Arsenal’s FA Cup triumph may have been built on the blueprint of the victory over Manchester City in the semi-final, but the final itself was a different game. While there were some broad similarities, the biggest difference was that Arsenal had to come from behind and win. Furthermore, Chelsea set up in a 343, similar to Arsenal’s shape, meaning the advantage that Arsenal had in defensive numbers against City was missing.
However, while both teams set up in 343 shapes, it would be a mistake to say that the systems were the same. Indeed, describing Arsenal’s shape under Mikel Arteta is increasingly to think about how players are deployed, and the various roles they take, for the shape remains similar to when he first started managing Arsenal: five attacking players, three players deep, defending, and two in midfield. This shows the flexibility of Arteta’s Arsenal, which is one way where Arteta out-managed Lampard. That flexibility, especially with the positioning of Ainsley Maitland-Niles was one component; the other two included consistently attacking with five and creating width, and the centre backs getting tight to the two Chelsea number 10s, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount.
Indeed, Arsenal started the game incredibly aggressively, looking to press Chelsea when they had the ball in the defensive third, before dropping off to a medium block. With Chelsea operating with three at the back, Arsenal went for a combination of zonal and man marking: Lacazette, Aubameyang, and Pépé all pressed the centre backs, and the two wingbacks pressed the Chelsea wingbacks.
This meant that the midfield two had to match up with Chelsea’s midfield, which caused the issue for the first goal. Unlike the sequence above, where the Chelsea midfield two were in a line and easily marked by Granit Xhaka and Dani Ceballos, Jorginho dropped deep, and Ceballos was late to recognize he had done so, allowing Jorginho to turn and play the ball to Olivier Giroud. From there, with Mount and Pulisic dropping off, Chelsea outnumbered Granit Xhaka, and could run at the back three, with Pulisic running off of Giroud.
Arsenal reacted to that: Kieran Tierney was aggressive in his positioning and man-marking, tracking Mount all across the pitch. On the other side though, Rob Holding, who started the game poorly was timid. Only after the water break, and presumably instruction from Arteta would Holding get tight to Pulisic, denying the American space to operate in. This was a risk: Pulisic could turn past Holding and out run him, as he did in the beginning of the second half. Fortuantely for Arsenal, Pulisic immediately pulled his hamstring. Pedro, though, would operate similarly, looking to expose Holding’s lack of pace, and generally forcing Arsenal more into a medium block.
Arsenal’s second advantage was down their left hand side, exploiting Chelsea’s fractured partnership between their right-centre back, Cesar Azpiliceuta, and their right wing-back, Reece James. It was here that allowed Arsenal to deploy an extra man, and a large aspect of that was the performance of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and his flexibility. Maitland-Niles was a wingback, left winger and central midfielder, adjusting his position to where the ball was to give Arsenal control.
This made it difficult for Chelsea to pick him up, as did the movement of Aubameyang; Reece James would follow Maitland-Niles inside, and then Aubameyang would be left in a one v one battle with Azpiliceuta, or Aubameyang would stay out wide, and Maitland-Niles would pop through the middle to take on Azpiliceuta. It speaks to the flexibility and positional play that Arteta wants at Arsenal, with the ability of his players to play multiple roles and step into multiple positions throughout the game. With Maitland-Niles pushing forward, Aubameyang would drop inside, and Arsenal would be attacking with four or five. Alternatively, Maitland-Niles could drop into central midfield and provide space for Kieran Tierney to push forward. There was flexibility but consistency: when building in possession, Arsenal attacked with five in the forward line.
The identity of that five could change: for Pépé’s disallowed goal, as seen above, Maitland-Niles took the inside left position, with Aubameyang through the middle, and Lacazette and Pépé further to his right. This allowed Kieran Tierney to push forward, again causing problems for Chelsea’s right hand side, leaving Aubameyang free. Yet an interesting aspect of this move is the positioning of Héctor Bellerin: as the move develops, he goes on the outside of Pépé, and is completely unmarked, should Pépé play a reverse ball. In the build-up he is deeper, which both allows him to make a run from deep, but also puts him in position to prevent a quick Chelsea counter. Indeed, as the move continues, and focuses on the right-hand side, Tierney reacts, and begins to start moving backwards, recognizing Bellerin’s forward run.
Lampard wasn’t able to react to Arsenal’s successful exploitation of Chelsea’s system, unlike the league meeting in December. Furthermore, as opposed to the league meeting, Arteta’s second game in charge, Arsenal are both fitter, but also more in tune with the manager’s demands. The beginning of positional play is starting to develop, with recognition of movement that is based on where the ball is. This has huge implications moving forward, for Arsenal’s shape, but also in making Arsenal a better, more controlling team, and perhaps allowing for the FA Cup to be a springboard to a brighter future.