Before every Arsenal fixture, we’ll bring you a Scouting Report on the Gunners’ next opponents.
Arsène Wenger's side face Aston Villa at Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup final on Saturday. To find out more, we asked tactical expert Michael Cox.
Aston Villa have been the victims of Arsenal's biggest away win (a 3-0 victory in September) and their biggest home win (a 5-0 victory in February) this season. Since then, however, there’s been a crucial change, with Tim Sherwood replacing Paul Lambert as Villa manager.
Sherwood took charge a fortnight after the aforementioned 5-0 at the Emirates, and immediately had a significant impact. His half-time intervention in Villa's 2-1 victory over Leicester in the fifth round was dramatic and highly effective, with Sherwood encouraging Villa to get the ball, and players, forward more quickly. That, in a nutshell, has been Sherwood's main tactical approach.
Usually playing a 4-3-2-1 system, Sherwood’s main dangerman is clearly Christian Benteke, the powerful centre forward.
He’s involved regularly through long passes and is also a target for crosses, which means Arsenal must work hard to shut down players in wide positions, something Arsene Wenger has drummed into his players this week. Benteke is also a very smooth finisher on the ground, evidenced by his excellent goal in the 2-1 semi-final victory over Liverpool.
"When Villa play two up front, the forwards split and attempt to separate the opposition centre backs"
That win was notable because both goals featured the same trio combining down the left. Exciting youngster Jack Grealish played in an inside-left position and impressed with his purpose on the ball, while Fabian Delph played on the left of the three-man midfield and shuttled forward dangerously, turning defence into attack smoothly. These two are the other players Arsenal must stop.
The front three should be completed by Charles N'Zogbia, who likes the ball played into feet, although Gabriel Agbonlahor offers an alternative option by providing sheer pace in behind. When Villa play two up front, the forwards split and attempt to separate the opposition centre backs.
In midfield, Ashley Westwood will play the holding role and start passing moves, with Tom Cleverley playing a similar role to Delph. His heatmap from the match at the Emirates shows the role of the shuttlers on either side of the midfield three - they defend narrow, then offer width when possession is won.
In front of Brad Guzan, the back four will probably consist of Leandro Bacuna, Jules Okore, Ron Vlaar and Kieran Richardson. That quartet should defend quite narrowly, with the full backs attacking sporadically. Villa's attacks might be too direct to allow them to overlap regularly.
An aggregate score of 8-0 from previous meetings this season would suggest Arsenal have the upper hand - but Villa will make it much more difficult this weekend.
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