As we've been doing this week, we've reached out to our friends at 7500 to Holte for an expert's perspective on Aston Villa. Today we have Adam Clark, explaining Villa's likely tactical approach to the FA Cup final – and how Arsenal can counter it effectively.
As 7500 to Holte's resident tactics nerd I've had the job of dissecting our performances throughout the season. I have therefore seen Villa beaten 20 different ways this season, watching most of the matches twice. What I'm trying to get at here is I'm a bit of an expert in the subject.
Until recently the Tim Sherwood bandwagon would suggest that it was objectively impossible for Arsenal to beat Tactics Tim and his Villans, but a 6-1 thrashing by Southampton and a 0-1 loss to a relegated Burnley in the last two weeks risk making me a liar. Also the fact that we finished 17th and Arsenal have beaten us by an aggregate 8-0 this season.
There is of course always the magic of the FA Cup - the sneaking thought that over 90 minutes on the Wembley turf anything could happen. However for a canny manager and club used to this kind of situation, that might be just the key. If Arsenal are at their attacking best on the counter, they could romp home.
Containing the attack
Up until recently any team facing Aston Villa would have had to think about Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph and nothing else. Shut down those two and the rest of the team would never reach the goal.
Under Tim Sherwood the main change has been the increased threat from midfield. The key men are teenager Jack Grealish and his tricky dribbling, and the revived Tom Cleverley who's scored three goals in the final stretch of games.
Villa have used a 4-3-2-1 or a kind of lopsided diamond if you prefer, with Benteke up top, Grealish and one of Charles N'Zogbia or Gabby Abgonlahor behind him, with Cleverley and Delph as deep-lying midfielders with license to come forward. The attack particularly tilts towards the left where Benteke likes to isolate his centre-back.
A typical Villa line-up under Sherwood. Grealish and N'Zogbia support Benteke towards the left, with Delph in support. Cleverley and Bacuna exploit the space on the right flank.
However, keep a lock on Delph, Cleverley and Grealish in the middle and there are obvious weak links. N'Zogbia, Abgonlahor and Scott Sinclair are all attacking options who tend to run down blind alleys and share finishing best described as ‘wayward' but often approaching ‘wildly incompetent'. At the base of midfield, Ashley Westwood is a competent passer but unlikely to pose much goal threat. Clamp down on the deeper midfielders and stick tight on Grealish, and the midfield threat disappears.
That still leaves the question of how to contain Christian Benteke, and at his best there might be no answer to that question, especially in the air. A special threat are the diagonal crosses from right-back Leandro Bacuna, who has assisted the Belgian striker 4 times this season. But Benteke strays offside with astonishing regularity - 1.2 times per game according to WhoScored, most frequent in the league. Arsene Wenger will surely be drilling his offside trap even now.
Destroying the defence
If the attack can be muffled, the defence can be ripped apart. Arsenal fans may happily recall putting eight goals past Villa this season and the recent 6-1 loss to Southampton confirmed there are still a few kinks.
The main issue is simply the lack of a settled line-up. Villa's full-backs are makeshift, the left-back position in particular. Kieran Richardson has been the main fill-in, a midfield journeyman playing out of position. When he's not available, one of Alan Hutton or Bacuna have filled in from right-back and both look stranded there. N'Zogbia - a right winger by trade - was the choice against Burnley, which was surely a genius piece of misdirection before the Final. Surely.
Things are no better at centre-back. A string of injuries appears to have reduced the options to Ron Vlaar and Nathan Baker, who himself only came back last week from a couple of months out. The FA Cup Final will be their second match in a row together.
Nathan Baker's beard is at least 10x better than Aaron Ramsey's - the beard of an FA Cup winner.
"Concrete Ron" doesn't live up to the solidity of his nickname. The flipside of his sometimes-perfect tackles is a tendency to lunge for an unwinnable ball. A clever attacker who can show him the ball and nick it away - Alexis Sanchez springs to mind - could easily win a penalty. As for Baker, a year ago most Villa fans would have been happy to see him leave the club. The growth of a magnificent beard and some solid performances this season have helped his reputation, but returning from injury lay-off to an FA Cup Final is a bit of a step-up.
Even the goalkeeper situation is murky. Shay Given has been the Cup keeper until now and did so well that he pushed out Brad Guzan in the league, after the American put in a few shaky performances. Then Southampton put 6 past Given. In the last game of the season, third-choice Jed Steer was given the jersey, so Sherwood is playing his cards tight to his chest. Given is the most likely choice, but it's a case of the least worst option.
Crushing the Claret and Blue dream
Arsenal's best tactic would be to manipulate the occasion. Villa is a club desperate for success, the fans are jitterier than than a 1940s danceclub and this is the biggest match most of these players will ever be in. Fired up by Sherwood, they're not likely to sit back deep and strangle the match.
Counter-attack at speed down the flanks, isolating the full-backs and running behind the centre-backs, and Arsenal could crush the Claret and Blue dream before it gets going. As a Villa fan it's horrifyingly easy to imagine a bright 10 minutes followed by a stupid foul, penalty and a red card in the first Gunners attack. Goodbye FA Cup.
Aston Villa are clear underdogs, but they do at least have a clear plan of attack - get the ball to Christian Benteke and swarm around him. If Arsenal can blunt that early on, and keep a sharp eye on the midfielders keen to come up behind him, the class of their attacking play should secure the win.