The FA Cup returns to its spiritual home this weekend, with both semifinals being played at Wembley, but in a place so laced with nostalgia, echoes of past glory and passion, it will be eerie to hear the venue silent as the four clubs chase a spot in the final.
But fear not, the ties will make their own noise. On Saturday, Mikel Arteta and his Arsenal side get a chance to knock over his old tutor Pep Guardiola, and his Manchester City side. In a week where City’s European fortunes were played out in the courts of Switzerland, Guardiola is looking to retain the FA Cup and win the seventh major title of his four-year tenure.
For Arteta, who has been in the job eight months, it gives him an opportunity to have something to show for what has been a turbulent year for Arsenal.
On Sunday, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United and Frank Lampard’s Chelsea go toe-to-toe at Wembley and, while both are distracted by their quests for a spot in the Premier League’s top four, neither will want to lose momentum or miss out on a spot in the FA Cup final.
Pupil Arteta gets a chance to see off teacher Pep
“You can see the ideas, influenced by Pep,” Klopp said. “Mikel would have had the same ideas when he was a player. Arsenal are a really exciting squad.”
The NFL has a concept called the “coaching tree,” where most techniques and approaches are traced back to previous bosses or influencers and then further back until the founder of this specific philosophy is established. A similar theory is used in football — look at the new generation of German coaches and a fair few will find their roots in Helmut Gross and then Ralf Rangnick’s gegenpressing philosophy. For those who have some Barcelona DNA, like Guardiola, their outlook on football has elements taken from Johan Cruyff’s “Total Football.” And so with Arteta, who was Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City before taking on the Arsenal job in December, there are tactical similarities with Arsenal adopting a high-press, 4-2-3-1 with defenders encouraged to pass out from the back.
So when the two meet at Wembley on Saturday (2.45 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+, U.S. only), it won’t be quite to the extent as the Spiderman pointing at Spiderman meme, but there will be a comfortable familiarity between the two and similarity in playing style. But of course, the key difference is in personnel and talent. Man City are far ahead of Arteta’s Arsenal, have higher-quality players in virtually every area of the field and are clear favourites to book a place in their second final in as many years but behind both teams lie different motivations.
Guardiola wants his City side to win the FA Cup for two reasons. First, the obvious goal: to keep that slab of silverware in the Etihad Stadium cabinet and have something to show for a season where they finished so far behind Liverpool. But secondly, he also wants his City side to continue driving momentum through the end of the season and into the Champions League next month.
Those old ties still run strong in Arteta. Amid all the hullabaloo over CAS overturning Man City’s Champions League ban, it was noticeable Arteta toed a different party line than Klopp or Jose Mourinho. Arteta was far more diplomatic in his take, opting to agree with CAS’ decision and back City, rather than throw scorn at his previous employers the way others did.
For Arsenal, Saturday’s semifinal is a free hit. The supporters will still be angry at losing the north London bragging rights to Tottenham, but an FA Cup final would shine a beacon of hope in yet another transitional season. It’s that old adage of Master vs. Apprentice — will Arteta do an Anakin and knock over his old tutor Obi Wan Guardiola? It’s unlikely, but little this season has gone to script.
Distraction of greater riches on offer for United and Chelsea
In the black and white brutality of modern football, ask those in the boardroom whether they’d prefer a place in the top four and Champions League football or an FA Cup and you’d expect them to come down on the side of European football. A spot in the Champions League group stage is worth £13 million alone, after all. But then, the FA Cup is still the most-prized cup in English football, has this joyous mystique and appeal and for Lampard or Solskjaer, winning the famous old gong would be a worthy feather in their cap.
Winning FA Cups, though, does not guarantee job safety — just ask Louis van Gaal who was sacked two days after winning the 2016 FA Cup with United — and league position is still king. So as the battle for the top four intensifies and Chelsea have Liverpool and Wolves waiting in their final two matches of the season, Lampard will need to cut his cloth accordingly and ensure the FA Cup semifinal on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+, U.S. only) does not become a stumbling block which derails their long-term mission of finishing in the top four.
The same goes for Solskjaer’s United — four points behind Chelsea in third place and equal on 59 points with Leicester in fourth. Leicester City will have their feet up this weekend, having been knocked out by Chelsea in the quarterfinals, but United will dearly want to add a lucky 13th FA Cup to their name, but equally new signings and current stars will want to be back in the Champions League next year.
So, expect to see the odd tweak here and there and ever-present scrutiny on both under-fire goalkeepers. Lampard could trial another defensive partnership and midfield combo, while Christian Pulisic will hope to continue his remarkable run of form since the restart. While for United, they might give time to those who started the season but now find themselves on the periphery of a settled XI. Either way, the teams will have one eye on their remaining two league matches while balancing their charge to the FA Cup final.