Arsenal’s next fixture in their crucial sequence of four games sees the Gunners face Manchester United. We give the lowdown on the encounter.
Which Manchester United will turn up?
Some grumbles of discontent have begun to surface among fans recently of Sir Alex Ferguson’s continuous tinkering of his side – he has gone 105 consecutive matches now without picking the same team twice in a row – and that unpredictability means it difficult to know what line-up the manager is to send out and in which system. The 4-4-2 has garnered 15 goals in the last four games it has been used although for the big games, Sir Alex has tended to favour the 4-5-1. And with strong performances against Chelsea and most recently Manchester City, the 4-5-1 seems the most likely choice away to Arsenal.
United’s changing face
Losing to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final was to Sir Alex, the equivalent of defeat to Real Madrid at home in the Champions League quarter-final in 2000. United had just been crowned European champions the year previously on both occasions but the severity of the defeats meant the manager had to reconsider the way his side functions. “We had a spell after we won the Champions League in 1999 when we had to change our thinking,” said Ferguson. “We lost to PSV and Anderlecht away and others on the counterattack.” This season, not only have they lost Cristiano Ronaldo, out went fans favourite Carlos Tevez across the city, the two key components of their 2007/08 double winning side. Manchester United have churned out some pretty uninspiring performances thus far but their functionality means they are still in the hunt for most trophies.
Inspiration seemingly comes in the form of Mourinho’s 4-3-3 at Chelsea. The wingers look to support the lone striker – typically Wayne Rooney – in attack but in the defensive phase drop back to a more orthodox 4-5-1. The key dynamics of the system, though, is the deployment of their three star central midfielders – Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes. The latter holds while Ferguson seeks to take advantage of Carrick and Fletcher’s high fitness levels therefore they can pressure more higher and aggressively up the pitch. Maybe also, the manager feels he can bring more out of Carrick’s creative and shooting abilities – an area they’ve lacked in central midfield and have been unable to replicate with Anderson and Gibson.
Between the lines
It can be argued, by taking the minutest details of a team’s system, that United’s use of a flat 4-3-3 contributed partly to their defeat to Barcelona in the final. On the other hand, Barcelona played with four bands to make it a 4-1-2-3 and with players constantly moving about made it difficult for Manchester United to match up. Having players ‘between the lines’ makes for more unpredictability and taking advantage in such areas final third of the pitch can be decisive. “I don’t like to play the 4-4-2 in two lines,” says Jose Mourinho. “I like the match in between lines and players with dynamic creativity to do that. What are you a midfield player or an attacker? Nobody knows.” This is still a criticism with Manchester United – that they are lacking players to do the damage in between the lines – although they will argue it’s the angles they attack from and the sheer intensity they do so, that is their central strength.
Arsenal also, it seems, do not have specified men in between the lines but Arsène Wenger’s idea is for the system to be able to morph into a 4-1-4-1, both in the defensive phase and in attack where the midfielders are required to get close to the main forward who is likely to be Nicklas Bendtner. It is primarily Cesc Fabregas’ role to get into such positions, playing as the interior and given more freedom to create chances. The captain has also added greater dynamism to his game, taking on defenders with his developing power not too dissimilar to Steven Gerrard.
Mind the gaps
Recent uncoverings of the Arsenal style have found a chink in the Gunners armour. The most successful opposition teams have been able to expose the space in front of the defence by bypassing the first defensive phase and getting men forward to take advantage of one-on-ones and indecision.
This is because in the defensive phase, the idea is for Arsenal to compress space quickly but that is a difficulty in itself when you factor stretching play is a means of attacking. If the build up breaks down, as opponents have been doing by pressuring up the pitch or alternatively, playing the ball deep early, the distances between the forward players and defence becomes greater (as displayed by below. (Bear in mind United’s intention in the defensive phase is to drop back as opposed to Arsenal’s which is to pressure up the pitch first). Also could Arsenal reverse the tactic and pressure early Paul Scholes and test his reaction times? Fulham did this particularly well as the midfielder gave away a couple of loose balls.
The best solution for Arsenal would be the return of a tired Alex Song back into the holding role, partnered slightly to the left by Denilson. This should ensure the Brazilian can push left as he and Diaby have done in the role beforehand with much success to cover for the space in front of Clichy. This area may be even more crucial should Sir Alex Ferguson choose to deploy Antonia Valencia or even Nani to hug the right touchline. In one of the wide forward positions, Nicklas Bendtner, Samir Nasri or Emmanuel Eboue are options for Wenger due to the extra attention they give to tracking back.
Transitions and set-pieces
Transitions and set-pieces more than anything have been the bane of Arsenal in recent season and will be key once again for both sides. Every team is able to counter these days but the most successful sides have made it their weapon, not their main policy. But it is not just winning the ball in the defensive third of the pitch that can lead to a counter – teams have found that winning the ball in midfield is the crucial area to spring a quick attack from. “Transitions have become crucial,” says Mourinho (again). “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”
Effective wing play may just be key especially as both teams like to stretch play and Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia has been in fine form. More orthodox than many of United’s great wingers of the pass, he found multitudes of room against Manchester City in the first leg by hugging the touchline while his central midfielders worked the full backs inside by switching play quickly. Defensively Valencia also has his plus points as against Chelsea he successfully helped nullify the threat of Ashley Cole by pinning him back.
Patrice Evra has had another fine season at left back and indeed the full-back position has become key in the modern game as it has become the only position where the player is unmarked. Arsenal’s full-backs, however, have been slightly more conservative in their roles, choosing to be more selective although Bakary Sagna showed his threat against Tottenham when he foraged forward unmarked twice to set-up two goals. Higher up the pitch, can Andrey Arshavin get into areas to take on the defender one-on-one as he likes? Indeed, if Bendtner does start, the support he provides to the forward will be crucial and especially testing to rookie full-back Rafael.
Arsenal’s key men
Sol Campbell- This will be the real test of Sol Campbell’s mobility. Barcelona have shown you don’t have to be particularly quick to be a success in a high line, instead astute reading of the game is order of the day. Campbell expertly marshalled Agbonlahor and restricted use of his pace and once again will have to be aware as Rooney likes to run the channels on the break.
Nicklas Bendtner – The Dane has a confident streak but has yet to translate that consistently over a season. Hopefully with injuries behind him, Bendtner can push on and give Arsenal a direct outlet they have been so missing. Playing as the focal point, the Gunners will be hoping the midfielders can play around the big forward while also giving Arsenal an outlet from the numerous times they reach the wide positions. An added bonus he possesses is the option to play the ball early from defence and relieve pressure on the backline. “If Eduardo is out, am I ready to come in?,” said Bendtner. “I wouldn’t be here if I was wasn’t ready. If I play Sunday, I will be ready as well and Manchester United is the sort of big game you’d love to come back into.
Manchester United’s key men
Ryan Giggs – Like Benjamin Button, Ryan Giggs seems to be only getting younger. If he starts on the left as anticipated, Ferguson will expect the Welshman to cut inside and deliver killer passes to Wayne Rooney as he did in winning the penalty in the 2-1 win when the two sides last met. “It was the kind of pass we’ve been trying in training all week,” Ferguson said of the assist. “We got one.”
Wayne Rooney – The England forward has nineteen goals in twenty-one games and he owes much of that good form to curbing his altruistic instincts and playing in a more orthodox manner. He has stated Valencia has kept him on his toes because he expects the winger to fire in more crosses than Ronaldo used to from the same flank.
Arsenal (4-3-3): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Campbell, Clichy; Song, Denilson, Fabregas; Nasri, Arshavin, Bendtner
Subs from: Fabianski, Eboue, Silvestre, Traore, Ramsey, Eastmond, Rosicky, Walcott
Man Utd (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney
Subs from: Kuszczak, Rafael, Neville, Anderson, Nani, Gibson, Owen, Berbatov, Park, Diouf