None of which is to suggest that Arsenal still don’t field a small army of spectacular creative midfielders; clearly they do and to good effect. They’ll act as the gun to Sanchez and Walcott’s bullets, finding space from between the lines and unleashing the two winger-cum-strikers on their way to goal.

    Aston Villa

    We’ve covered Sherwood’s innovations for this Villa side before on Playing for 90, but they’re worth reiterating ahead of what will likely be their most difficult match of the season.

    Paul Lambert’s overly conservative side attempted to trade goals for solidity in defense and succeeded in the worst way possible. By the end they were scoring 0.25 goals per game, a truly woeful figure. Sherwood could simply have allowed Christian Benteke and Villas’ other best players to play their game and he likely would have seen improvement.

    What Sherwood ended up doing was a step above, and should earn him plaudits. Benteke is a next level talent and would be for most Premier League sides desperate for a goal outlet. His height, physicality and nose for goal might make him out to be the ideal candidate for a long-ball approach, but in reality he best thrives with close support. To that end, Sherwood’s reconfigured his Villa side to provide just that – almost to a fault. His players push forward and crowd the eighteen yard box, pulling off Benteke’s markers and allowing him room to express himself. The tactics have worked; Benteke’s 13 league goals make up 42% of all of Villa’s goals for the entire season. By way of comparison, Premier League Golden Boot winner Sergio Agüero scored 31% of Manchester City’s goals this term.

    All of which is to say that Sherwood’s tactical improvements have been much more about getting the best out of Benteke and the offense than they have been about keeping things tight at the back. The numbers, once again, back this up. Lambert’s Villa conceded a respectable 1.25 goals per game. Sherwood’s thus far have given up a whopping 1.63 goals per game, a worse defensive record than two of the three teams relegated from the Premier League this season.

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  • Oddly enough, Sherwood’s terrible defense is rooted in the same problem Arsenal had prior to the advent of Francis Coquelin. So concerned is this Villa team with pressing forward into the opposition’s third that barely any consideration is given to all the space they’re leaving in behind. Villa’s defense, never spectacular even with the addition of the Netherland’s Ron Vlaar, is simply not equipped to deal with the deluge of counterattacks that naturally result from Sherwood’s methods.

    That shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism of Villa’s midfield though. In Fabian Delph they have one of the most versatile, attack-minded central midfielders in the English game. Youngster Jack Grealish’s efforts are made all the more impressive by the fact that he’s made his way onto this Villa side at only 19 years old. Sherwood has even managed to find some juice left in the careers of Charles N’Zogbia and Tom Cleverley. It’s a collection of players that by most measurements shouldn’t work as well as it does.

    The remaining player of that bunch, Ashley Westwood, features in the unenviable role of nominal defensive midfielder. If he’s failed to impress in that role as much as Coquelin, it’s hardly his fault. This is a team that’s built for speed and aggression with little patience for a sound defense. At the time of Playing for 90’s first writing on Sherwood’s transformation of Villa, we predicted that such ‘heart’ only had so long of a shelf life. To some extent that prophecy has come true; Southampton’s 6-1 demolition of Villa in the penultimate game of the season came mostly from exploiting the gaping holes in midfield and counting on the defense to buckle under pressure. In its own way, that loss might be the lesson Villa needed ahead of their confrontation with Arsenal. It might have come too late to slow Villa down though.

    Key Battles

    For Arsenal, it will come down to how well their collection of midfield maestros can punish Villa’s negligence in midfield. Mesut Özil in particular lives and dies by the space he’s afforded by opposition midfields, so expect him to be a key player in creating chances for Sanchez and Walcott. With Santi Cazorla orchestrating from deep alongside Coquelin and Jack Wilshere – or possibly Aaron Ramsey – supporting, it’s easy to envision ninety minutes of Arsenal dismantling Villa’s fragile defense.

    The onus, then, is on Sherwood to anticipate and correct accordingly. Villa has played a mite more defensively in his games against the Premier League’s bigger clubs, which might lend us a clue as to how he’ll seek to play Saturday. We’re likely to see Carlos Sánchez feature as part of a narrow, five-man midfield that will seek to crowd the center of the park when it’s not attacking. That strategy was not particularly effective against Manchester City or Manchester United, though it did allow Villa to secure a 1-0 win at Spurs.

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    In truth adding Sánchez in midfield might be the only realistic option Sherwood has for a dramatic tactical change. He simply lacks the tools to do much more otherwise. It might be more advisable to continue to rely on offense to get a result. Their FA Cup semifinal victory over Liverpool is a perfect example of this philosophy in motion. Already talented at overwhelming opposition defenses, Villa exploited the weakness of Liverpool’s right flank to great effect. Delph, Grealish and fullback Kieran Richardson simply outnumbered Liverpool’s defense on their right and opened them up time and time again. It’s difficult to imagine Wenger allowing right-back Héctor Bellerín to be bested so frequently without support, but it might be Villa’s best hope.


    Were the Arsenal of the first half of the season to be playing the Aston Villa of the second half Saturday, the two sides might have fit together like puzzle pieces. Each team sought to press high up the pitch and catch the defense out, even if it meant sacrificing some of their own security along the way. That sounds like a recipe for a mutual goal-fest, one perhaps more painful than enjoyable to watch.

    That likely won’t be how this FA Cup final plays out though. Wenger’s tactical innovations, however late they might have come, have given his side more balance and bite than it’s had in years. As impressive Sherwood and his boys have been since his appointment in February, they stand to simply be outmaneuvered and out-matured on the field Saturday.

    Final Scoreline: Arsenal 3 – 1 Aston Villa