Another season, another cup final. Arsene Wenger has clung to his job by winning knockout competitions, and as pressure has mounted on the Arsenal manager over the past half-decade, FA Cup successes have acted as a release valve. Winning the Carabao Cup may not be enough to keep him at the Emirates next season but victory over Manchester City at Wembley would strengthen Wenger's case for remaining in position after the summer.
To do this, the 68-year-old needs to come up with a plan to neutralize Pep Guardiola's domineering side. And lucky for him, it can be done.
League One's Wigan Athletic dumped City out of the FA Cup with a backs-against-the-wall performance, albeit aided by the Premier League leaders playing with 10 men for the entire second half after Fabian Delph was sent off. Liverpool held on to beat City in a high-scoring free-for-all in the league by storming forward and taking the game to Guardiola's defence. Neither of City's two domestic defeats provides an effective template from which Wenger can work and so to win, the Gunners need to gamble. But which risky strategy holds the biggest chance of success? This month's north London derby may give a hint about their plans.
Against an in-form Spurs side, Wenger used a back four and dropped his side deep, denying Tottenham space in the zones around the Arsenal penalty area. He was happy to concede space but the intention was not to kill the game completely.
Mauricio Pochettino likes his defence to play a high line. Tottenham's centre-backs were camped out on the halfway line and their full-backs pushed on to help supplement the attack, which gave Wenger's team an opportunity on the break. There were acres of space behind the Tottenham defence for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to run into -- if the Arsenal midfield could get on the ball and thread a pass through to the striker.
The blueprint failed because Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan got lost in the congested central areas and Arsenal were eventually swamped.
Guardiola asks his defenders to operate in a similar manner to Spurs. He tries to squeeze the pitch and play the majority of the game in the opponent's half. City defenders aim to get to the halfway line and shorten the playing area, which allows Guardiola's forwards to press and dispossess rival ball-carriers close to their own goal. One of the keys to City's dominance is their ability to recover possession deep in the opposition's half. Only extremely confident and competent teams can pass the ball out from the back against the Premier League's pacesetters.
Yet such an aggressive approach to closing defenders down does create opportunities for the opposition, and teams that get past the initial press can find room in the midfield. Mkhitaryan is cup-tied at Wembley, so the onus will be on Ozil to find a way of releasing Aubameyang behind John Stones & Co. Jack Wilshere came closest to playing the killer pass against Tottenham but Wenger will need the German international to be at the top of his game if Arsenal are going to use similar tactics against City.
The teams met at Wembley last season in the FA Cup semifinal and the London club emerged with an unexpected 2-1 victory. That day, Wenger's setup was different. Arsenal lined up with a back five and were lucky to still be in the game at half-time. City had a goal disallowed -- replays suggested the officials got it wrong -- and missed a slew of chances. The second half was marginally more level but even then it was a surprise when Nacho Monreal pulled back Sergio Aguero's goal.
In extra time, City tired and the game became stretched. Arsenal thrive when matches become chaotic and open up. Ultimately, Wenger's plan did not beat City; Alexis Sanchez's winner came after the game had lost its shape. Arsenal rode their luck. It is hard to see them having similar fortune if Guardiola's side get on top in Sunday's cup final.
If Wenger does decide to suck City forward and hit them on the break, much will depend on the discipline of his full-backs. The Gunners rely on them -- especially Hector Bellerin -- for attacking width. Even in the midst of the defensive display against Spurs, there were occasions when Bellerin and Monreal found themselves almost as advanced as Aubameyang... at the same time. Although Mohamed Elneny dropped in to aid the central defenders, the ploy left Arsenal short-handed at the back. Against City's speedy front players, such tactics would verge on foolhardy.
Wenger has to walk a difficult line. He does not have the wealth of attacking options and pace to take on Guardiola's men in the style of Liverpool. He also cannot take the Wigan approach, either. Arsenal will also meet a City team whose pride has been bruised and who will be more focused in a final than they were in a fifth-round tie against opponents from two divisions below.
It is a huge test of Wenger's ability to organize and inspire his team. Win at Wembley and it will instill belief that Arsenal can go on to triumph in the Europa League, and perhaps even claw their way back into the top four. Defeat would feed the doubters and add to the clamour for change at the Emirates.
Wenger has shown he can pull off unlikely victories before. It would be unwise to write off the Arsenal manager in yet another cup final.