Arsenal play Aston Villa on Saturday in what is The Gunners second consecutive FA Cup Final. A win would see Arsene Wenger win back to back FA Cup’s for the second time in his career and would put him in a tie with George Ramsey as the most successful manager in FA Cup history.
Arsenal and Aston Villa both come into this game in indifferent form. Aston Villa lost at home to Burnley last weekend and were thrashed away at Southampton the week before. Arsenal are coming off a win accompanied with an excellent overall performance against West Brom last weekend but failed to win their previous three games.
Arsenal are heavy favorites but Tim Sherwood has rejuvenated Aston Villa the past couple months. Improved performances from Christian Benteke, Fabian Delph’s return to health, and the emergence of youngster Jack Grealish have made Aston Villa a dangerous side. Aston Villa also boast good attacking players such as Gabriel Agbonlahor and Scott Sinclair, who could hurt Arsenal from wide positions.
Arsenal will not want to get off on the wrong foot like they did last season when they fell behind 2-0 in the first ten minutes to Hull City. Mathieu Flamini touched on that a bit during Arsenal’s media day.
Arsenal have improved their balance since last year and defend better as a team. They have to play with a great level of solidity, maintain their shape, and sustain a high level of concentration. Aston Villa will be looking to break Arsenal down quickly, especially on the break.
Wenger will have to make three tough selection decisions on the day. He has not given any hints regarding who will start in goal. He faces a decision to make at left back considering that Kieran Gibbs has started the past two games over Nacho Monreal. He also has a tough choice to make between Olivier Giroud, who is enduring a period of indifferent form, and Theo Walcott, who just scored a 30-minute hat trick over the weekend.
Wenger is generally loyal and adverse to change when it comes to his lineups. He is not the conservative, stubborn manager that some think he is, but he believes in continuity. This does not bode well for Walcott and Jack Wilshere but could be encouraging for Wojciech Szczesny and Gibbs.
Here is Arsenal’s most likely lineup for the FA Cup Final.
Goalkeeper – Szczesny
Goalkeeper has been the most debated position for Arsenal this season, which is a strong indication that Arsenal need to strengthen the position during the summer.
Szczesny has served as the “cup keeper” since January and David Ospina has served as the “number one”. What makes this decision difficult is that Ospina played poorly against West Brom and Szczesny has played in only five matches since he was dropped against Southampton almost five months ago. Not exactly a win-win situation for either player or manager.
Additionally, Wenger, historically speaking, has opted to play his number one keeper in cup finals even if they had not played a part in the competition previously that season. Wenger dropped Richard Wright in place of David Seaman in 2002 and started Jens Lehmann over Manuel Almunia in 2005.
The difference between 2002 and 2005, and Saturday’s cup final is that Arsenal do not have a clear number one like they did in those years. Szczesny started out as the number one and Ospina took over after a few high profile mistakes from the Polish international. Ospina has done well but has not been overly convincing and certainly hasn’t shown that he is significantly superior to Szczesny.
This is where Wenger’s loyalty will come in to play. Last season Lukasz Fabianski started the final over Szczesny because Fabianksi was the “cup keeper”. This year Szczesny is the “cup keeper” and Wenger will stick to that policy by starting Szczesny in goal. Ospina’s poor performance against West Brom is likely to have aided Szczesny’s case.
Right Back – Bellerin
Hector Bellerin will be tasked with marking either Sinclair or Agbonlahor. Mathieu Debuchy is short of fitness and Bellerin has a firm grip on the right back position. His improvement has been one of the highlights of the season and he is a star in the making.
Center Backs – Mertesacker & Koscielny
Benteke was a major topic during Wenger’s press conference on Wednesday. The towering Belgian striker poses as the biggest threat to Arsenal’s back four. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny will both be tasked with keeping him in check.
All of Arsenal’s conceded goals in their past four games have come from headers or volleys. It is imperative that Koscielny and Mertesacker deal with Benteke’s very real aerial threat and that the fullbacks close down Villa’s wide players to prevent crosses.
Left Back – Monreal
Two weeks ago there would have been little debate over who should start at left back. That has changed though since Gibbs has started the past two games and performed decently. Common sense tells you that Monreal will start this game because he has played tremendously the past couple months. However, the fact that Gibbs has played two games in a row in the lead up to the final indicates that Wenger is giving him a chance to get match fit in time for the final.
Wenger in the end should go with common sense and Monreal seems like the selection that makes the most sense. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Gibbs start though, considering the team selection the past two weeks.
Defensive Mid – Coquelin
Like Bellerin, Francis Coquelin is another highlight of the season and has allowed Arsenal to play with solidity and structure. It is unimaginable that he doesn’t start this match. If Arsenal are looking for a goal late in the game, he would be the player to come off in place of Walcott or Wilshere.
Central Mid – Cazorla
Like Coquelin, it’s unimaginable that Santi Cazorla is dropped for this match, despite Wilshere’s excellent form. The fact that Wilshere won’t start this match is a testament to Cazorla’s ability and importance to the team.
Attacking Mid – Özil
Mesut Özil has struggled in the past at Wembley. He will be looking to push aside previous appearances there and put in an excellent display. He has been integral to Arsenal’s resurgence the past five months and is irreplaceable. Some of his best performances this season came against Aston Villa.
Wide Right – Ramsey
Aaron Ramsey has made it abundantly clear that he prefers to play centrally, but he also made it obvious that he understands playing wide is the only way he will get in the team right now. In the end he wants to play, win, and contribute to the team as much as possible.
I wouldn’t surprised to see Ramsey moved to the center of the pitch in place of Coquelin towards the end of the match, if the need arises.
Wide Left – Alexis
Alexis hasn’t scored in four games so he must be due for one! He enjoyed his time at Wembley in April by scoring two goals to send Arsenal to the final.
During his allotted time with the media he discussed his excitement for playing in his first final for Arsenal. He also discussed how watching videos of past Arsenal cup victories this week has made him even more motivated. Alexis should be exciting to watch in this match.
Striker – Giroud
Besides goalkeeper, striker poses as the biggest selection headache for Wenger. On one hand Giroud has played very well this season and only recently experienced a slump in form. Much of that has to do with the way teams started to play him and he showed clears signs of jadedness. He could break out of his slump on Saturday, but who is to say that he will? Selecting him poses a small risk.
On the other hand, Walcott scored a hat trick in thirty minutes and seemed very sharp. He would pose a greater nuisance to Villa’s center back’s, Ron Vlaar and Jores Okore, as they both lack mobility. At the same time though, Walcott didn’t last the full match against West Brom and clearly lacked the energy in the second half that he showed in the first half. Starting Walcott presents a high reward with a great risk. He hasn’t played much and he showed sharpness in one game, which is not enough to truly judge him. Wenger will likely make this decision based on what he sees in training.
Having Walcott on the bench allows Wenger to change Arsenal’s style of play more than introducing Giroud later in the game would. Like Wenger’s choice at left back and goalkeeper, loyalty and common sense will p1ay a role in this selection. He will likely choose Giroud because it would be the safest option and would allow Wenger to easily change Arsenal’s style of play late in the game.