Arsenal might salvage something from a tough season by winning the FA Cup, but they are facing a defensive crisis ahead of the final. Facing Chelsea is a daunting enough prospect with a full team fit and raring to go, but it becomes even tougher when you are missing crucial players.
Laurent Koscielny has emerged as Arsenal’s most capable defender in recent years, so his absence through suspension is a huge blow. In the Champions League, Arsenal were doing well in both games against Bayern Munich before he left the field – once through a red card and once through injury – but fell apart after his departure, losing 5-1 on both occasions. He is quick, strong, agile and a great reader of the game. But he is prone to really dodgy tackles every now and again, and has given away plenty of penalties and been sent off, frequently costing his team. But he has captained the side for most of the season and will be a big loss after being sent off for a bad tackle in Arsenal’s final league game of the season.
In that 3-1 win over Everton, Gabriel also limped off, leaving Arsenal in full-blown crisis mode at the back. Gabriel suffered a knee injury that will keep him out for eight weeks, so the Gunners will be without two senior centre backs after an appeal over Koscielny’s ban failed. Arsenal had been in terrible form before switching to three at the back and deploying wing-backs, in a mimicking of Chelsea’s title-winning tactics, and the upsurge in their form has been significant. Since switching formations, Arsenal have won eight out of nine games, including an FA Cup semi-final victory over Man City. But they are now lacking the personnel to pull it off.
Per Mertesacker, who has spent most of the season on the sidelines with a long-term injury, could return, but that is unlikely given his extreme lack of match fitness. One of the three centre back roles will go to Rob Holding, an inexperienced but promising defender who has earned a fair bit of game time in recent weeks. Kieran Gibbs, who missed the Everton game with a knock, could return and fill in as left wing-back, which would mean Nacho Monreal could occupy another of the three centre back positions. He lacks aerial presence, but is another good reader of the game and is pretty solid. The final spot could go to Shkodran Mustafi, provided he recovers from injury. He too missed the Everton game, and has been suffering from concussion, but he could provide the Gunners with a huge boost if he is declared fit. Otherwise they might have to look at deploying someone like Francis Coquelin as an emergency defender, or switch to a back four, but a central defensive pairing of Monreal and Holding would leave Arsenal fans very pessimistic indeed.
Since the news of Arsenal’s defensive crisis broke, the odds on Chelsea winning the cup have plummeted. Trusted online betting sites will have odds for this game, and Chelsea were 10/11 when the lines were first released, but they have now dropped in to 3/4, while Arsenal have drifted all the way out to 15/4. In their last meeting, the Arsenal defence struggled to contain Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas, and lost 3-1. Fans might have hoped the shift in formation would help, but their injury problems will make it very difficult to pull off a win. Hazard and co will relish the opportunity to take on a threadbare and patched up defence and you can expect to see Chelsea scoring at least twice in this game, so Arsenal will really have their work cut out if they are to emerge with silverware.