Arsenal Column have identified three key areas which could determine whether Arsenal return from the first leg of the Champions League semi-final at Old Trafford with a result.
1. Midfield shield must keep tabs on United’s attacking quartet
Wenger may not have advocated the midfield shield before the start of the season but there is no doubt that the role has helped steady the ship this campaign. Manchester United’s forwards like to operate in the area between midfield and attack and especially Berbabtov who is likely to start because of his hold up play.
Like Porto and Liverpool before them, being organised and denying space in front of the defence will be the first step to an Old Trafford result. It will be interesting to see who Arsene Wenger deploys in central midfield, as he has a full set of options to contend with, and whether to play Fabregas, as predicted, behind Adebayor. Arshavin’s unavailability will probably mean Nasri will play out wide but at Middlesbrough he showed great positional awareness which Wenger may be tempted to call upon.
Possession will not be key in this game and with the tempo both teams play with, the ball is likely to go back and forth between each end though mostly in United’s favour. Expect a 55-45% possession advantage to the Reds but with the counter-attacking nature of both sides, it will be how each team is set-up when possession changes hands that could decide the outcome.
2. Press Carrick
This job will be up to whoever plays behind Adebayor, most likely to be Fabregas. If Arsenal can get the England midfielder searching for the ball, then it could open up gaps for the Gunners to exploit. Carrick is a fantastic passer of the ball but with the way United attack, which is like a 4-2-4, the forward quarter are almost looking for the midfielder to feed the ball to them at every opportunity.
Cutting Carrick out may not necessarily mean cutting off the supply line; United are a pressure team looking to force the opposition on the back foot with the angles they attack from. Nevertheless, denying Carrick space will open up spaces for Arsenal to attack in and create uncertainty to the back four.
3. Effective wing play will be key for both sides
Last season in the FA Cup Arsenal were comprehensively beaten 4-0 by United as Hoyte and Traore were run ragged out wide. Although with Sagna on the right this may not happen it is less assured on the left with Gibbs doubtful which means Silvestre may deputise if he also passes fit.
Ferguson will have identified this as an area of Arsenal’s weakness therefore could be tempted to play Ronaldo there. Wenger on the other hand may want to deploy Diaby to offer added protection.
However the past few games have also seen United frailties in defending quick, pacy players especially if the wingers do not offer enough protection. Evra v Walcott may well be the defining contest and on the break the winger can be deadly. Manchester United will want to force the England man as far back as possible to deny him the opportunity to run at Evra. On the break Arsenal had the back four on the back foot at the Emirates in October, with the centre back pairing having to make up positionally for others.
Predicted Line Ups
Manchester United (4-4-2):Van Der Sar – O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra – Ronaldo, Carrick, Anderson, Giggs (c) – Rooney, Berbatov.
Subs:Foster, Rafael, Evans, Park, Fletcher, Scholes Welbeck, Tevez
Arsenal (4-2-3-1):Almunia – Sagna, Toure, Djourou, Gibbs – Song, Nasri – Walcott, Fabregas (c), Diaby – Adebayor
Subs:Fabianski, Silvestre, Eboue, Denilson, Ramsey, Vela, Bendtner