The FA Cup final: Arsenal – Aston Villa 4:0
Arsenal made history by becoming the most successful club in the oldest football competition on Earth. This was Arsenal’s 12th FA Cup final win and it was probably their easiest as they came up against an Aston Villa side who were outclassed in every area.
Arsene Wenger chose an asymmetric 4-2-3-1 formation with the biggest surprise probably being the selection of Theo Walcott as a lone forward. Fellow Englishman Danny Welbeck was injured and there were rumours that Giroud had some sort of allergy problem in midweek however I think Wenger would have chosen in-form Walcott regardless.
Sherwood played a formation that was somewhere in between a 4-3-2-1 and 4-3-3.
Arsenal more direct than usual
Arsenal played 63 long passes in the match (14%) compared to just 24 long passes (3%) in their match earlier this month against Sunderland. They finished that match 0-0 with Giroud playing the whole match. Arsenal won the last game of the league season 4-1 vs West Brom with Walcott scoring a hat-trick and therefore Wenger chose Walcott to play in the final. When interviewed prior to the match, Sherwood seemed slightly surprised that Walcott was chosen to start as a lone striker and he set up his Villa side to press fairly high in the final third.
This high press worked very well at times in the first half. They performed more of an option-based press until they made sure they could press the man on the ball whilst maintaining sustainability in the rest of their press. The above is a perfect example of that. They targeted Mertesacker and Szczesny in particular as they are two players who can’t really pass a ball more than fifteen yards that would beat a press.
While it was good at times, the press was also sometimes detrimental to Villa and the double pivot of Coquelin and Cazorla were key to beating the press. Cazorla would sometimes drop deep to create superiority in these areas to help pass their way out the press, alternatively the ball would be played to him with his back to goal where he would use his technical superiority over Cleverley to beat him and then look to play it forward or wide. This high press completely played in to the Gunners’ hands when it was broken as they could move up the pitch quickly, suiting Walcott.
Arsenal played in a 4-4-1-1 shape in defence with Mesut Ozil as a no. 10. This is a defensive shape that is very useful in attacking transition and Arsenal utilised this, getting the ball to Ozil who would look to thread balls into the space behind the defence to Walcott. Ozil was key to Arsenal’s direct play.
Arsenal dominated early possession however and some of the negatives of Walcott’s selection were shown. He missed a couple of good chances from close range that a more orthodox centre-forward would probably put away. Also, a lot of Arsenal’s final third play was crossing-based. Walcott doesn’t really suit this type of play.
In response to this, Wenger switched Walcott and Sanchez about 35 minutes into the game. Just four minutes later Sanchez jumped brilliantly to win a header from a Monreal cross, Walcott ran into the area from deep and smashed it in to put Arsenal 1-0 up. Straight after the goal, Walcott went back up top.
Walcott became more and more of a threat as Arsenal kept scoring and Villa became more committed in attack.
Arsenal’s left-wing orientation
Most of Arsenal’s middle and final third play was oriented on a left-wing where Cazorla, Ozil, Sanchez and Monreal often found themselves in close proximity. With these four players up against N’Zogbia, Cleverley, Okore and Hutton there was only ever going to be one winner.
Arsenal utilised this left-wing superiority either through switches from the right side to the left where they would have a overload or they would play straight through this left side of the field, overloading the wing and using quick combination to get behind the Villa defence in wide areas and put crosses into the area.
Aston Villa completely inept in all areas
Aston Villa defended in a rigid 4-1-4-1 shape in the middle third. They were position orientated and their wide players showed no regard for onrushing Arsenal fullbacks, allowing balls to be played into these fullbacks behind the midfield four, allowing Arsenal to develop 2v1 wide overloads. Westwood often would get carried away with pressing and move into the line of four, leaving masses of space between the defensive and midfield line.
Aston Villa’s very horizontally compact midfield in the defensive phase worked well at times in the first half however isn’t ideal against a team like Arsenal who are very good at quick passing combinations, beating men with dribbling and putting balls through an eye of a needle. Arsenal exploited it better in the second half, getting both fullbacks up high and switching between them, stretching Villa.
Aston Villa were absolutely dreadful in attack. They didn’t have a single shot on target all match (two shots off target), they were harmless in attacking transition which is the main area you can hurt Arsenal, and their final third play was one-dimensional. Their whole attack was aimed at crosses towards Benteke. The crosses were always those horrible floaty, slow balls which Szczesny collected well if Benteke was up against Koscielny. Mertesacker dominated Benteke in the air not only in his own penalty area, but at the other end too, peeling off Benteke’s dreadful marking to make it 3-0 Arsenal twelve minutes after *that* Sanchez goal made it 2-0 to the Gunners.
When Villa played it wide and pulled Arsenal’s full-back out, Coquelin moved into the empty halfspace and made sure Villa couldn’t find any space on the inside.
Arsenal were deserving winners in the end and rounded off a fairly successful season for Arsenal in comparison to some of their recent campaigns. There was a lot of talk as soon as the final whistle was blown as to whether their performance showed that they could challenge for the Premier League next season (a lot of said talk was by people that often complain about the cup’s decrease in significance) and personally, I think a comfortable win against a side that played as badly as Aston Villa did means absolutely nothing. They are still about £70m in the transfer market (or a new manager) away from winning the Premier League title.