FA Cup final tactical preview: How will Wenger counteract Conte's plans?
On Saturday afternoon at Wembley, Chelsea manager Antonio Conte is aiming to become only the third manager to win the league and cup double in his first full season in English football. One of the previous two, Arsene Wenger, will be in the other dugout.
For all of the intriguing on-pitch head-to-head battles, and in a game where both sides will use similar systems (and therefore players will match one another across the pitch), it is the clash between Conte and Wenger that is the most intriguing. Indeed, this weekend's formation battle, 3-4-3 against 3-4-3, is a fitting end to a domestic campaign that has become almost entirely based around that shape.
This season, 17 of the 20 Premier League sides deployed a three-man defence at some stage, an amazing figure considering that the shape had almost died out in the Premier League five years ago. The reasons the two managers play these systems, meanwhile, owe much to their opposition this weekend.
Chelsea famously switched to the 3-4-3 in the second half of their 3-0 defeat at the Emirates back in late September, essentially using the final half-hour as a training session. From then, Conte played the three-man defence in every game, and Chelsea embarked upon an astonishing run of 13 straight victories, the first six without conceding a single goal. Considering Chelsea were in eighth place after the Arsenal defeat, it represented a dramatic turnaround.
Meanwhile, Wenger's sudden, shocking decision to play a three-man defence for the first time in more than two decades was surely inspired by its success at Chelsea. Since switching to that shape after the 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace, Arsenal have subsequently won eight of their nine matches, losing only to Tottenham. It wasn't quite enough to get them into the Champions League places, but it kept the fight alive; it also proved crucial in their FA Cup semifinal win over Manchester City. In that sense, the formation change effectively saved Arsenal's season.
But this weekend is now all about Wenger and his tactical acumen. All the questions are about his selection and how he sets out his team to fight against a cohesive, superbly organized Chelsea shape.
Wenger has faced questions about his ability to win matches tactically for the past few years, but a victory against the odds would underline his ability to learn lessons from younger coaches and keep Arsenal competing at the top.
After all, it would be a huge surprise if Conte made any surprise selection decisions. The 3-4-3 works so well because Conte has named such a consistent starting XI. Among the fuss about John Terry's 26th-minute substitution last weekend, perhaps the major story was that Conte didn't want Terry to play the majority of the game because he was so determined to keep his starting XI playing together and remaining familiar with one another as a unit.
It brings to mind the story about when Arrigo Sacchi allowed his Italy side a day off ahead of the World Cup 1994 final and his players approached him and said they wanted to train, to work on shape, to keep them -- quite literally -- in the zone. One of the midfielders in that squad, of course, was Conte.
Wenger, therefore, can predict Conte's starting XI, and he can go through more than 30 games this season to inspect how Chelsea move the ball: how they get Eden Hazard into space, how Cesar Azpilicueta moves from defence into midfield, how the wing-backs push forward and find themselves unmarked at the back post. Indeed, Chelsea opened the scoring against Arsenal in February with a classic example of how their wing-backs thrive in this system, always arriving unmarked at the far post. Wenger's switch in shape might help to guard against this.
We are constantly told that Wenger is almost purely interested in football, spending his evenings in a dark room at home, watching matches again and again. This week, he should have been watching nothing but Chelsea.
He might spot weaknesses, too. Chelsea are the best side in England, but they're not perfect: Gary Cahill isn't the most mobile or particularly comfortable on the left of a three, and he doesn't like being dragged out towards the left flank. Azpilicueta is unbeatable on the ground but not the most dominant in the air.
If Cesc Fabregas starts (which is unlikely), he can vacate his position and leave space in behind for teams to exploit. N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are excellent defensively, but how confident are they in possession when pressed early? David Luiz is solid as a spare man, but if the opposition centre-forward stands up against him, does he revert to being an impetuous, rash centre-back?
The other side of the equation is that Conte won't quite know what he's up against this weekend. Arsenal's defensive crisis means that Chelsea could be up against various combinations of centre-backs; there's a question mark about whether Hector Bellerin or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will play on Arsenal's right, too, while Wenger could go for the physicality of Olivier Giroud or the speed of Danny Welbeck up front.
Creating a tactical plan this weekend will be quite difficult for Conte, and therefore he might well simply ask his Chelsea side to play their usual default game plan. Of course, we shouldn't be under any illusion that Conte isn't in the position of strength here: Arsenal's unpredictability is entirely because of their own problems, particularly in defence.
But it nevertheless means that there's something of a role reversal going on here: Usually it's Arsenal who turn up to these games and play The Arsenal Way, while Chelsea arrive with a reactive, tactical plan and expose opposition weaknesses. This time, the ball is in Wenger's court, and this is a huge opportunity for him to demonstrate that he's still one of the managerial greats.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.