The champions-elect will receive a guard of honour at the Emirates on Sunday while Robin van Persie could receive something quite to the contrary from the fans. Those are interesting but minor subplots as the twists and turns in Arsenal’s quest for the Champions League places will surely take centre stage once the game begins.
Ferguson seems to have the formula for playing Wenger’s sides, particularly in the last few years. I probably don’t have to remind you that Arsenal have only won 1 of their last 8 Premier League games while losing 6 of those. In the same period the Gunners have also lost 3 cup games against the Red Devils.
At the simplest level, it’s said that Ferguson asks his players to get tight to their opponents and deny them any time or space on the ball to disrupt Arsenal’s passing rhythm. United’s usually secure defensive structure has also kept the Gunner’s out and limited the number and nature of chances they could create. At the other end, quick counter-attacks and clever wing play have caused Wenger’s defence a fair amount of problems.
United have scored 18 League goals in the last 8 games against Arsenal conceding just 7 in the process, which explains the results and bears evidence to the success of Ferguson’s formula. Even if the 8-2 score line is removed as an outlier, the Red Devils have scored 10 to Arsenal’s 5. They also scored 6 while conceding just once in the 3 cup ties between the two sides during the last four years or so.
Wenger will have to find a way to counter Ferguson’s simple-sounding but highly effective approach. It won’t be easy because the Arsenal manager always wants his teams to play the same way. The Frenchman’s belief seems to be that if his side plays as well as they can the opponent’s tactics won’t matter. Clearly, the Scot has got the better of him over a long enough duration to merit a reconsideration.
The way I see it, Arsenal’s biggest challenge in this game is to ensure they don’t conceded a goal. United have lost only 2 away games this season and both have been narrow 1-0 defeats. Arsenal’s only win in their last 8 League meetings against the Red Devils has also been a 1-0.
Needless to say, the first goal will be vital and could prove decisive. Both these sides have only lost 4 points from a winning position but the champions-elect have turned it around more often than Arsenal as they’ve recovered 28 points from losing positions to Arsenal’s 16. Wenger’s team might struggle to get anything from this game if they concede the first goal. Individual mistakes or structural looseness must be avoided at all costs even if means playing out a drab, low-risk first half.
United don’t have anything more to play for so their motivation might drop as the game goes on particularly if it’s a tedious midfield battle. They might not track the runners or mark their opposing numbers as diligently as they’d do in a game that mattered more. A vertically stretched game would suit their strengths more and keep the players excited as they’ll always sense a chance.
The problem for Arsenal is that they’ve not really been able to defend in the central third of the pitch this season. When the defence has worked, it’s usually been hard work in and around the penalty box with most outfield players pulled back. Ferguson’s side generally finds a way to beat this kind of defending through their excellent wing play.
Playing slightly deeper with a couple of quick players in attack could still work for Arsenal if they can find a way to get the attackers involved and thus keep the visitors in check through an offensive threat of their own.
In Giroud’s absence Wenger will have to tweak his system a bit. Walcott is the only other player who’s played some games in the central role this season. Podolski and Gervinho are other options. I’d have liked to see the German get more time in the central areas but Wenger obviously has his reasons to keep him wide or on the bench. It’s tough to say whether this is the game to make a major change.
Having Walcott down the middle and Gervinho on the right should provide genuine pace to Arsenal’s attack but we’ve seen the team struggle to bring Theo into the game in such a role. I’ve felt that Wenger often leaves his players to figure out the solutions for themselves and it’s often sublime when it works, but against opponents who’ve mastered the defensive side of the game the answers can be hard to come by. Having certain pre-planned attacking options can help but I will be surprised if we see such moves from the Gunners.
Wenger does have most of his players available so it’ll be interesting to see what he considers a balanced line-up for this game.
I’ve a feeling Wilshere will start with Rosicky moving back to the bench. The rest of the team, barring Giroud, is likely to be the same as the one that took field at Craven Cottage.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal – Arteta, Wilshere, Ramsey – Gervinho, Walcott, Cazorla.
Ferguson might give some of his fringe players a chance and the United squad might have a lower degree of motivation than they usually have, but the Gunners can’t count on it. I have a feeling this game will be decided by mistakes rather than great football. Lack of confidence or tactical confusion could prove fatal for the hosts whereas a lower degree of concentration might hurt the visitors. It’ll probably be decided by a one goal margin or less.Follow @goonerdesi