It seems to me that ever since the loss to Barcelona in the Champions League final a couple of seasons ago, Sir Alex is trying to create a Manchester United side that can match the Catalans’ attacking prowess. Last season United were very open in the early games in search of more goals and as a consequence they were allowing a number of shots on target. This season we’re again seeing something very similar.
Ferguson’s side have scored the most goals in the Premier League in the 9 games this season. Their tally of 24 is more than a goal a game higher than Arsenal’s 14. United often play with three strikers with either Welbeck or Chicarito starting alongside RvP and Rooney. This does leave them a little light in the midfield and has left their defence exposed. Combined with a string of injuries to defenders, this weakness in midfield has given opponents enough chances to score against the Red Devils. Everton and Spurs were able to convert these opportunities into wins but in all other cases Ferguson’s side have been able to outscore the opponents.
The Gunners have lost seven of their last eight visits to Old Trafford and have only scored 10 goals in 20 Premier League visits to the ground. In general, Arsenal’s record against United, particularly in recent years, does not make for pleasant reading.
This poses an interesting challenge for Arsenal. Wenger has a couple of diametrically opposite choices. He could set his team out to play a tight game in order to nullify the United attack in order to recreate the shutouts that have been the source of his three 1-0 wins in the last 18 visits.
This is a risky tactic. Odds are this United side are going to score. Arsenal had a degree of defensive stability in the early weeks but a lot of that was down to a defensive tactic that relied on the side sitting deep. Even in games against Montpellier and Southampton, one got a feeling the Gunners had to park the bus, at least in phases. The attack also suffers when the players have to build-up from deep in their own half on a constant basis. Clearly, Wenger was not happy with that and rightly so. Such an approach is better suited to mid-table teams or those below them. In the last few games Arsenal have pushed up the pitch and we have been reintroduced to some of the vulnerabilities from last season.
That said, many teams, including United, do sit deep in the big games and the ability to hold a shape will help Arsenal. The big question is, can this be done for the duration of 90 minutes? It’s also important to note that defending can only guarantee a draw. Wenger’s team will also have to show they can score on the counter. Admittedly, this is a style that’s worked for Arsenal in some games at the beginning of the season, but I’m not sure Wenger is predisposed to relying on such a tactic.
The other option for Arsenal is to attempt to dominate the midfield battle and then find ways to challenge the United back four and test their goalkeeper. The Gunners do have enough technical quality to control the centre of the pitch but, as we’ve seen often enough in previous battles, that alone is never enough. They need precision and telepathic understanding in the final third along with clinical finishing. Apart from bullying the weakest of defences (Cologne, Southampton, Coventry, and Reading), Wenger’s side have not shown these abilities. 8 goals in 8 League games (leaving out the win over Southampton) is clear evidence that the Arsenal attack is yet to click.
With these facts in mind, the best scenario for Arsenal would be to defend by controlling the midfield. Cutting off the supply to Van Persie and minimising the control that Rooney can exert from deeper positions is vital. But that alone will not be enough. United are very strong in the wide areas and the battle between Valencia and Santos could make or break this game. Support for the full-back is essential but with Wilshere likely to play higher up the pitch there will be gaps for the hosts to exploit.
As far as the starting line-up goes, Wenger will probably make 11 changes and revert to the eleven that started the game against QPR. Injuries to some players means there are few possibilities of changes to that side. Perhaps the only question is whether Walcott is fit enough to start twice in a week, especially considering he had to play over 120 minutes against Reading.
Mannone – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Santos – Arteta, Cazorla, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.
Most articles I’ve read, the betting odds, and the recent historical record in this fixture seems to indicate that Manchester United are favourites. Arsenal are on an emotional high after the comeback against Reading and a positive result in this fixture will have a multiplier effect that could carry the team far, but even the most optimistic of fans will probably not expect the Gunners to mount a similar fight back in this game.
Can Arsenal produce an impeccable game or will this be another disappointment for the Gooner faithful? I guess we’ll know soon enough.Follow @goonerdesi