My Twitter – @AdamHWhyte
Arsenal Mania Website – www.arsenal-mania.com
Arsenal Mania Twitter – @arsenalmania
“I’m getting quite emotional thinking about it…this is what it’s all about” – these were the words of Arsenal’s match-winner Aaron Ramsey immediately after the full-time whistle at Wembley on the 17th May 2014. Blogger ‘7amkickoff’ shared similar emotions via his Arseblog post which described how “the final whistle blew, the stadium erupted, and the gods rained down tears of joy”. These images of sheer ecstasy were further echoed by author, journalist and fellow Gooner Layth Yousif who proclaims at the end of his book Arsene Wenger: Fifty Defining Fixtures that “as a season ticket holder since the mid-1980’s, after nine long years without a trophy, (this win) certainly felt” as his son put it, “(like) the best day ever.” I myself was guilty of adding several extra ‘o’s, ‘I’s and exclamation marks to my huge array of tweets on that day of absolute relief alongside absolute joy.
But amidst all the elation and bliss, there was one question upon the lips of all critics and Gooner realists watching the events in person or behind worldwide television screens. Whilst Ramsey somewhat dodged answering this very inquiry by stating “I’m getting a bit emotional now and I’m not an emotional guy so I’m going to go now”, Kent-based author Jon Spurling lays it out perfectly. At the end of his latest critically acclaimed Arsenal book entitled Red Letter Days, Spurling questions “Will the win against Hull City be the springboard for a sustained era of Arsenal success like the 1930 victory over Huddersfield? Or, like the 1979 FA Cup Final triumph over Manchester United, remain a false dawn in the club’s rich history?” The book ends with a short, singular sentence separated from the assortment of questions and queries above which reads “Only time will tell.”
Step forward 12 months and it seems that the moment in which time will indeed tell is upon us. With Arsenal preparing to feature in successive FA Cup Finals for the first time since the turn of the new Millennium, the latest press conference saw Wenger detail his team’s “high expectations” and their “want to do it” as they did upon the same stage last year. The Boss’ press conference, however, also saw ‘Le Professeur’ respond in a typically dismissive manner to reports from ESPN of Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal being linked with a move to the club. Members of the media in attendance at the conference were reminded of Wenger’s cautiousness when approaching a high profile signing as the Frenchman recalled a certain Premier League winning Captain Bruce Ricoh had planned to sign prior to his sacking of who Arsene turned away following “long talks” in 1996. As fate would have it that very man will be in the opposing dug-out at Wembley on Saturday.
With the breakdown in his move to Arsenal somewhat dampening the celebrations of League success with Blackburn in 1996, Tim Sherwood will be keen to show Arsene Wenger this weekend what he was missing 19 years ago. The former Spurs boss was keen to detail his plans for re-building Aston Villa ready for next season during his latest press conference. However that didn’t take all the focus away from a final in which Sherwood claims “no-one’s giving us a prayer”. “Winning the FA Cup would be a huge lift for everyone”, the newly recruited Villa boss went on to say. “They (Arsenal) have got talent all over the field, but so have we; we’ve got the players to hurt them.” With Arsenal Fan TV regular Chris Hudson stating that he feels “quietly confident” due to the fact that “we’re not playing Man City (Or) Chelsea…we’re playing Villa” I feel this is the perfect moment for a brief low-down on Sherwood’s key men and strengths he was referring to during his press conference.
It’s clear to any Premier League follower that Aston Villa’s strengths lie up front in attacking areas. When going through their squad it became clear to me that their stand-out players are those leading Villa’s front line. Their mixture of sheer pace and brutal strength are something of which has to be deeply considered by Monsieur Wenger prior to kick-off. The strength, as many of you may have already guessed, comes in the form of their verging on prolific Belgian, Christian Benteke. With 13 Premier League goals this season alongside two assists despite picking up a couple of long-term injuries it’s clear to see his importance to this Villa side. Over the course of the season Benteke has also won 6.5 of all of his aerial duals; more than any Arsenal player according to WhoScored.com. Arsene Wenger has already noted the threat the Belgian powerhouse poses on his Arsenal side by highlighting his “fantastic leap” and “intelligence with passing”.
The pace in the Aston Villa side spurns from two main sources. Firstly their Semi-Final captain and Man of the Match winner Fabian Delph of whom our own Danny Welbeck claims can “change a game at any moment”. With three goals and two assists on their FA Cup alone run so far its evident Delph can perform on the big occasion. However, with an admirable 85.5% passing success rate in the Premier League this season, the 25 year old English Midfielder can be seen as one of the Villain’s more consistent performers throughout the last campaign.
Their second source of speed comes via a 19 year old English born Irish international named Jack Grealish. The battle between England manager Roy Hodgson and Republic of Ireland manger Martin O’Neil for the services of this young prospect proves testament to the talent Grealish has to offer. Having featured very little for Aston Villa under Paul Lambert, Grealish is now one of the very first names upon Tim Sherwood’s team sheet. Fellow teammate Ashley Westwood told the Daily Star that Grealish is “a special talent” and further claimed that “I’m sure he could be our match winner at the end of the day.” High praise to load upon young shoulders you may feel. However the stats further bolster Westwood’s claim. Grealish has achieved an impressive 92.7% passing accuracy over the course of the season alongside his 10 goals in all competitions and three assists. Alongside Fabian Delph our own Francis Coquelin will have to be at the top of his game to shut these two out for the full 90 (and possibly beyond).
Other notable mentions in terms of picking out Aston Villa’s key men include Gabriel Agbonlahor – with sheer pace which could threaten Arsenal’s backline and 6 goals alone in the FA Cup run this year – and Ciaran Clark – a player of who has emerged as a versatile defensive midfielder under Sherwood.
In terms of general play under Tim Sherwood it’s clear to see Aston Villa’s improvements defensively. The Villains are particularly effective under the new regime at protecting their lead having gone in front. Each of Aston Villa’s last three wins has seen them go in front and stay there until the end of the game. Most notable of these victories is the semi-final win over Liverpool whereby they went in front (via goals from Delph and Benteke nonetheless) and withstood the pressure exerted against them via Liverpool’s threatening high line.
But let’s not beat about the bush so-to-speak. Aston Villa have not had a successful campaign in terms of the League. Having finished three points ahead of relegated Hull City and with a goal difference only worsened by Hull and Burnley it’s evident that this side wont feature high up on the list of Arsenal’s toughest ever FA Cup opponents (On paper at least!). Notable weaknesses of this Aston Villa side this season are defensively related. After conceding a huge 57 goals this campaign (only bettered by bottom of the league QPR) which results in a staggering 1.5 goals a game, there’s no avoiding their defensive frailties. Their inability to finish their chances when Benteke is absent also poses a key weakness in Sherwood’s side. A 9.9% conversion rate resulted in a huge 110.3 minutes (WhoScored.com) between each goal meaning its key to note Aston Villa’s somewhat reliance on the Belgian forward at times during this season. One record of which any Villa fan will not want to remember their team breaking this season is the fact that they went 6 games without scoring a goal for the first time in their 141 year history. Despite goal scoring habits considerably improving under Sherwood its key to see how his side struggles to convert. Former Arsenal and Villa player Paul Merson sums up his former club perfectly well. “I don’t think they’ve underachieved as a team this season” he told Sky Sports, “They pretty much finished where I expected them to.”
So, to conclude this preview for Saturday, what does Arsenal need to do? Chris Hudson was keen to point out on Arsenal Fan TV the importance of the right attitude going into the game. Hudson reminded viewers that “If we turn up like the Anderlect or Monaco (games) and think “We are the Arsenal”, then we’ll get done”. I tend to agree with Hudson here. The right attitude is key to any team of who enters a big game as favourites. In the past, it appears that Arsenal have failed to have such an attitude to similar sorts of games. Take the Reading Semi-Final this year as an example. Before the Sanchez first goal, Arsenal didn’t get started and played with a sense of over-confidence at times with pass, after pass, after pass across the edge of the box. We need to approach the game as we did Manchester United away in the FA Cup or Manchester City home and away in the League. We took the game to our opponents and when we do that, 9 times out of 10 we go on to win. When thinking more specifically, it’s important for our defenders to contain the threat of Benteke. As mentioned earlier in this article it’s clear that Aston Villa’s Belgian forward proves their greatest threat. Thankfully Wenger has already highlighted his realisation of this by stating how Aston Villa’s number 20 has “massive potential” to hurt his Arsenal side. Attacking-wise we need to use Aston Villa’s failure to deal with cutting-edge through balls. Lofted balls into the box are no problem for tall, commanding figures like James Okore, however a through ball by Mesut Ozil or Santi Cazorla onto the feet of Alexis Sanchez or Theo Walcott will cause Villa notable problems.
At the end of the day this is a game of vital importance to Arsenal. Some are claiming that because we won the FA Cup last year after 9 long years of waiting, this final is depleted in importance in comparison. As Jon Spurling states, the FA Cup Final win of 2014 needs to be about producing a “springboard for a sustained era of Arsenal success” rather than becoming “a false dawn in the club’s rich history”. If we go out onto the Wembley turf on Saturday afternoon and win this trophy by playing in a typical Arsenal fashion of which has delighted fans across the globe for the past 20 years then surely time has finally told.