Wenger Gets It Right With Varied Attack to Outpoint Chelsea In FA Cup Final

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Arsene Wenger is never going to get many compliments for his tactical efforts. Featuring in a league alongside managers such as Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp and Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, he’s always going to be viewed as something of an old-timer, maybe even one who is being left behind by the younger brigade.

His recent alteration, however, has been hard to argue with. Since Wenger’s move to a three-at-the-back formation, or a 3-4-2-1 to be more precise, Arsenal have won 9 of 10. That includes the Gunners’ final game of the campaign, a resounding 2-1 FA Cup Final victory over Chelsea, and that was just another example of how Arsenal can star with Wenger’s new-found approach.

In simple terms, the veteran boss got a lot right at Wembley. He not only started in the 3-4-2-1, but also gave Danny Welbeck a berth up front. This gave Arsenal a nice amount of speed at centre-forward, which in turn allowed the North London club to attack with more variety. They could go direct with balls in behind to take advantage of Welbeck’s pace, or, with the former Manchester United striker pushing Chelsea’s central defensive unit back, hit crisp little passes into spaces between the lines.

14 minutes in, for instance, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain found himself in possession along the left-hand touchline. He didn’t have a lot to go to initially, but once Welbeck launched himself into the gap between Chelsea defenders David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta, the wingback’s first option was clear. Oxlade-Chamberlain responded with a well-weighted ball into the left channel, and Welbeck outpaced Luiz to track it down. He then held off the Brazilian, spun back towards the centre and teed up an Alexis Sanchez long-ranger. The shot fizzed just over the crossbar, but Welbeck’s pace was nonetheless having an impact.

This is where Arsenal gained the ascendancy in a dominant first-half display. They manipulated the speed of Welbeck by playing the occasional ball in behind, something which ensured Chelsea were aware of his threat. That then pushed the Blues’ defensive unit into deeper positions, and while the idea was designed to lessen the space available to Welbeck in behind, the knock-on effect was that it left Arsenal with greater room in between the lines. That’s where Alexis and Mesut Ozil could go to work, and they did so with a high degree of frequency.

Just before that shot for Alexis, Arsenal enjoyed a long sequence of possession. This could’ve been a bad thing, as Conte usually has Chelsea well-organised in a defensive sense, but Welbeck made sure it wasn’t. He perched himself up against Chelsea’s backline, and he was soon joined by Alexis and an onrushing Aaron Ramsey. This meant Chelsea’s central defenders were wary of a possible ball over the top, so they dropped off. Ozil then floated into a massive pocket, one so big that it could fairly be described as a vacant lot in footballing terms, to pick up a pass from Granit Xhaka. The German playmaker misplaced his pass from there, but by this point in time, Arsenal’s attacking variety was clear.

They seemed to be letting Chelsea know that they couldn’t just defend the short-passing game that has come to define Wenger’s reign, while simultaneously telling them that they couldn’t just worry about Welbeck either. Wenger had sent out a team with plenty of mechanisms through which to hurt the opposition, and even if they got a little lucky with Alexis’ opener, they remained the more proactive side.

On 18 minutes, the two elements to Arsenal’s attack nearly combined for a second goal. Here, Oxlade-Chamberlain again picked up possession on the left, and maybe after seeing Welbeck dart in behind and tee up Alexis just seconds earlier, the Blues sat off a bit. This time, though, Oxlade-Chamberlain changed it up. He went for a shorter ball to Ramsey in between the lines, who then found himself largely unmarked after Victor Moses and Nemanja Matic had tried to close down higher up the pitch. The Welshman sparked a left-to-right passing chain which ended up with Ozil, and the midfielder, as he often does, soon spotted an option in behind. Naturally enough, it was Welbeck making a sharp run off the shoulder of the last defender, and although he couldn’t get a shot off, he headed the resulting corner into the upright.

This dual-threat continued to pose problems for Chelsea in the second half, especially when when either Eden Hazard or Pedro was slow to track back, simply because it meant even more room was left for Matic and N’Golo Kante to cover. On 58 minutes, for instance, Ozil manipulated this scenario to play a one-two with Bellerin. He then had a significant amount of space between the lines, only to slightly overplay his pass to the energetic Ramsey. That would’ve been yet another ball connecting with an Arsenal player in behind, and late in the game, just minutes after Chelsea equalised, the Gunners produced a winner via another piercing run.

This time, the puncture of Chelsea’s backline came from the left-hand side. Oxlade-Chamberlain picked out another pass for a player sprinting in behind, although this time it was Oliver Giroud, who had only just replaced a tiring Welbeck. The imposing Frenchman latched onto it and, with a clipping motion of his left foot, lobbed the ball into the centre of the area. Ramsey, again rushing forward, responded by nodding home to secure a dramatic winner for Arsenal.

Wenger celebrated just every other person with an attachment to the Gunners, and on a day where the Frenchman would win a record 7th FA Cup at the helm of Arsenal, he could be proud not only of his players but also of his tactical acumen. He started Welbeck, who played a key role in unsettling the Chelsea defence and creating space for others, and he also brought on Giroud at exactly the right moment. Throw in a recent stretch of good results on the back of a switch of formation, and it’s hard to argue with his on-pitch calculations throughout the closing stages of the season.

It may not be enough to change the fact that many of Arsenal’s supporters want to see a new manager, but after punctuating a strong period of form with a trophy, especially while outpointing Conte in the process, it’s clear that he still has plenty to offer wherever he ends up.