The FA Cup is the ultimate in English footballing traditions – from ‘Abide with Me’ before kick-off, to the captains ascending the stairs to collect the trophy from the Royal Box.
But this season the established order has been shaken up by an upstart.
And both have switched to the new shape midway through the season – with plenty of success.
Chelsea were the first to blink – incidentally after being roundly beaten 3-0 by Arsenal in September.
Boss Antonio Conte rang the changes and didn’t look back, with the Blues going on to win 88.6% of their matches in the Premier League and FA Cup from that point, compared to 50% before.
Arsenal waited a lot longer, with Arsene Wenger stubbornly refusing to switch until their Champions League and top four hopes had all but gone.
But since eventually changing nine games ago, Arsenal have gone on a winning streak of their own, winning 88.9% of their matches – far higher than the 58.8% across the first 34 league and cup matches of this campaign.
With wing backs helping in both defence and attack, the fluid formation has had an effect at both ends of the pitch.
Chelsea’s goals/game went up dramatically, from 1.9 to 2.4 – with the goals conceded halving from 1.5 to 0.7.
Arsenal’s shaky defence has also been aided by the change of shape, dropping their goals conceded from 1.2 to 0.7, and the Gunners have also chipped in with two goals per match.
An interesting thing to note, however, is how much more efficient both teams have become since moving to the 3-4-3.
Both were taking more shots, creating more chances, and having more passes per game, but failing to win anywhere near as many matches.
Instead of relying on prolonged pressure, the 3-4-3 allows for a greater counter-attacking option, which certainly proved effective for Chelsea as they were named Premier League champions.
The switch from Chelsea is best seen in the difference in stats between the sides’ two league meetings.
Arsenal’s comfortable win at the Emirates early on proved a line in the sand for Conte, who had previously used a 4-1-4-1 shape.
His side created very little – with just two shots on target and one corner, despite having the majority of possession – very rare for an away team facing the Gunners.
Fast forward to February, with the 3-4-3 well bedded in, and a totally different story.
Despite ceding 58% possession to Arsenal, Chelsea upped their shots for the match to 13, scoring three times – showing the counter-attacking effect of their new shape, which they’ll hope to exploit at Wembley.
It isn’t just these two who have found success with the tactic – the 3-4-3 has the best win percentage of any formation in the Premier League since the start of the 2012 season.
While the 4-2-3-1 formation was by far the most used – over three times as many as the second placed 4-4-2, it has only yielded a 43% win rate, compared to the 52% of the 3-4-3.
It’s clear to see why Conte abandoned the 4-1-4-1 shape that he had tried in his first few matches in charge, with the 28% win rate proving one of the lowest for any formation over the past five years.
However, the worst of all is reserved for the 4-5-1. Of the 125 starting XIs to play the packed midfield, only 20% have won – the lowest of the 11 found by Opta.
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The 3-4-3 also stacks up as one of the best attacking formations over the past five seasons too.
It sits second on the list of goals scored/game on 1.58 – behind only the 4-4-2 Diamond, on 1.64.
Overall, the ‘goal difference’ per match is the second best on the list – though the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1 runs it close, 0.26 to 0.25.
The Diamond, favoured by Louis van Gaal in his time at Manchester United, works out as the best, with a goal difference of 0.37 – with the 3-5-1-1 and variant 5-3-2 formations the worst – both weighing in with over two goals per game conceded.
Given the success of the 3-4-3, it’s surprising more managers didn’t try it earlier – though this season has seen a huge spike in its use.
Roberto Martinez’s Wigan were the main proponents in the 2012/13 season (though Aston Villa, Man City and West Ham did all try it for one match each), but the trend died off with their relegation that campaign.
Martinez attempted it on just one occasion the following season when he became Everton manager, with city rivals Liverpool briefly reviving the shape in the 2014/15 season.
Ronald Koeman used the 3-4-3 six times in 2015/16 as Southampton boss, the most of the 11 occasions it was played last term, though it exploded on Conte’s arrival at Stamford Bridge this summer.
With Chelsea getting so much success from the 31 league games they deployed it in, plenty of others followed, with West Ham (13), Tottenham (11), Arsenal (8), Stoke (six), Watford (five), Everton and Man City (both four) and Crystal Palace, Hull City and Sunderland (all two) putting the 3-4-3 in vogue.
Overall, the 88 uses this season are more than all four of the previous season put together – and this trend is expected to go up considering the success Conte’s Blues have had.
So back to Saturday’s FA Cup final, and what to expect from both Chelsea and Arsenal.
Despite injury and suspension decimating the Gunners defence, Wenger is still expected to retain the 3-4-3, with Per Mertesacker stepping in for his first match of the season, alongside Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal.
With both sides finding success with what has proved to be the most effective formation going, it remains to be seen which one of these London rivals will be able to best deploy it, and lift the FA Cup.