Why Arsenal should drop Santi Cazorla for the FA Cup final
A look at what could be Arsenal's best starting XI against Aston Villa in the FA Cup final
On Saturday Arsenal line-up in their record 19th FA Cup final. A win in this match would see them pull away from Manchester United to become the singularly most successful team in FA Cup history having matched Manchester United’s 11 trophy wins with the victory over Hull last season.
How Arsenal approach this game is going to be interesting. The level of the opposition is arguably not much different from last season but Arsenal are buoyed by better-adapted talent, new recruits – including the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year, and most importantly a trophy winning pedigree.
Last year Arsenal made it into the final with a 9-year old monkey on their back and three failed attempts in cup competitions to throw the monkey playing on their minds. It’s not so this time. Arsenal are the holders. This is their cup and they are not going into this match trying to win it and break their trophyless hoodoo. No, they are going into this match to retain it, and that is an entirely different pressure.
Man for man, Arsenal should have no problem in retaining this trophy but Aston Villa are not the same team torn apart by the brilliance of Mesut Özil and co by five goals to nil in February. Tim Sherwood has revitalised Villa and reignited the goalscoring spark in Christian Benteke to make him the form player in the two likely line-ups.
How Arsenal approach this match, and the team the manager picks from the off, will largely determine the rate of success. I’m confident that no matter what Villa throw at us that we have enough to reply with a winning answer but there is always a chance that the longer the match goes on without us being in a clear position of authority the more likely it becomes that Villa cause an upset – and the media would love nothing more than to see Arsenal upset at Wembley.
Aston Villa may adopt a defensive approach against Arsenal
Despite affirmations from Sherwood that his team will play an open, attacking game I believe Aston Villa will adopt the defensive approach that saw us stutter in the last few games. Against Chelsea, Manchester United, Swansea and Sunderland we saw Arsenal suffocated, in part due to their own narrow line-up.
Aaron Ramsey is a fine servant of the club and performs well on the right-hand side in certain games, Liverpool and Napoli being two that spring to mind, but against opposition that park the bus it’s a recipe for a snore-draw.
Ramsey’s desire to be involved in play sees him drift inside in search of the ball which when added to Alexis’ propensity for cutting inside overloads our midfield and makes us more likely to lose the ball. We become quite compact and as our opponents set about closing us down quickly we rapidly run out of space causing our combinations and one-twos to break down and turn over possession.
Luckily for Arsenal the high pressing game our opponents play makes it difficult for them to get the ball into wide areas having also made themselves narrow closing us down and it’s too difficult for them to go through the middle as we’re so compact a through ball would likely land at the feet of our centre-backs.
Why Cazorla should start from the bench
In a way, their tactics are counter-productive as they lose possession back to us as quickly as they force us into relinquishing it to them but if you can frustrate Arsenal like that for long enough the evidence suggests they will get sloppier as their frustration increases and that leaves you the chance to deal a killer blow a la Swansea.
I believe this will be the game plan for Aston Villa as in Benteke they have someone with the prowess to take a late, high chance and devastate the Arsenal crowd. The only answer is for Arsenal to play with width and pace and that is one of the reasons why I would start Santi Cazorla on the bench.
Arsenal’s defence pretty much picks itself for this game – there are question marks over whether Wojciech Szczesny will start the FA Cup final having not played the final game of the season to “warm up” like Fabianski did but let’s just say he will start as the designated Cup ‘keeper – Szczesny, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Monreal.
Coquelin is a shoe in and I think it is fair to say Alexis and Özil will play, as will Giroud. There are two spaces left and in that six match run where we had mixed fortunes we saw Cazorla in the box to box role and Aaron Ramsey on the right. It could be argued that this continuity displays a preference and that is what we will see again.
Theo Walcott showed against Manchester United and Sunderland what an attacking threat he could be in this team – quite a different team from the one he last played regularly in – and then against West Brom he proved he still has the goalscoring knack that saw him become our most potent attacking player before his injury against Spurs last January. A lot of people forgot what a player he was but that’s not for now.
Against a team with defensive tactics Theo could be the one outlet they cannot contain with high pressing and bodies behind the ball, in could even play to his strengths. Theo’s ability to run behind defences will give Arsenal’s midfielders a different option to pass to but more importantly his threat as a pacey attack naturally attracts players to him which creates space for others.
Theo Walcott can help Arsenal nullify defensive tactics as his smart movement, wide threat and well-time runs will either see him getting into goal-scoring positions or pulling defenders away from others to do the same.
With Giroud as the spearhead and attacking fulcrum, holding up the ball and playing lay-offs, I think the perfect midfield player to act as his foil is Ramsey. I trust Ramsey to charge into space, take shots from outside the box and make late, incisive runs more than I do Santi.
Cazorla has been immense for Arsenal this season and it may seem harsh to drop him in our biggest match but you have to adapt to the tactics of your opponents and if Aston Villa play a defensive game – and they’d be mad not to – then sacrifices have to be made.
You want your team to be capable of winning you the game from the start but you also need players on the bench who can change a game. We all know Ramsey can dictate play from the middle but he tends to grow into games rather than come on to change them. He improved massively when he came inside against Manchester United but that improvement was already growing on the wing.
Santi from the bench is a far more exciting prospect than Theo or Ramsey from the bench. Cazorla has the spark you need to change a game and that spark would be far more effective later in the game against tiring legs than it would be at the start when he finds himself marked out.
The attacking balance we would get from Ramsey in the box to box role and Walcott wide far outweighs the additional creativity you get from Cazorla if we are to face a parked bus. Santi’s quick feet and energetic performances didn’t unpark the Chelsea, United, Sunderland or Swansea buses and that is in part to how closely marked he is, as our creative danger man.
Of course, we could drop Ramsey and still play Theo but if you want to the balance of a winning line-up but also the option of a game changer on the bench should things not quite go to plan then you have to start Ramsey and save Cazorla for the second half.