For both Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte victory in Saturday’s final won’t salvage their season, won’t rewrite the story of a 2017/18 campaign that has been hugely disappointing for both Manchester United and Chelsea. The FA Cup clearly isn’t the zenith of English football as it once was. For the “big six”, it barely seems to register.
Listless football, lacking in originality or creativity, has characterised the most poignant moments in our finalists’ respective seasons. Regardless of the result this weekend Conte will probably be sacked, while Mourinho is a sticky patch away from the same fate. It’s all looking a bit miserable, then, as we approach what used to be the most exciting day in the football calendar.
The collective shrug of indifference isn’t just because neither United nor Chelsea feels truly deserving of praise this season, but because a cagey, low-quality game is anticipated. Conte’s side are likely to play their 3-5-1-1 to sure up a flaky midfield while Mourinho teams are infamously cautious in cup finals. It’ll be a constipated and frustrating slog of a game.
1) Will Mourinho repeat his “midfield square” or show more caution this time?
Unless. There is a chance Mourinho will reintroduce the narrow 4-4-2 (“midfield square”, as he dubbed it) formation that helped United to a 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford in February. Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez started in central attacking midfield positions behind Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku in one of the most attack-minded – and innovative – United performances since Alex Ferguson’s retirement. Let’s pray Mourinho revives it.
The system allowed United to overwhelm the number ten zone, playing one-twos in tight triangle shapes that caught Chelsea completely by surprise; their four attacking players sat narrowly in the spaces behind N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater. Using two strikers (something they also did at Stamford Bridge) also meant their forward line could sit in-between the three Chelsea centre-backs, one either side of the central-most defender. Martial and Lukaku consistently made runs in behind from these positions, spreading a ripple of panic through their opponents – and directly leading to both goals.
Mourinho’s formation wasn’t without its faults. Chelsea’s inside forwards Willian and Eden Hazard inevitably found more space on the counter-attack and Ashley Young didn’t get enough wide support to halt Victor Moses, but ultimately the risk paid off. It’s our only chance of an end-to-end game.
2) With Chelsea back to a 3-5-1-1, will Herrera man-mark Hazard again?
Sadly, Conte is likely to cram an extra body into central midfield at Wembley, forcing Mourinho into a more defensive line-up than the one suggested above. Chelsea’s 3-5-1-1 is pretty uninspiring, with Eden Hazard the only serious threat from a false nine position behind the central striker. Without a second inside forward to complicate things for United, Mourinho might bring back man-to-man marking on the Belgian playmaker.
It was April 2017 when Ander Herrera followed Hazard relentlessly round the Old Trafford turf in a 2-0 win for the hosts, restricting Chelsea’s number ten to one successful key pass and zero successful dribbles. Things haven’t quite gone to plan since. Herrera was sent off in the FA Cup semi-final when trying to do something similar; Eric Bailly did a pretty calamitous job attempting to track Hazard at Stamford Bridge in November; and in February he easily shrugged off an overworked Scott McTominay. Mourinho has faced Chelsea five times as United manager, singling out Hazard on every occasion. Only once has it worked.
3) Can Lingard and Sanchez put pressure on a fragile Bakayoko?
In such a congested game Chelsea’s hazardous midfielder, Tiemoue Bakayoko, could be in for another rough ride. The Frenchman has been considerably more assured since returning to the first team at the start of April, although his confidence might have been knocked by an error made in the 3-0 defeat to Newcastle United on the final day. Bakayoko’s botched clearance went straight to Jonjo Shelvey, who fed Ayoze Perez for the Magpies’ second goal.
hroughout the 2017/18 season Bakayoko’s poor first touch has allowed high-pressing opponents to steal the ball and charge towards goal, most famously in Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat to Watford in which the 23-year-old was sent off for two yellow cards within half an hour of kick off. Mourinho knows how to lay traps, how to exploit weaknesses for a slender advantage. He will will surely instruct his most energetic forwards – Jesse Lingard and Alexis Sanchez – to leave Bakayoko free to receive a pass, before pouncing on the Frenchman with a pincer press.
4) Can Chelsea’s crosses settle a claustrophobic match?
No team scored more headed goals in the 2017/18 Premier League season than Chelsea’s 15, almost 25% of their total outlay. Conte’s tactics have become increasingly stale this season as opponents work out that staying narrow (to restrict space in the number ten zone) stunts their favoured attacking lines.
Consequently the crossing ability of Victor Moses and Marcus Alonso has become increasingly important. Whether hurling balls into the box from the edge of the D or making runs to the byline and cutting it back, crosses have become the most effective way for Chelsea to combat a narrow blockade. With Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata in the penalty area, it’s no surprise Conte has embraced this approach.
Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young will have to curb their attacking instincts on Saturday, but more importantly Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera will need to be quick in getting across to provide their full-backs with support.
5) Pogba versus Fabregas: who will create the most chances… and make the fewest mistakes?
The most intriguing head-to-head at Wembley will be between the game’s two most accomplished passers. In such a tight and defensive contest, the ability to pick the lock with a defence-splitting through ball might end up deciding which team lifts the trophy. What makes it a particularly eye-catching battle is that both players are capable of having inexplicable off days and both are capable of wandering aimlessly out of position, exposing their team-mates to a counter-attack.
Fabregas has become considerably more disciplined under Conte and yet there are still times when his commitment to attack leaves Kante with too much ground to cover. Pogba remains an enigma, capable of genius and incompetence almost simultaneously. Whichever player performs better, both on the ball and off it, will most likely find themselves on the winning side.
Alex Keble – follow him on Twitter