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EL final preview: How Emery can out-think Sarri for Arsenal success

This Wednesday, Chelsea and Arsenal face off in the Europa League final. The teams have played twice this season, each earning one win and one defeat, meaning the clash is difficult to predict. What isn't in doubt, however, is that there is more at stake for the latter team.

Unai Emery's Arsenal missed out on a top four spot in the Premier League. As a consequence, they need to win this week's final to enter next term's Champions League. Maurizio Sarri's Chelsea, however, secured a third-place league finish – ending the season two points clear of their London rivals – that means their position in Europe's elite club competition is guaranteed.

Both sides are capable of sublime and calamitous moments, and appear even going into Wednesday night's game. Here, we at Tribal Football break down the tactics behind what should be an absorbing encounter.


Arsenal's most-used system under Emery's management has been the 4-2-3-1, which has been deployed 17 times in the Premier League and six times in the Europa League. However, in recent months, the Spanish coach has preferred to utilise a 3-4-1-2 in continental action or domestically against 'big' teams, such as Manchester United.

Given the stakes and the quality of the opposition, this will likely be the Gunners' shape on Wednesday night. In lieu of two wingers, an extra centre-back and striker will give them a better central presence defensively. It also means they won't miss Henrikh Mkhitaryan quite so much – the Armenian playmaker will not take part in the game due to safety reasons, but he wouldn't have started within the 3-4-1-2 system with Mesut Ozil preferred behind a front two of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.

There are no system-related uncertainties regarding Chelsea. Sarri has always lined his side up in a 4-3-3 and that will continue here, though there are worries over who will start in a number of vital positions.

Antonio Rudiger, arguably the team's best defender, will miss out through injury. So too will midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, whose influence has increased in recent months. Even more concerning is the potential absence of French dynamo N'Golo Kante, who may also be unfit to start the game. This may lead Sarri to choose a central trident of Jorginho, Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovacic which is a far from convincing setup for such a huge contest.


Regardless of the system Arsenal choose, they are likely to allow Chelsea the majority of possession. In each of the two sides' league meetings this season, Sarri's team have dominated the ball – they obtained 62 per cent at Stamford Bridge and a whopping 64 per cent in the return at the Emirates Stadium. It's also worth noting that, over the course of the entire Premier League campaign, Chelsea averaged a significant 3.1 per cent more possession than their opposition this Wednesday.

These numbers may look impressive, but they say as much about Chelsea's weaknesses as they do their strengths. In truth, teams have been more than happy to sit off them in the knowledge that they frequently struggle to break down compact defensive blocks.

Emery may get his players to do the same for this final, defending in a mid-block and using the front three of Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ozil to steer the opposition's build-up into wider areas, where they will run into traffic and can be pressed near the touchline. In order for this to work effectively, it's crucial that the near-side striker moves laterally to close down his full-back.

Focusing more on zonal coverage and only pressing intensively in very specific areas, or on specific triggers such as bad touches, slow sideways balls or backwards passes, Arsenal can limit Chelsea and turn their possession dominance into a problem. There are other benefits to a more cautious approach, too. One is that it will leave their relatively slow back line less exposed to balls in behind or over the top; the other is that by drawing Chelsea up, space can be created for Aubameyang to exploit on the counter with his pace.


Chelsea have been exposed defensively on a number of occasions this season, with teams taking advantage of space in the channels between players or between the lines to penetrate their block and create danger.

This was seen in Sarri and Emery's first Premier League clash, where Arsenal repeatedly got their full-backs free down the flanks outside of a compact Chelsea midfield line and into two-versus-one situations up against their opposite men. From there, they could combine with their attacking midfield teammates via one-twos to get beyond the Chelsea back line, or they could draw out the Chelsea full-back before sliding the attacking midfielder in with a through ball behind.

A similar problem could be caused this Wednesday if Emery does go with a back three, as Sarri's men will then have a dilemma over who should close down the outside Arsenal centre-back.

Gonzalo Higuain doesn't have the energy or pace to close down an entire back three on his own, so he will need to be supported by another player within Chelsea's 4-5-1 defensive setup. If one of the central midfielders steps up, space could be opened up between the lines for Ozil to exploit. Alternately, if a winger steps up, the near-side Arsenal wing-back will be easily able to get into 2v1 situations with Aubameyang or Lacazette against Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta, as so often happened when the teams met in league action last August.

Chelsea may have finished above Arsenal in the Premier League table, but tactically Emery has caused problems for Sarri every time they have faced off with one another. Expect something similar on Wednesday night.

Blair Newman
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Blair Newman

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