Old Trafford: a tough task, but not impossible

*brushes off keyboard, stretches fingers, logs into WordPress* It’s been a while. The last 11 posts on this site have been by Saurabh so I think I’d better pull my weight as well. And what better time to do it? Just off the back of a 12-goal thriller at the Madejski and we’re off to Old Trafford today – myself included for my first away game. If you’re feeling ambitious, there are some good odds on Betfair.

Obviously the almost unavoidable centre of attention is and will continue to be Robin van Persie. I’ll say this – I don’t think he deserves a respectful, appreciative reception from Arsenal fans (we’ll boo who we want, Ferguson), but let’s not bring those accusations from a few years ago into it. The ‘she said no’ chant is one which shows absolutely zero class, which isn’t something I’d like to associate with this great club and its fans, who were absolutely fantastic against Reading, as they have been for a while.

Onto the actual football, which is usually of top quality – although we seemed to forget that during our last visit to Old Trafford – and I don’t think it’s out of the question that we go home with three points. As pretty much everyone’s already highlighted, the left side does seem a worry – one of the league’s best wingers, Antonio Valencia, up against Andre Santos. Last season I was pleased with the Brazilian. His defensive contribution was actually better than most gave him credit for – his interceptions were often crucial, and his use of the ball helped us out of difficult situations and into attacks.

This season, having lost out to Kieran Gibbs in the battle to be first choice, he’s certainly regressed, and his stamina seems a big problem when going forward. He can’t commit too far forward because if he loses the ball then we’re susceptible to counters down that side – and when he does decide to amble forward in support of Podolski, it leaves us massively open to pacy wingers.

Valencia is exactly that, and would rip us apart if Santos did leave gaps in behind. People have suggested playing Sagna or Jenkinson, both of whom have played there before, at left back, but let’s remember that Valencia’s strong foot is his right, and his main threat is when he hugs the touchline and hooks in a cross with his right. If the winger on that side was left-footed and thus likely to cut in, it’d be wise playing one of the two right backs, as they could nullify that threat. While Antonio Valencia attacking Andre Santos isn’t exactly an attractive proposition for Arsenal, I can’t imagine a full back on their weaker side would do too much better against such an old-fashioned wide player in terms of positioning and runs.

On the plus side for us, it’s at home when Santos’ lack of stamina mostly contributes to the threat of counter attacks. It was most obvious against QPR at home, while at Old Trafford you can’t imagine they’ll be as willing to sit back and be so passive in their defending for so long. We certainly wouldn’t throw as many men forward in any case. In away games we usually see Podolski offer more cover to the full back – Liverpool away was the perfect example of this. We’re usually more of a compact, pragmatic side away from home – while we see something of a 4-2-1-3 at the Emirates, that usually becomes a more reserved 4-4-1-1 on our travels.

Defensive shape and organisation will be of pivotal importance to us, as during the you-know-what last time around, we were a shambles at times. It was an incredibly naive performance, and we’ll need the leaders that weren’t present/didn’t step up last time around to make themselves counted at Old Trafford this time.

In goal we’ll have Mannone again, and after Jenkinson and Koscielny played 120 minutes each at Reading, and not doing too well with their positioning, it’s likely that Sagna and Mertesacker will come in; Vermaelen and Santos completing the back-line. Koscielny often struggles when tasked with marking one striker through-out the game – Jason Roberts tormented him at the Madejski – so you sense that facing up against Rooney and Van Persie wouldn’t suit him. We’ll have to hope that Per ‘The Calming Influence’ Mertesacker is at his most calming influence-ness.

United are a threat from all over the pitch – we’ll have to watch out for intricate passing moves, long shots and devious crosses. Like their neighbours they’re a huge multiple threat, and it’s probably unrealistic to hope to restrict them in every aspect. Focus will be the key for us, and we’ll need to defend as a team more than ever.

Going forward it’ll all be about incisive passing and quick inter-play. Hopefully the side has been together long enough to be on roughly the same wave-length, as we’ll need to put together some quick passing moves in order to break quickly. United have shown vulnerability often this season, and quite a few times have left defending up to their back four alone, so if we want to exploit that we’ll have to get the ball forward quickly.

It looks likely that Olivier Giroud will start up top, and that would work in our favour as we look to get forward quickly and in numbers while United are committed. He’ll be up against Ferdinand and Evans, both good defenders, but undoubtedly two which Giroud should dominate aerially. If we can get the ball forwards to Giroud and he can knock it down to a midfielder in support, that’ll give us a chance of opening United up quickly and directly, provided the wingers break quickly.

When we’re dominating the game and are camped in United’s half, I’d imagine our best bet would be crosses. With Giroud up front, quick through balls may not be the way to go, as he’s not the lightest on his feet and he’d have to cover a short distance very quickly to get on the end of a killer pass in front a likely deep United defence. He is, however, very adept at getting on the end of crosses and putting himself about amongst defenders. While Walcott and Podolski might manage to profit from being slipped in by Cazorla or Wilshere, the latter who is still not a cert to start, the full backs would be wise to get a variety of crosses in for Giroud, especially given De Gea’s vulnerability in the air. Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans and Evra isn’t exactly the most dominant of defences, and with Giroud full of confidence after a superb energetic performance against Reading, you’d fancy him to win any cross into United’s box.

So to sum up, it’ll be a difficult task keeping United out, and I’m sure we won’t manage to keep a clean sheet, but I think that if we’re focused, solid and compact at the back and purposeful going forward, we have a chance to out-score them. Put your money on a high-scoring game. And watch it end 0-0. Because that’s just how it goes.

Up the Arsenal.

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About Sam Drew

17 year old student by day, football blogger by night

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