Following two very different campaigns in the Premier League this season, fifth-placed Arsenal and champions Chelsea’s final games of 2016/17 came at Wembley in the FA Cup Final. For the former it was an opportunity at some salvation after missing out on the Champions League in what may yet turn out to be Arsène Wenger’s final year at the club; for the latter, a chance to clinch the double and create even more reason for happiness in Antonio Conte’s first.
Despite Gabriel, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi all being unavailable for selection, Arsenal stuck with the back three system which they’ve been using since winning away at Middlesbrough in the middle of April. As a result it led to a first start of the season for Per Mertesacker at the centre of the defence, while Danny Welbeck led the line up top – operating ahead of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez in what effectively played out as a 3-4-2-1 shape.
That meant they pretty much matched Chelsea, who unlike Arsenal had no real absences to deal with. Perhaps the only question to be asked was whether Conte would opt to start Cesc Fàbregas or Nemanja Matić in the centre of midfield alongside N'Golo Kanté, the PFA Player of the Year, and the former Juventus manager opted for the more defensive option of Matić.
Regardless of both having a lot of success in their three-at-the-back variants, it was Chelsea who many thought theoretically should’ve help the upper hand in the formation match-up. Not just because they’ve been using this system for a considerably longer period of time, but also because, despite winning eight of their previous nine games, Arsenal have never actually looked entirely convincing in it. What followed during the first-half in particular, then, was quite surprising, as Wenger’s team put in by far the best performance they’ve managed since the change.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the sides was the level of midfield movement when they had the ball. From a Chelsea perspective first of all there was, if any, very little. Kanté and Matić were constantly on the same receiving line, neither showing any desire to vary their positions and get between or behind Arsenal’s initial press, and that made it very easy for Arsenal to mark them. David Luiz often had no option but to stutter on the ball and wait for something to happen around him. Their only real outlet came through the wing-backs, and on occasion Pedro, but rarely through the centre.
By contrast, Arsenal were infinitely more fluid. Though they namely had the same number of players in the centre of the pitch as their opponents, Granit Xhaka and Ramsey were constantly assisted by Özil, who helped to create overloads on the right half of the pitch and provide the supporting movements that Chelsea were desperately lacking. Space which appeared in between Matić and Marcos Alonso was his favourite to exploit: and Arsenal were more than happy to gift him the ball there whenever the opportunity arose (the width that Hector Bellerín provided should also be mentioned as a reason for these gaps opening up).
The German was definitely the decisive factor – but he was far from the only one. Xhaka, who excelled in a role similar to this alongside Mahmoud Dahoud at Borussia Mönchengladbach, demonstrated slick passing and smart movement as the deepest midfielder, while Ramsey interchanged with both of the former Bundesliga players to create even more chaos for Chelsea. His well-timed, penetrative runs from deep to stretch play vertically were well and truly on display. All three of them were able to demonstrate their best assets, in fact, and that showed.
Two-man midfields are far from obsolete in modern football, but Conte’s side showed how vulnerable they can be when executed poorly. And a moment in the 15th minute encapsulated the huge difference between the sides almost perfectly. A clearly and understandably frustrated Luiz was forced into an ambitious pass forward when his midfielders were static and marked; then Arsenal won it and broke quickly through Sánchez and Ramsey, the Welshman being just a Gary Cahill foot (the first of two last-ditch clearances he made during Chelsea’s shaky half) away from changing the scoreline to 2-0.
For that to be the case it would’ve had to have been 1-0 first, of course, and since the very early stages it had been. In very controversial fashion, albeit. As not only did the goalscorer Sánchez commit handball while blocking a clearance to give himself the chance to put the ball in the net in the first place, but Ramsey was also, depending on your interpretation of it, possibly affecting play from an offside positon too. It was initially ruled out for the latter reason, however after some hesitation the goal was eventually given. And Arsenal had the lead that they would hold onto for much of the match.
Judging exactly how much that affected the pattern of the game is hard to say. It always is with early goals. To go out on a bit of a limb though, other than Arsenal maybe being able to counter-attack a little more than usual, the effects of it on a purely tactical level, in the first-half at least, were arguably quite limited. Besides, if there’s one top team that can be rightfully accused of not adjusting their style based on game states then it’s probably Arsenal.
That’s not to say it didn’t necessarily affect Chelsea on a mental level (oh good, another immeasurable thing that’s entirely open to guessing) and in turn their execution of their strategy, mind. It took them a good half an hour to get going, by which point Arsenal could feasibly have been out of sight if a little more luck went their way. A slight reduction in intensity from that first line of pressing by the designated home side, as well as Eden Hazard and Pedro gradually getting more involved, were the factors which allowed Chelsea some room to breathe and slowly venture into the final third themselves.
It was a trend that continued after the half-time interval, too. Chelsea never really took control of the game as such, or at least certainly not to the extent that Arsenal did early on, but they did manage to even things up and have more possession in dangerous areas due to being able to progress the ball better.
Alongside the two wingers, Diego Costa played a neat part in that bigger threat. Having had less touches than every outfield player during the first-half he then became more involved, his physicality and ability to hold up the ball against Mertesacker and Rob Holding proving important. He helped occupy the defenders, bring runners into play, and just provide a general presence around which Chelsea could orientate themselves. That was something they really lacked initially. But it still wasn't quite enough.
Chelsea made their first, needed change just after the hour mark, Fàbregas coming on to replace Matić in midfield. As someone who’s made a bright impact off the bench in so many games this season it was no surprise to see the Spaniard, and his progressive, direct passing naturally played a part in Chelsea continuing their attacking momentum and eventually grabbing a 76th minute equaliser. Willian, another substitute, made an impact in it as well.
The Brazilian got the assist, actually – a delicate cross into the area finding Diego Costa’s chest before he then converted on the half-volley. David Ospina got a hand to the effort yet failed to divert it away from goal, even though he probably should’ve done so, and with that it was 1-1.
But not for long. Two minutes and nine seconds, to precise, most of which time was taken up by Chelsea celebrating. Then Ramsey restored Arsenal’s lead. It was fittingly in a fashion in which he’d threatened to make Conte’s team pay for a long period of game up until then, an untracked run behind the midfield which was found by Olivier Giroud (who replaced the excellent Welbeck just seconds earlier).
Down to ten men by this point, following a second yellow card for Victor Moses to sum up a poor performance from him on the day, Chelsea looked a bit drained and bar Costa crafting out another chance for himself they didn’t create too much in the closing stages. If anyone was to score again it likely would’ve been Arsenal, with Bellerín and then Özil missing chances to seal it out on the break. Fortunately for The Gunners those didn’t come back to haunt them, and a few minutes later the final whistle went.
A largely disappointing performance for Chelsea at the end of an otherwise excellent season, but for Arsenal it was a well-earned, deserved victory. If this does indeed turn out to be Wenger’s final game, which we’ll find out for definite soon enough, then him going out on a high is the least he’s due.
This article was written by Daniel Butler, the editor of The Tactics Room and the owner of the site's official Twitter account (which you can follow here).