Wednesday night’s meeting between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford will be the first time the two sides have faced each other in European competition. The all English match-up of the past few years – Liverpool vs Chelsea – ,failed to inspire the European audience until the cracker of a game two weeks ago. This time around we have the two teams that have been playing the creme-de-la-creme of Premier League football for the past 10 years. In Wenger and Fergie you couldn’t have two different managers, yet both respected as the best in the business by pundits, fans, players and peers across the world. This is the all Premier League fixture the world has been waiting to watch.
As a Gooner, I must say I feel both the excitement and sickness that comes whenever we are about to face Man U in a big match. I nearly forgot how much I dislike Rooney & co. following the past few seasons of playing second fiddle to a top class Man U team that were superseded in my distaste by those bunch of shit bags over in West London. But then I remember Van Nistelrooy cheating us, Giggs showing his carpet chest, Yorke embarrassing us and the brute rubbing salt in the wounds. The satisfaction of beating a team that has caused me such pain (1999) and is arguably the best in the world has reminded me how much we must beat them and make sure Cristiano Ronaldo cries. Amy Lawrence over at the Guardian has a decent article looking back on the hate-filled meetings of the past between these two. I doubt we will see anything like the Vieira versus Keano or Keown versus Ruud anytime soon.
Both clubs’ familiarity with each other’s players, style and tactics will make the home and away nature of the tie less important. Arsenal have recently won at Old Trafford and United have got good results at Highbury, then the Emirates, over the past few years. It is always better having the second leg at home because at least you know what you have to do in front of your own fans, but if I am honest, I will not be confident of qualifying for the final even if the Gooners take a one-nil lead from the first leg.
Tactical Analysis – Arshavin-less Arsenal
Regular readers of this blog will know how much we rate Andrei Arshavin. He has made a much bigger impact than even we could have hoped, defying Arsene Wenger’s belief that it takes foreign players at least half a year to adapt to the Premier League. Arshavin has brought much needed creativity, hunger, experience and as we saw against Liverpool – top class finishes. But come Wednesday, Arsene will have to alter the side to compensate for Shava’s cup-tied status. Here are some of the main tactical considerations for Arsene:
Since the Spanish general has come back from injury, Arsene has for some reason been determined to play him in an advanced position just behind the lone striker. In his first game back Cesc assisted two Adebayor goals in this position but since then he really hasn’t convinced me. He had a pretty anonymous game against Villareal in Spain and spent huge periods of the Liverpool game being anonymous. Cesc’s two goals against Boro at the weekend will probably confound Wenger’s belief that he should remain playing there but for me that is a waste of his talents. Fabregas is at his devastating best when collecting the ball from deep utilising his full range of passing. Further upfield he can be dangerous playing in that crucial through-ball but is also more likely to see the game pass by him should Arsenal struggle to dominate possession. However, with Van Persie missing out and Arshavin cup-tied, Arsenal don’t have any better options to put in the ‘hole’ of a 4-5-1.
Ronaldo versus Gibbs
Kieran Gibbs has done fantastically well for the Gunners since coming in for the injured Gael Clichy. He managed to get a few Carling Cup and FA Cup games under his belt before being called on to replace Clichy and I am sure that has benefited him. Gibbs, like Ashley Cole, has moved to full back from a more advanced position (formerly a left winger) and his strengths going forward are obvious to see. His crossing is certainly better than Clichy’s, although that isn’t saying much. Defensively he hasn’t done too badly but I fear that Fergie will do the obvious and deploy Ronaldo down the right hand side. That will be a big ask of Gibbs, especially in a Champions League semi final. If he takes note from Cole’s good performances against Ronaldo, he will keep his nerve and avoid doing anything rash.
The key for Arsenal keeping Ronaldo at bay should be to attack United down the left hand side as often as possible. It looks likely that Rafael will play, who like Gibbs has an abundance of talent, yet also suffers from a lack of experience at this level. Nasri, who will start on the left, loves to come inside so Gibbs will be the threat going forward. This might leave Arsenal exposed but may force Fergie to deploy Rooney on the right to give more defensive cover.
Walcott versus Evra
Pat Rice Evra is a very good player and probably someone the likes of Gibbs would look up to. Neverthless, I think Evra is someone that can be exposed if you take him on. Walcott (Theo, Theo) is coming of age and has looked extremely confident and decisive since returning from injury. My theory is that Theo charges up like a Duracell Bunny every time he is injured and then comes back at least two times better than he was before. Anyhow, Theo has the opportunity to a) provide Arsenal with a real threat down the flanks; b) make Evra look like a chump; and c) become such a legend that we will even consider let him grow that bum fluff beard that he likes to connect up with his sideburns to look like a proper rudeboy.
A test of defensive resolve
Arsenal have a defensive injury crisis that sees Gallas, Sagna, Clichy and Fish Face all sidelined. However, the last time Arsenal got to the Champions League final they were playing a midfielder at left back (Flamini), Eboue at right back, Toure and the liability formerly known as Philip Senderos. Maybe, just maybe, Arsene can replicate a similar kind of lineup with the current crop. Although Djorou’s timely return is a boost in place of Fish Face, the biggest boost is the recovery of Manuel Almunia from injury. Fabianski has had a torrid few weeks and clearly can’t handle the pressure. This has reinforced my belief that sub keepers should be experienced ageing keepers. Fabianski should be out on loan and Arsenal’s sub keeper should be someone like Cudicini.
Regardless, United are back to scoring ways and Wednesday night will be a big ask for Arsenal defensively. Song will provide much needed protection and I expect him to excel in his role as he has over the past couple of months. If the Gunners can restrict United to just a goal at Old Trafford, they can build on that defensive solifity for the second leg.
As for United, despite seeing the formidable duo of Vidic and Ferdinand return, they looked anything but solid against Spurs at the weekend. Adebayor will stretch the centre backs with his runs and Ferdinand has remarked before that Togonator is one of the trickiest players he has come up against. United’s best bet will be to snuff the Arsenal midfield out by deploying the highly charged duo of Fletcher and Park while allowing Carrick to marshal Fabregas and provide distribution. Chelsea put this tactic to great effect in the recent FA cup semi final, drawing Arsenal into their own game.
United haven’t been playing well, Arsenal have. Does that really matter? Who knows? Arsenal have a good record against the top teams this season but these two sides won’t fear each other. I hate making predictions for my own team but I reckon this will be a score draw or could be edged by United, 1-0 or 2-1. Regardless, I think it will still be all to play for in the second leg at the Emirates. The less I say the better.
What’s left to ponder?
Will Wenger and Fergie share a glass of wine after the game?
What will be Arsenal-player-that-shall-remain-unknown’s food of choice when confronting Fergie?
Will Ryan Giggs be a proper gentleman and give back his undeserved PFA Player of the Year award?
Will Fish Face Silvestre come back to haunt his former employers by coming on as last minute sub and scoring with his eight inch gills?
Will Wayne Rooney be identified as the carrier of the swine virus and be promptly put down at the half time interval?