Nothing like a big game to get over big disappointment, eh!
The beauty of these kinds of games is that it can work both ways. If Arsenal can get a positive result this will turn out to be the perfect end to a couple of disappointing weeks and set up a tantalizing endgame. If the Gunners fail it will turn a bad period into a disastrous one.
Before I get into any thoughts about this game I want to reiterate a simple fact. Under Wenger, Arsenal have scored more than one goal in a game at Old Trafford only once, that was in the 03 FA Cup. So don’t expect too many goals from the Gunners in this one.
Arguably, United are in their own spot of bother at the moment after two successive League defeats against the other two teams that formed the erstwhile ‘big four’. They also have some key players missing. Kung-fu specialist and central defender, Rio Ferdinand, will miss this game along with Nani who suffered a deep gash to his shin from a shocking tackle at Anfield. I’m not sure about this but Park Ji-Sung, who has been Arsenal’s nemesis of late, is also likely to be out of the squad. This game might also come too soon for Antonio Valencia who is returning from an injury usually reserved for the Gunners.
It seems safe to say that both teams have a lot at stake in this fixture. If we go by the FA Cup history, the teams have alternated wins in the last few years. United embarrassed a makeshift Arsenal side in 07-08. Interestingly, all eleven of that Ferguson side are still at Old Trafford and many are likely to start again tomorrow. Arsenal had won the 04-05 Final on penalties after losing the 03-04 semi-final during the invincibles year. If we go by the theory of alternating success Arsenal are due a win and that suits me just fine.
More recently and in all competitions though, Arsenal have been quite poor against the hosts losing five and winning none of the last six meetings between the sides. Having successfully beaten other big sides like Chelsea, City, and even Barcelona (at least in the home leg) this season, one could consider that United are logically the next scalp on the list as this squad matures and improves.
Tactically, I expect United to play a similar game to Sunderland. Only they have much better players, superior counter-attacking tactics, quality on the crosses, and impeccable discipline and organization at the back. Without Nani and Valencia though, they’re likely to miss the X-factor that has troubled Arsenal a lot. It will be interesting to see whether Fergie goes for Berbatov or Hernandez. The first choice will be a positive, high technical quality option whereas the Mexican will represent pace and a counter-attacking philosophy. In either case, Giggs and Rooney are likely to be the key players for the hosts.
It is not difficult to understand the reasons behind Arsenal’s lack of goal-scoring success at Old Trafford. Most teams find it hard to break down Ferguson’s system. They’ll not give Arsenal any room to breathe. The following image is just a random example from the last game but for the duration of this game, whenever Arsenal get the ball, one can be certain that the United players will get tight on their man.
While defending Manchester United’s defenders will be just around or inside their penalty box with the midfielders diligently marking the space in front. They’ll try to force Arsenal wide at all times as the Gunners are weaker when attacking from the flanks.
I’m also quite curious to see Arsene Wenger’s tactics for this game. Le Boss claimed that he did not send his team out just to defend at the Camp Nou but the players found it hard to get past Barcelona’s asphyxiating pressing in the first half. It wasn’t exactly the same but still quite similar to the problem Arsenal had at Old Trafford earlier this season where they did a decent job of defending in the first half but couldn’t really create anything of significance.
For a while now, Arsenal’s weakness has been in finding the right balance between attack and defence. This season the tactical system seems to have worked fairly well against smaller teams and Arsenal have cut out the counter attacking opportunities offered to the big sides in the previous couple of years, but the Gunners haven’t found the right balance against the top sides, especially away from home. This has led to a great deal of pressure on the back five and an odd mistake/goal before half-time, which is enough to decide such a tie.
If Arsenal go with a cautious approach in this game, neither side will create too many clear-cut chances. It will then boil down to an individual mistake or a moment of genius.
The mistake, if it happens, is likely to come from some confusion among Arsenal’s back five as Almunia hasn’t played regularly this season. The Gunners will be fine if he adopts the Szczesny approach and leaves bulk of the work for the defenders while focusing on saving anything that comes his way. United will put in some dangerous balls into the box and the defenders will have to take charge of the situation.
Both sides have three or four players capable of creating a moment of magic. Arsenal’s likely front three, Nasri-RvP-Arshavin, can all produce something out of nothing and the same can be said about the likes of Giggs, Rooney, and Berbatov. The past and the future of England’s midfield will also have a say on the game.
I expect the following starting line-up,
Almunia – Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy – Diaby, Wilshere, Denilson – Nasri, RvP, Arshavin.
Arsene might play Nasri in the middle for either Denilson or Diaby and bring Eboue on the right. That way Arsenal will have a fresher pair of legs on the pitch and Nasri will see more of the ball. When the Frenchman plays on the flanks and the midfield struggles to bring the ball out, he is rendered ineffective for periods of the game.
On the other hand, as Nasri tends to dwell on the ball a bit more and likes to run with it, the team’s passing and movement is not the same when he plays down the middle.
It’s a tricky decision for Arsene and both strategies could work or back-fire so we’ll just have to see how the game plays out.
Chris Foy is the ref so I don’t have any hopes of a controversy free game. Depending on your perspective, a massive blunder or an instance of genius could come from the ref.
Arsenal’s recent away record isn’t very good whereas United’s home record is enviable to say the least. My suggestion is don’t watch this game expecting a thriller or a comprehensive Arsenal win. At best the Gunners are likely to get a scrappy win but I’ll be more than happy with a draw.
With the replay scheduled for next Friday that will lead to the postponement of both sides’ League games. In that case, Arsenal could benefit in both competitions. Ferguson will send his team out to settle this game tomorrow and Arsenal will have to defend against an onslaught if United aren’t winning in the final quarter of the game. Since the hosts haven’t played in mid-week they’re likely to finish this tie stronger. Arsenal will have to do most of their work early in order to make a record 27th appearance in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
Here’s hoping for that fraction of luck that the Gunners deserve.