Just like old times eh? A Manchester United vs. Arsenal fixture of significant importance to the Premier League title race. This was one of the top fixtures of World Football in the late 90’s and the early 20th Century. This was when the Gladiators that were led by Keane and Viera battled for the supremacy of English football. Those were the days when Arsene Wenger went toe to toe with Sir Alex Ferguson in many a memorable match with a direct bearing on the destination of the Title. From an Arsenal perspective, the most memorable game being the title winning 1 nil victory in 2002. For Man Utd, the 8 -2 demolition of Arsenal’s ragtag team on that horrible day in August 2011. That represented the darkest hour in Arsenal’s modern history. It confirmed Arsenal’s decline and place firmly in United’s shadow. In the last 8 years, Arsenal have not won a single trophy while United have swept all before them at home and abroad since losing the FA Cup on penalties to Arsenal. This led to thawing of the rivalry as United and Sir Alex rightly no longer considered Arsenal rival. So much so that United bought Arsenal’s Captain and best player in RVP, who almost single handedly won them their 20th title last season.
You have to hand it to United. They have remained at the top of the English game since 1993 when they won their 1st title in 26 years which was also the maiden season of the Premier League, led by the Great Sir Alex, they won title after title while seeing off the challenges of Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal, Chelsea and most recently Manchester City to their strangle hold on the Premier League. Every team attempting to wrest control of the Premier League must use Manchester United as the barometer and standard by which they measure their success. In fact they must beat Man Utd. Most recently Man City won at Old Trafford 6-1, Chelsea have also had good results at Old Trafford and won the League by beating United at Stamford Bridge. Of course Arsenal won the League there in 2002. They are simply the best. So what has changed this year? What has made this fixture the most eagerly anticipated since 2008?
Firstly, for the 1st time in a very long time, Arsenal is mounting what looks like a serious and credible title challenge. Arsenal have built on a solid finish to last season where we won our last 8 matches and an amazing away form which began with a victory at the Allianz Arena (the only team to win there in 2013). Despite the opening day loss to Aston Villa, Arsenal’s form in 2013 is Championship stuff. The Club has been lifted by the arrival of Mesut Ozil, whose transfer shattered the club’s transfer record and the return of Mathieu Flamini. While the former by his very presence has added undoubted class to the team, the former’s role as a defensive midfielder playing spoiler has given the entire team a defensive shield Arsenal have lacked since he left for Milan 5 seasons ago. The Defense led by the partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny has been in solid form. Wojciech Szczęsny has grown in leap and bounds this season. The full backs in Gibbs and Sagna complete what is reminiscent of the famous defence led by Tony Adams. Of course they are drilled by his mate, Steve Bould and the results are there for all to see. The biggest surprise of the season so far has to be the form of Aaron Ramsey. The hitherto misfiring Welshman is now the 1st name on the team sheet and the go to guy for Arsenal. His scoring record is steller and each performance better than the last. Olivier Giroud has also had a great start of the season and overall the whole team seems very solid. They fight for each other and have shown they can win by playing ugly just as they can playing champagne football, a trait Arsenal have lacked for so long. This fine form is despite a long injury list robbing the Manager of some key players like Podolski and Walcott.
For United the major change is the retirement of Sir Alex. For 26 years he shaped the club in his image and won tons of silverware. It suddenly became apparent that he was the wow factor in the United set up. David Moyes, a very capable Manager handpicked by Sir Alex has been unable to settle into the job. The club had a very poor transfer window and are looking very vulnerable in 8th and 8 points behind leaders Arsenal. Some people are calling it the end of an era. However, this is Manchester United we are talking about. They have enough experience and talent to turn things around and retain their title. In spite of all their issues, they have an in form Wayne Rooney and in Januz, they have unearthed yet another gem. RVP looks like he is getting back to form just in time for the December period during which they traditional find form. Only a big mumu will write them off at this stage of the League campaign. This is a must win game for them and the perfect game to kick start their revival. They don’t need to be motivated. If I were Moyes, I will leave this game to Phil Neville and Ryan Giggs to coach it.
I do not usually do tactics but I will hazard an attempt. If Moyes borrows from Sir Alex, he will not attempt to play open fluid football that Arsenal love. He will pack his midfield with destroyers like Anderson, Felliani and Phil Jones with instructions to cynically kick the living daylights of the Arsenal Midfielders especially Ozil and Ramsey. The template used to defeat the Invincibles and which has been used by SAF time and again in the preceding years against Arsenal should be employed. He should seek to isolate Per with Rooney running at him and make RVP get under Koscielny’s skin to force him into a rash challenge or two. The Frenchman fancies himself on one on one situations and RVP can exploit that. The United attack should come through the tireless and direct running of Valencia/Rafael on one wing and Evra/Januz on the left. If they can get beyond the full backs in addition to keeping them pegged at the back, then they have a good chance of winning, especially if the midfielders do their dirty jobs well.
For Arsenal, Wenger must decide whether or not 3 points is a necessity here. Can Arsenal play on the counter? Can they stand up to the rough house tactics of United? Can they soak up the pressure? Is a point not an excellent result at this stage of the season? If Arsenal were to win, it will restore the 5 point cushion on the top, 7 points from Chelsea and 13 from United. That is some incentive against a United team that look very beatable at the moment. Beyond that this is the biggest test of the season and Arsenal will dearly love to silence their doubters with a victory. Arsenal must ensure that they keep their shape and passing must be top notch. I will have Arteta and Flamini with Ramsey in midfield. Carzola will start on the bench for me and I will start with Rosicky. Ozil must have a big game and be strong as he will be at the receiving end of some rough tackles. Giroud must score as chances will be at a premium, no wastage can be afforded. If we are chasing the game or we need to kill it Carzola will come in, Wilshere to kill the game as well if we are leading and of course Monreal for defensive cover on the left in Arsene’s favored way of closing out a game. Sarge Gnarbry can potentially be a match winner for Arsenal. I love his directness, pace and lack of fear. Arsene may even be brave enough to start with him to keep Evra honest at the back. Sometimes the best form of defence is attack.
This game is somehow bigger than the 3 points involved. United as they have done in the past can easily burst Arsenal’s bubble and end of away record. They can use this game as a trigger to relaunch their campaign. They simply cannot afford a loss. For Arsenal, while a draw will be a good result (unless Arsene surprises me) will go for a win. Their form will give them the confidence that they can do it and the professional need to beat the best will drive them on. I hope it doesn’t blind them from the fact that a draw in Old Trafford is never a bad result. The psychological victory of going 13 points clear of United and 7 of Chelsea is a very tempting incentive. They must however have the mental strength to keep their chins up even in defeat as they cannot afford a meltdown, as they will still be in a very strong position at the top of the league. Whatever happens, I think we are about to watch an epic Premier League clash. One just hopes the referee does not make this game about himself and we get a good game in that respect. I suspect there will be plenty talking points, the stakes are just too high.
I can hardly wait, let’s go and beat them. They are c**ts and we are the Arsenal. It’s been too long and the 8-2 still hurts like it was yesterday. Let’s show them that this is a very different Arsenal, a team on the way to something special this season. Come on you Gunners!!!