The Europa League final beckons as Arsenal take on Chelsea in Baku. Winning the Europa League is Arsenal’s only chance of playing in the Champions League next season, an important factor in determining whether the club will progress both financially and in the sporting sense. Arsenal go into the game well-rested, having last played on the 12th of May, a gap of 16 days. Chelsea on the other hand, travelled to the United States and played friendlies, even losing key players like N’golo Kanté and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to injury. Here is a tactical analysis of the key battles Arsenal will have to win if they are to triumph over their London rivals.
Keeping Hazard quiet
Eden Hazard looks likely to move to Real Madrid over the summer and the Belgian will be looking to end his stellar Chelsea career on a high. Hazard loves playing against Arsenal and has five goals and two assists against the Gunners. The Belgian will be Chelsea’s biggest threat given how the Blues’ forwards have struggled to score this season. Hazard has carried the Chelsea attack with 16 goals and 15 assists in the Premier League this season. If Arsenal are to keep Chelsea from scoring, they will have to keep a close eye on Hazard and ensure that he is not given the space or time to weave his magic.
When Arsenal beat Chelsea 2-0 at the Emirates in January, Hazard was kept quiet by Arsenal marking him tightly. Lucas Torreira was especially important in stifling the Belgian and will have an important task of doing the same in Baku. Hazard looks likely to start on the left-wing meaning that Ainsley Maitland-Niles will have to be wary of his positioning and how much he gets forward to help the attack. If Arsenal manage to keep Hazard quiet, they will have nullified about 25 percent of the goals Chelsea have scored this season. This will be a solid foundation to build upon.
Attacking with width
This season has been one of cut-backs, crosses and overlaps. As unidimensional as Arsenal’s attack may seem at times, this is their best chance of causing damage to Chelsea. Chelsea do not defend well against attacks from the wide areas. Marcos Alonso is usually far too engaged in the opposition’s penalty box to actually defend his own flank while Cesar Azpilicueta offers a minimal attacking threat meaning that he can be pegged back. Arsenal need to utilise the width that Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolašinac if they are to score against Chelsea. Chelsea’s wingers in Willian, Pedro and Hazard are not ones to put in a defensive shift either. When Arsenal lost to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, both the goals scored came from the full-back overlapping and crossing the ball dangerously, a tactic Arsenal should follow diligently in the final. Its quite difficult to predict the starting lineup but it seems likely that Arsenal will play a three-man defence. If this is the case, the importance of Kolašinac and Maitland-Niles on both flanks cannot be understated.
Arsenal need to approach this game with aggression and intensity. Intelligent pressing will be vital to keeping Chelsea from finding space and having time on the ball. This is where Aaron Ramsey’s absence hurts Arsenal because there arguably isn’t a better presser in the side and Ramsey’s influence was keenly felt in the win over Chelsea in January. Team selection will play an important part in deciding Arsenal’s approach and Mesut Özil’s role in the side. Arsenal should look to press Jorginho incessantly. The Italian midfielder is a calming influence on Chelsea and if he can be harried and prevented from picking his passes, there is a good chance that Chelsea could struggle to offer anything in attack. Furthermore, Kante’s absence means that Chelsea do not much insurance in midfield themselves and could be easily overrun.
It will be interesting to see if Emery opts for Özil or instead goes for a midfielder purely tasked with pressing the opposition. Both Aubameyang and Lacazette will have to lead the press from the front, especially against the likes of David Luiz who can be forced into making a mistake. If Özil plays, he should ensure that he takes up a position that can exploit Jorginho’s lack of mobility and defensive nous. In Ramsey’s absence, Torreira will be the most important pressing midfielder in the Arsenal side and will need to have a big game if he is to nullify the threat of Hazard. Arsenal can afford to concede possession in certain areas and should be pragmatic in their approach as they have been against big sides this season. Emery’s opposition-based preparation has certainly helped the Gunners get results against the top sides and they will need more of the same to beat Chelsea.
In conclusion, Arsenal could arguably consider themselves to be favourites going into this massive final. However, the euphoria and passion behind a European final could spark either side and we’ve seen that at times, being the favourite doesn’t mean much. In the FA Cup final of 2017, few expected Arsenal to win which they did. A similar situation could arise here although Chelsea are probably on par with Arsenal. Unai Emery’s side will need to be aggressive yet intelligent in their approach. If the basics are done right and concentration maintained, there’s no doubt that Arsenal could win the Europa League.