There’s so much at stake in Saturday’s FA Cup final. For Chelsea, a historic Double in Antonio Conte’s first season is on the line. At Arsenal, a turbulent season — possibly Arsene Wenger’s last — could be salvaged with victory at Wembley.
Tom Adams (Arsenal) and Mark Worrall (Chelsea) look ahead to the showdown.
This match matters more to whom?
Mark Worrall: Worryingly for Arsenal, Chelsea will be supremely motivated to win and complete what would be a superb FA Cup and Premier League Double. The Blues’ beating heart this season has been Conte, a man for whom victory will always matter more than for his Gunners counterpart Wenger. That desire will percolate through the dressing room and be evident in the Wembley stands that will house Chelsea’s supporters.
Tom Adams: I certainly wouldn’t disagree with Mark that the Double is a big motivation; neither would Wenger, who has won two of the things by the way, among the eight domestic cups in his career, which is eight more than Conte.
Does victory matter more to Conte, and by extension Chelsea? I’m not sure you can make that claim given that they just won the league and, perhaps more importantly, the fact Arsenal have suffered their worst season in two decades. There’s been protests in the streets, the club have dropped out of the top four, and they even finished below Tottenham. Winning the FA Cup final would mean a great deal, especially if it is to be Wenger’s last game in charge.
Whose 3-4-3 will come out on top?
MW: Given that Wenger only implemented a 3-4-3 last month and has lost his key centre-back Laurent Koscielny to suspension, it’s difficult to make a case for Arsenal’s defence against Chelsea’s which has a robust, well-drilled look about it. Cesar Azpilicueta, David Luiz and skipper Gary Cahill have been in tune with each other and 3-4-3 for the majority of the season and tactically know exactly how to execute Conte’s strategies.
Wing-backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses will be in a buccaneering mood and have the pace to get in behind Arsenal’s back line, as do creative forwards Pedro and Eden Hazard. N’Golo Kante won’t give Alexis Sanchez a minute’s peace, and if Arsenal’s star-man is kept quiet, it could make for a one-sided contest.
TA: I wouldn’t be 100 percent certain that we will see a back three from Arsenal, given that, as Mark says, Koscielny is suspended and both Shkodran Mustafi and Gabriel Paulista are further injury doubts. Wenger might simply run out of centre-backs and revert to a back four. Still, the new tactic has given Arsenal a bit of a lift, even if it was too late to make the Champions League, and if Wenger can deploy it, he probably will.
If it’s a like-for-like formation, then it’s hard to see past Chelsea. Conte has been a devotee of the back three for years, and Wenger is just a recent convert. Conte also has the superior players and more natural fits for specific positions, especially in midfield. Arsenal’s best hope lies in a player who isn’t really constricted by formations: Alexis Sanchez, who can burst into the box from anywhere or get a shot away from almost any position. Arsenal’s fate depends on his individual brilliance, not any systemic superiority.
What will play more of a mental impact: Arsenal 3-0 Chelsea from earlier in the season, or Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal?
MW: There is no doubt that Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat at The Emirates proved pivotal in the transformation of the Blues’ fortunes under Conte. Any kind of psychological benefit that Arsenal might have gained from that emphatic victory was nullified at Stamford Bridge in the reverse fixture which the Blues won 3-1. Hazard’s wizard-of-dribble-worldie in that game is the outstanding candidate for goal of the season.
The Belgium international has been in scintillating form throughout the campaign and would love nothing more than to replicate that strike at Wembley. It’s quite likely that Arsenal were left traumatised by Hazard’s goal at the Bridge — understandable really. Have Wenger’s side gotten over it? Time will tell. Mentally, Chelsea seem much more resilient than their opponents who could cave in should they concede early.
TA: Any mental damage inflicted by Arsenal’s 3-0 win in September was pretty effectively extinguished by Chelsea’s subsequent 13-match winning streak. That match is not a factor. The three goals Chelsea conceded were all while they were playing a system which was soon abandoned and has never been revisited. It has no relevance to this Chelsea team.
Arsenal are changed since the 3-1, but only superficially. They play a different formation, but they are most likely beset by the same mental frailties which that defeat exposed once again. The FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City was a big moment, a rare win over a team of comparative quality on a big occasion, but you suspect Arsenal are still mentally vulnerable and prone to either collapse or meek surrender. In that respect, the latter result is more relevant.
Who is due a big game?
MW: The FA Cup final could quite conceivably be Diego Costa’s last game for Chelsea. The Brazil-born Spain international striker continues to be linked with a move to the Chinese Super League, and it’s a fact that after a bright start to the current campaign his form dipped markedly after the rumours first surfaced in January. Irrespective of his mental state related to leaving Stamford Bridge, Costa’s 21 goals to date this season are proof enough of his potency, and Wembley would be the perfect place to add to that tally and quite possibly his transfer value.
TA: Mesut Ozil scored in the 3-0 in September — a time, so distant seeming now, when he appeared to be embracing his status as one of Arsenal’s biggest names. That player has not been seen very often in the second half of the season, and it is fair to say he is overdue a performance on an occasion such as this. An influential performance in a win over Chelsea on Saturday would be a huge riposte to those persistent accusations that Ozil goes missing when it matters most.
It’s not an entirely fair perception of a player whose best work sometimes goes unseen, but what better way to answer those critics than to win his third FA Cup with a man of the match performance?
What can your manager offer at Wembley that the other can’t?
MW: This may be Conte’s first Wembley final, but given Chelsea pulverized Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 in the semifinal at the same venue the previous month, their manager will know exactly what to expect. The unique and increasingly hostile nature of the Blues’ rivalry with Spurs will make facing Arsenal look like a walk in the park.
Conte surprised many with his starting XI for that game, with Tottenham keeping Hazard, Costa and Cesc Fabregas in reserve and unleashing them from the bench with devastating effect. The Chelsea manager will have his Wembley game plan worked out and keep Wenger guessing what it is until the team sheets are released an hour before kickoff. It’s unlikely the converse will also be true.
TA: I’m puzzled by the suggestion that there is any suspense about the makeup of the Chelsea side. You could name the team with a high level of certainty at this stage, while Arsenal are still grappling with real selection dilemmas. Having said that, Conte is clearly a more sophisticated tactician, and you’d back him to be far more meticulously prepared than Wenger, a man who gives the impression that he isn’t massively concerned by what his opponents are planning.
Experience is important, though, and no one alive has more than Wenger in this competition. His six wins are only equalled by former Aston Villa boss George Ramsay so he could truly make history at Wembley. That doesn’t mean he will, of course, simply that the occasion will not leave him daunted.
We also have to consider that this is the last game Wenger is contracted for. It could be his last, even if that is unlikely, and perhaps that will stir something in him.
MW: Arsenal came out winners in the most one-sided cup final in recent years when beating Aston Villa 4-0 in 2015. If Chelsea get their act together early in this year’s final, the Gunners could be on the receiving end this time. Chelsea 4-1 Arsenal
TA: To predict anything other than a Chelsea victory would be to disregard the evidence of almost the entire season, so I have no intention of doing that. However, Arsenal have won five on the bounce, and it’s unlikely to be embarrassing. Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal
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