Manchester United's Five-Point Plan To Beat Arsenal
After a thrilling victory in the League Cup semi-final, Sir Alex brings the champions to Emirates Stadium for a show-piece domestic contest with Arsenal.
It should be an occasion to savour between two well-matched teams with a long history of mutual disrespect. Arsenal will be smarting from an unlikely early season defeat against United when many deemed the Gunners to be the better of the two sides on show.
The tightness of the Premiership title race should give the match even more spice.
For different reasons, both clubs have much to prove. After seeing off City, United will want to make another statement that they are back in the groove and ready for the business end of the season.
Arsenal, desperate for silverware after waiting almost half a decade, know that victory over United would set them up perfectly for a most testing three-week period during which they will play Chelsea, Liverpool and a Champions League first leg against Porto.
Boss Arsene Wenger will be buoyed by his team’s recent form and by the knowledge of a certain apprehension that tends to grip United teams traveling to north London for league contests. He will recognise that Arsenal have the defensive solidity, the passing skills and the midfield cunning to triumph.
Yet confidence that a weaker United are there to be beaten should be tempered by the evidence that this Arsenal side is a lesser vintage, when compared to the thrilling unit of just two years ago in which Hleb and Flamini and Adebayor starred.
The Gunners will be wary of the power of a United side which has played within itself for much of this season. United are due a big performance against an elite rival. Sunday at Emirates would be perfect timing.
Here is my five point plan to help United win three points on the Gunners home turf.
It's a no-brainer! The Spaniard, possibly in his last year in English football, is the outstanding Arsenal player. If he enjoys the freedom of the pitch and is allowed to go about his work undisturbed, United will be embarrassed.
United are too good a side to man-mark Fabregas, but the range of the Spaniard's talents does place an enormous responsibility on Darren Fletcher to be in the midfielder’s face throughout the match.
The champions’ midfielders will also have to be alert to Arsenal's central trio and their mesmeric give and go movement.
Fergie will instill in his players the importance of keeping close to the likes of Rosicky or Nasri, if he is selected, and will insist that they also track back with a zeal they failed to show when allowing Carlos Tevez to convert so splendidly in the League Cup semi-final.
The battle for midfield supremacy is the key to the match.
United will need Fletcher to be on his game and Carrick to find the kind of space he enjoyed against City.
Sir Alex will need Park to reproduce the form displayed on his last visit to the Emirates Stadium when United extinguished the Gunner’s Champions League hopes so decisively last Spring.
Injury permitting, Park’s industry should get him the nod for a must-win match. The manager might prefer Scholes’ maturity on what is likely to be a fraught occasion, but this match would seem no place to risk 35-year-old legs in a midfield bear pit.
A personal preference would see Anderson given a shot at career resurrection on the field where he made his name in the Premiership, but his wanderings this week probably make such a selection unlikely.
European Tactics Please
Sir Alex has staked his reputation this season on switching back to 4-4-2, but to set a United midfield duo against the Gunners' clever central trio would be to invite disaster.
As such, Arsenal’s 4-3-3 must be matched if United are to stand any chance of success. The Gunners are ruthless on the counter-attack and are likely to have the majority of possession. The champions will need midfield reinforcement if they are not to be over-run.
That would leave Rooney alone up front, flanked by Giggs and Valencia. That means no starting place again for Dimitar Berbatov, when he was bought presumably with this type of match in mind.
This sad fact is a reflection of the player's unconvincing contribution to United's cause.
My Team Selection
A Tale of Two Leftbacks
Antonio Valencia has been a success on United's right wing this season. Fergie should instruct the winger to occupy Gael Clichy thoroughly and stop the defender charging forward to link up with Arshavin.
Arsenal are strong along the left flank, but Valencia’s speed and talent for hugging the touchline and forcing wide opposing fullbacks creates opportunities for Rooney and United's run through midfielders.
Clichy's opposite number, Patrice Evra, is another fullback who could play a decisive role in the match.
The Frenchman's excellence and contribution to the United cause this season would have grabbed more headlines had it not been for Wayne Rooney's extraordinary exploits in front of goal. The defender has been a sensation and gives United an injection of width, pace and directness along the left flank.
If Evra could add goal-scoring to his repertoire, he would surely be recognised as the world's best in his position.
That said, Evra's somewhat heavy first touch and occasionally ill-timed forward sorties could be brutally exposed by a quick and incisive Arsenal team. The Gunners will surely look to exploit the vast stretches of turf left unguarded when Evra is caught upfield.
United will not want to be deprived of Evra's enthusiasm and ability to create openings, but must balance this with the caution that will stop them being caught on the break.
Keep Campbell Busy and Arshavin Quiet
It would be terrible luck for Arsenal, but a boost to United if the injury that forced Thomas Vermaelen from the field during the midweek match against Aston Villa prevents him from facing the champions.
The 25-year-old Belgian has been one of the buys of the season and has combined to form a formidable rearguard with the Frenchman William Gallas.
The centre half has already scored six goals and is a danger at set pieces, too.
If Vermaelen can't play, Wenger may have no choice but to partner Gallas with the 35-year-old reserve Sol Campbell. The former England international, who played for League Two's Notts County earlier this season, will relish his return to the big time, but surely not as much as Wayne Rooney, United's leading marksman this season.
If United hope to exploit Campbell's rustiness, Arsenal will wish to inflict a greater pain on the champion's own defensive lynchpins. Rio Ferdinand has played just twice since returning from a lengthy lay-off while neither the fit-again Nemanja Vidic nor Jonny Evans have reached the form peaks of last year.
This augurs well for Andrei Arshavin, although the Russian has not caused the havoc among opposition defences that many expected after his scintillating introduction to English football last winter.
Leading the Arsenal front line in Van Persie's absence is clearly not his forte, but with Bendtner now back on the first team, the Russian may be ready to dazzle once more.
United will have to keep a tight grip on Arshavin, a player blessed with pace, a quick brain, clever positional play, an eye for a pass and thunderous goal power. Arshavin's four goal destruction of Liverpool's title hopes last season should be Saturday night's required viewing in the United hotel!
The Russian is the key danger man among Arsenal's forwards. If allowed time on the ball, he is likely to give United's talented but sometimes clumsy young Brazilian fullback Raphael a torrid tutelage in the art of forward cunning.