How Arsenal Can Stop Christian Benteke

Arsenal’s trip to Wembley for the FA Cup Final this Saturday will leave Arsene Wenger with a number of tactical headaches. As well as deciphering who to pick from a talented and competitive squad, there is also the issue of opposition talent to deal with, most prominently in the form of Christian Benteke for Aston Villa. Alleviating the threat of Benteke will significantly reduce the threat of Aston Villa as a whole and Wenger will be keen to set up his team in a manner that allows this threat to be reduced. That, however, is far easier said than done.

Not only does Benteke have the strength to challenge the likes of Per Mertesacker, but also a considerable amount of pace at his disposal. Arsenal have often been exposed by playing a high line in big games and being caught on the counter attack all too frequently. The performance against Man City at the Etihad, where The Gunners ran out 2-0 winners, has often been reflected on as something of a template in how to defend. Patience, togetherness and taking chances when they come are all key to the success of this philosophy.

If Arsenal harass Benteke like they did Aguero in that game then Aston Villa will become increasingly frustrated and have to rely on the Belgian less, and in effect he can (with difficulty) be marked out of the game. If, however, Arsenal themselves grow frustrated and start throwing men forward this could act as the catalyst for their undoing. A foot race between Benteke and Mertesacker could very well leave Arsenal in a great deal of trouble and with an all too familiar sense of déjà vu of the time they were beaten 3-1 by Villa — a game in which Benteke himself scored twice in.

This begs the question that no doubt Arsene Wenger will be constantly asking himself until team selection: should Gabriel Paulista or Per Mertesacker start alongside Laurent Koscielny? Mertesacker has been here before and one would hope he has learnt from experience in the form of last year’s final. When it comes to dealing with Benteke most effectively pace and aerial ability are both key. While Arsenal have pace in abundance with Hector Bellerin in the back four, there’s still a worry that Benteke could have superiority in the air and at set pieces he will be need to be marked extremely tightly.

The club has seen much less of Gabriel, with Mertesacker and Koscielny having had much more game time together, including, hopefully, an education in exactly what to avoid doing from the final almost a year ago. There’s still a strong argument that it may very well be the Brazilian who has the best all-round game to deal with Benteke. Gabriel has seemed competent in the games he has played for Arsenal so far and has settled in relatively well. Arsene Wenger is left with a range of interesting selection choices but deciding who should partner Laurent Koscielny may very well be the most difficult of all.

Arsenal’s defence has improved quite significantly in the last few years. An additional bonus to defensive security comes from Francis Coquelin, arguably Arsenal’s most improved player, and he has certainly proved the most effective at stopping the opposition’s distribution. The collapse of Arsenal’s defence on a number of occasions in the past has to be avoided; the hope for Arsenal fans is that Coquelin can significantly reduce the workload of the back four. If Benteke is stopped along with his source of delivery, most probably Jack Grealish, then Arsenal should find more of their time focused on breaking Aston Villa down and less time worrying about defensive blunders, something the Arsenal faithful would much prefer to see.

Wenger himself seems aware of the threat Benteke may pose, although he was complimentary of the Belgian saying “he’s a player who has massive potential”. He also made the point that a lot of the problems Aston Villa have faced this season were to be “linked with the fact Beneteke was not there”. The fact Wenger made these comments show he, to some extent, is wary of the striker and rightly so — the 24-year-old has scored 12 goals in his last 12 games and is very much in form.

Wembley still has the potential to throw any team. Arsenal made difficult work of Reading in the semi-final and the challenge only gets greater against Aston Villa. The Midlands side may have ended up 17th in the league and dangerously close to the drop zone, but as Wenger rightly said, without Benteke for much of the season they were a worsened side. Arsenal do have a tendency to panic on the big stage and the pressure will be immense to end the season with a trophy again.

It will take the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud (if he starts) and Aaron Ramsey to ease the nerves and try to nick a goal early on in the game to set a precedent. Despite this, there’s still every chance that the game will be incredibly tight. If it is tight, Arsenal’s defence need to stay patient and avoid being caught out in the search for a goal, instead relying on the talent that undeniably exists going forward in the team.

Benteke will be incredibly difficult to stop if he plays at his best, but Arsenal have developed as a team and proved with the right implementation of tactics they can keep out high quality opposition. If Benteke is handled effectively and his supply line cut off through the likes of Coquelin but also a consistent team work rate, there’s every chance Arsenal will be able to retain the cup again and end the season on another vital high.