Manchester United travel to the Emirates on Sunday for a match that now holds less importance than it may well have done had it taken place a few weeks ago. With 4 games to go United remain 9 points clear of Arsenal, which is surely too much of an overhaul for Arsene Wenger’s side; it is however still a vitally important fixture and one Ferguson will desperately not want to lose – not with Chelsea only 6 points behind and a head to head with the South-West London side to come.
Probable starting line-ups
Berbatov and Fletcher are fit again, but only Berbatov is expected to travel to London. Fergie has talked about freshening the team up for the trip to Emirates but given the importance of the fixture, the team should not look too dissimilar from that which started versus Schalke midweek. He must first decide on a system before choosing the players, and most likely is a variant of 4-3-3 as is typically the case versus the Gunners. In the previous league encounter, Man United started with a trio of Carrick, Fletcher and Anderson with Rooney playing the lone striker role. However we are more likely to see a similar system to that which had great success in the F.A. Cup tie against the North London side, where Rooney played a third central midfielder in effect, dropping in alongside O’Shea and Gibson and not allowing Fabregas and Wilshere in particular, time on the ball.
This would mean allowing the Rooney/Hernandez partnership to continue to flourish, even with Rooney ever so slightly deeper. United had great success with the counter attacking approach the last time out at the Emirates, and Hernandez’s form will surely dictate that he starts the game. Arsenal’s backline will thus have a dilemma; do they press high in a similar fashion to the Barcelona game and seek to restrict Rooney’s creativity, or drop deep to ensure that Hernandez isn’t offered space in behind too easily? Will Hernandez take up a slightly right of centre position (typically starts left) in order to link with Valencia against Arsenal’s weakest fullback in Gael Clichy?
Xavi total passes v Arsenal in ECL (a focus on Clichy?)
Credit: Total Football Application
In midfield, Giggs would be the logical choice given his superb display midweek but his experience may well be required in the return leg on Wednesday as United seek to progress to a remarkable 3rd Champions League Final in 4 years (some achievement given critics of Sir Alex in recent years!). Park or Anderson will thus be asked to deputise and asked to perform the ‘Fletcher’ role, hustling the opposition and using the ball intelligently when the ball is retained. This would mean a return for Nani, and with Valencia playing so well on the right, Nani may well be selected on the left despite the Portuguese enjoying greater success in a natural wide right role this term (assisting Park from this position in the 1-0 league victory).
Rafael, O’Shea and Fabio are all fit and are competing for the right back slot. The dilemma for Fergie is does he risk playing Rafael who is in need of minutes ahead of a crucial series of games, or does he continue to use him sparingly given that match fitness (as opposed to physical fitness) is essential at this late stage? Fabio performed admirably versus Schalke but still has the tendency to jump in to challenges unnecessarily; if O’Shea is fully fit then, expect him to start the game offering us that vital experience and positional discipline.
Arsenal don’t have many selection headaches, perhaps the most pertinent one being whether Wenger will persist with Walcott who is struggling for consistency at present. Given that United will not be playing a particularly high line, and the fact that Evra has enjoyed great success versus the young Englishman in the past, I suspect Arshavin will be selected, taking up a wide left position similar to that he played in the previous league encounter. Indeed, it will be interesting to note whether Nasri starts again on the right given Evra’s fantastic performance last time around (see chalkboard); though the Frenchman likes to come into central positions linking with the midfield and van Persie, Wenger must surely see the benefit of allowing him to attack United’s weaker right fullback area.
Evra 8/12 tackles in corresponding fixture at Old Trafford. (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
Arsenal will expect to have the lion’s share of possession at the Emirates as United will sit slightly deeper than usual and seek to hit them on the counter attack, which has worked so well in recent years. Both teams will play with a narrow central midfield, so expect the likes of Sagna, Evra, Clichy and O’Shea to seek to join the attacking approach play; for this reason, Nani and Valencia (or Park) will have to ‘sit in’ without possession, forming a band of five across the middle and keeping the space between defence and midfield as tight as possible, not allowing Arsenal to play the passing triangles for which they are renowned. Rooney will have to be disciplined also when defending, and once on the ball moving out to the wide areas and linking with the fullbacks and wide forwards will draw defenders out of position – perhaps allowing Hernandez, Park or Giggs space in behind. Expect a lot of activity down the United right and Arsenal left as both Clichy and O’Shea will be targeted respectively.
Referee: Chris Foy. Refereed the same teams in the F.A. Cup tie and did a very professional job. Infamously neglected to give West Brom a stone wall penalty as Dorrans was taken down by Neville in a home fixture versus United.
Prediction: The last 2 visits have elicited a 3-1 scoreline; I expect a similar end-to-end match, and atypically, will predict a 2-4 to United, with Hernandez playing a starring role.
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