FA Cup final: Key battles for Arsenal v. Chelsea

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Three matchups to keep a particularly close eye on when Arsenal and Chelsea meet at Wembley stadium in the FA Cup final on Saturday (12:30 p.m. ET)…

[ MORE: How will Chelsea and Arsenal line up in FA Cup final? | Preview ]

Christian Pulisic v. Arsenal’s right back/wing

Whether the assignment goes to Hector Bellerin (calf injury), Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Cedric Soares, the Gunners’ starting right back/wing back will have his hands plenty full every time Christian Pulisic touches the ball.

The American superstar has undeniably been Chelsea’s best player — if not for the whole of the PL — since the season restarted (four goals, two assists in nine league appearances), and the 21-year-old will once again be heavily relied upon come Saturday. It won’t be Pulisic’s first cup final appearance after playing part in Borussia Dortmund’s 2016-17 DFB-Pokal triumph, though it will be the first time he’s started a final and would represent his first major trophy since he was the 19-year-old breakout star in Germany.

The fact that Mikel Artera’s options are a pair of right backs not long returned from serious injuries (Bellerin and Cedric) and a winger-turned-right-back (Maitland-Niles) only tilts the scale further in Pulisic’s favor.

Advantage: Chelsea

Xhaka & Ceballos v. Kovacic & Jorginho

With both sides likely to start the game in a 3-4-3 formation, the battle for central midfield will be particularly interesting — and important. When it comes to the 3-4-3, there are typically two was to go about setting up your midfield:

  1. pick defensive-minded, ball-winning midfielders to make central midfield a no-fly zone for the opposition, and lean on your wide midfielders/wing backs as the extra attackers pushing forward;
  2. lean on attacking-minded, creative midfielders as the extra attackers, and pick more natural wide defenders to patrol the center of the field and fill in the gaps defensively

If Mikel Arteta and Frank Lampard opt for the lineups set out by PST’s Nicholas Mendola — and each seems a calculated bet to do so — Arsenal will be the former and Chelsea the latter. The same formation will look and operate drastically differently for the two sides. Granit Xhaka is a pure destroyer and Dani Ceballos operates best on the second level (of three) in midfield. On the other side, Jorginho will take up the same space as Ceballos and Mateo Kovacic will be the most advanced of the four.

As such, Arsenal’s wingers will be given the green light to fly forward, allowing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe to sit a bit more narrow and combine with Alexandre Lacazette. Meanwhile, Marcos Alonso and Reece James will be more stationary and moving back toward their own goal.

Advantage: Push

Aubameyang v. James

Best-case scenario for Chelsea: this will be the most lopsided head-to-head battle at Wembley. Best-case scenario for Arsenal: it will be the decisive battle and represents Arsenal’s most straightforward path to lifting the Cup.

If it is indeed James who starts on the right side of Chelsea’s midfield, he’ll likely find himself pushed deeper and deeper until he’s effectively playing next to Cesar Azpilicueta. Aubameyang’s combination of speed and dribbling ability will be far too much for James to handle himself, so he’ll lean upon Azpilicueta to hold down the inside channel while himself shading toward the outside. Azpilicueta’s experience as a long-time right back will undoubtedly give him a leg up on most natural center backs in the same situation, but even still Aubameyang’s 27 goals (all competitions) will be a terror from the opening to closing whistles.

Advantage: Arsenal


How to watch Arsenal – Chelsea in the FA Cup Final

Kickoff: 12:30 pm ET Saturday
Online: ESPN+