There’s no doubting that Arsenal are favourites going into Saturday’s FA Cup Final with Aston Villa at Wembley, you need only look at the Gunners’ 5-0 and 3-0 wins this season to see that there is a clear gulf in class between the two sides.
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But this game is different. This isn’t some meaningless league tie. For some of these Villa stars this is a once in a career opportunity for a winner’s medal, a cup final at perhaps the most famous stadium in world football.
And if there were one side who could feasibly screw up this seemingly simple looking fixture, you’d bet your house on it being Arsenal – just look at how nightmarish a start they got off to last season in their final against Hull, 2-0 down after eight minutes.
This season, however, you’d think the north London side’s squad, and particularly their manager Arsene Wenger, would approach this match a little differently than that nail-biting but ultimately glorious game 12-months ago.
Back then Arsenal were coming into the match having faced no real side of note in the competition and had almost choked away their opportunity in the semi-final against Championship Wigan.
They were also looking to break an almost ten-year trophy drought.
Coming into Saturday’s game, you have to expect that Arsenal will use their experience, their battle hardiness, their greater ability to simply force the win.
Crucial to this will be the tactics Wenger employs and the mentality he instills in his players from the off.
After Theo Walcott’s incredibly quick hat-trick at the weekend, Wenger now faces a selection dilemma of sorts and questions over how he wants to impose his side on the game and how best use the England international’s strengths. Would it be better to start Walcott from the off and blitz Villa, or bring him on mid-way through the tie when legs are starting to get a bit weary?
Both are an option, though the first might be more rewarding – as was shown on the last game of the season with Walcott’s rapid start against West Bromwich Albion.
Indeed it was Walcott’s involvement that, despite his general lack of form, helped Arsenal destroy Aston Villa 5-0 earlier this season.
The Gunners were able to exploit the extraordinarily high line their opponents had, with the first three Arsenal goals coming from breaks up the field after Villa had committed too many men forward. Here see how Mesut Ozil is able to exploit the space he is given in both setting Oliver Giroud up with a delightful flick and for his own goal as Arsenal charge down the field on a counter-attack.
With Tim Sherwood now ruling the roost at Villa Park, it’s unlikely Villa will play such a high line.
Arsenal failed to score in three consecutive home-games before their 4-1 thrashing of the Baggies, as Wenger elected for familiarity, picking the same first XI for a record number of games for him, over unpredictability.
With Walcott, that’s the crucial word. Unpredictable. Arsenal are too easy to read without Walcott. But, if he plays, Ozil will feed him and the England man will fire the Gunners to the cup, putting Villa to the sword with ease, dismissing them just like the Baggies were dismissed last week.