FA Cup Final Tips: Saka & Pulisic the key players at Wembley
Alex Keble picks out four key battles ahead of Saturday's FA Cup final at Wembley, predicting a tight game to be decided by either Christian Pulisic or Bukayo Saka...
Following two upsets in the semi-finals a fortnight ago, Sunday's FA Cup final is guaranteed to give us a story at the final whistle. One of Frank Lampard or Mikel Arteta, two of the youngest managers ever to reach the final, will lift their first piece of silverware to signify the beginning of a bright new era at their respective clubs.
This is the third time this century that Arsenal and Chelsea meet in the FA Cup final, with the Gunners winning the previous two in 2002 and 2017, but more recent history makes Chelsea favourites: they beat Arsenal 2-1 at the Emirates in December and drew 2-2 at Stamford Bridge in January.
Since their last encounter, both sides have improved. Arsenal are gradually learning Arteta's tactical methods and have found some consistency in a 3-4-3, winning seven of their last ten games in all competitions. Chelsea are similarly in form with a three-man defence thanks to Olivier Giroud's re-emergence up top.
Chelsea are 13/20 to lift the trophy while Arsenal are 5/4. It will be a closer contest than the odds suggest.
3-4-3 v 3-4-3 to create tight game
No mirrored formation is more likely to lead to a stalemate than the 3-4-3, a system primarily designed to slot into the spaces around a more traditional 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 and generally ill-equipped to out-think opponents occupying the same zones. The only real width is provided by wing-backs, and on Saturday both sets could cancel each other out, while respective two-man midfields could lead to an absence of line-breaking passing.
Certainly Jorginho/N'Golo Kante and Matteo Kovacic are likely to struggle to assert any real dominance in the middle while Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka have slowed down towards the end of the season, and this issue will be exacerbated by the natural caginess that comes from playing in an FA Cup final on the large Wembley pitch.
Arsenal are generally playing at a low tempo recently as they continue to absorb Arteta's complex position instructions, while Chelsea's usually erratic style of football - leaving themselves open to counter-attacks because of their carefree positional play - has been tempered by the switch to 3-4-3. The hard tactical work will be done by the inside forwards...
Christian Pulisic continues to go from strength to strength in a Chelsea shirt and the American is arguably the biggest beneficiary of Lampard's new system. The left winger now has more freedom to play in the half-spaces, wriggling through defences without being required to hug the touchline and enjoying being able to bounce the ball off Giroud.
His goal and assist against Liverpool highlighted Trent Alexander-Arnold's defensive flaws and the potential problems in Jurgen Klopp's narrow 4-3-3, which is a warning for Arteta's shaky back three despite the difference in tactical style. Rob Holding will have to cover a lot of space on the right side of defence, particularly on rare occasions Chelsea are able to counter-attack behind Hector Bellerin.
Holding is a solid defender but he isn't the most agile, lacking the experience of a right-back when isolated one-on-one against a tricky player like Pulisic, who averages 2.2 successful dribbles per match.
Saka the key against vulnerable Chelsea midfield
Arsenal's most important inside forward is Bukayo Saka, whose intelligent movement between the lines is the club's biggest asset no matter the 19-year-old's starting position. On Saturday, he should begin on the right, a position that sees him drop into right-centre midfield on the blind side of the opposition, providing his team-mates with an unseen out-ball that allows Arsenal to drive forward.
We have only seen this move in short bursts so far, most notably the 2-0 victory at Wolves, but considering the FA Cup final should be a tense affair with no great movement from either side Saka's positional play could prove decisive. What's more, Chelsea clearly don't have the right balance in midfield, lacking the guile or acceleration to prevent high-quality opposition from passing straight through them - as Naby Keita showed in the recent 5-3.
Should Nicolas Pepe start ahead of Saka in this position, then Marcus Alonso and Antonio Rudiger should be able to shepherd the Frenchman; Arsenal's inside forwards will sit wider than Chelsea's in this scenario, making it easier for Chelsea's left wing-back to pass Pepe on to Rudiger while he holds Bellerin at arm's length.
Arsenal's press can hurt Chelsea's back three
The defining feature of Arsenal's FA Cup semi-final was engaging a high press that stopped Man City from being able to build possession out from the back - and led to two major defensive errors from which the Gunners scored. Chelsea are far more inclined to hit the ball long when necessary, but Liverpool's five goals at Anfield showed Lampard's back three often make mistakes.
Without in-depth positional coaching from the dugout, Chelsea's 3-4-3 continues to look lopsided and improvisational when under pressure. Often Reece James and Alonso are guilty of failing to show for the ball when Chelsea's centre-backs have possession, which can lead to panicky moments upon which Arsenal's energetic forwards can capitalise.
Their targeted press will look to cut off the passing lanes into Kovacic and Kante while leaving Alonso and James disconnected from play, potentially meaning Chelsea will either lose possession in their own third or be forced to hit the ball long, leading to a stretched formation that, once again, exposes Kurt Zouma's confusion at the heart of a back three.