Just Another Match?
I go with the former. If we look past the Sheiks and Oligarchs pouring money into smaller clubs for fun and vanity, these are–BY FAR–the biggest clubs in our game. All that oil (and natural gas) money has changed things, but, to me at least, our matches against ManU are one of the biggest measures of our progress as a team and as a club. Tomorrow they come to our stadium–a stadium built so that we could compete with them when they had by far the biggest one. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is a VERY big match.
It’s even bigger because it’s early season and neither team has fully convinced. Thanks to recent stumbles in the light blue part of their town, United, amazingly. are top of the table. Not only is it the first time up there since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down as manager, it’s also something nobody would’ve expected from the way they began the season. Nervy 1-nil victories vs Spurs and at Aston Villa but failing to score at home vs Newcastle and then losing (after scoring the first goal) at Swansea, did nothing to make them appear a title contender back in August.
It got better, however, as they both splashed the cash for teenage attacker Anthony Martial AND bungled the paperwork on the transfer everybody expected–David De Gea to Real Madrid. De Gea took the failed move professionally and–with the exception of losing their CL group opener at PSV Eindhoven–they’ve been perfect in September, notching league wins at home against Liverpool and Sunderland and on the South Coast at Southampton.
Arsenal, the strongest team in the 2nd half of last season, came into the new one on the back of a perfect pre-season–including winning the Community Shield–with very high expectations. We’re they too high? Perhaps. Re-calibration began immediately with an opening day loss to West Ham, in front of the home crowd no less. It’s been better since–in domestic competition at least–but it’s also been a campaign which has clearly not lived up to our high hopes. Goals have been very hard to come by, at least until the 5 goal barrage at Leicester City a week ago which doubled our league total up to that point. Coming off a home defeat to Olympiakos in a Champions League match in midweek, this showdown looms even larger.
And, truth be told, Arsenal have not had much success against United in our new stadium. Since the move in 2006, Arsenal have only beaten ManU late in that first season (as United were cruising to the league title) and in November 2008. The league win that season was overshadowed the following Spring when United beat us 3-1 in the 2nd leg of a Champions League semi-final (4-1 on aggregate), a win which sent them to the final in Moscow where they beat Chelsea on penalty kicks. The only victory since then was an end of season 1-nil in 2011.
The biggest humiliation of all might have been welcoming United at the end of Ferguson’s final season and having to perform the “guard of honour” for their team which had already secured the league title. Having to greet Robin van Persie–the Judas who had left us the previous summer–in this fashion and then only being able to eke out a draw despite the motivation of fighting a big uphill battle for 4th place and Champions League football. It was a match which showed the gulf–at that time–between the two clubs.
Van Persie, now playing in Turkey, is one who has fallen victim to current Manager Louis van Gaal’s revolving door policy. Van Gaal, burning through a pile of money (nearly half a billion pounds in just two seasons), has also moved on other older expensive players, notably Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao–players he brought in himself–choosing instead to invest in younger players like Martial and Memphis Depay.
In attack at least. At the rear of midfield (and for not much less money) the investment has been in older, more established players. Bastien Schweinsteiger (31 years old, 275,000 pounds/week) and Morgan Schneiderlin (25 years old, 27 million pound transfer) are supposed to anchor the attack and create a secure bridge to the rearguard.
It seems reasonably promising, but it’s also clearly a work in progress and Van Gaal still seems to be ironing out his ideas. Veterans like Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney seem back in favour, but others, like Maroune Fellaini and Ashley Young, both of whom LvG relied upon heavily last season, seem more peripheral figures. Defence seems the iffiest part of the scheme, especially with injuries to Luke Shaw and Marcus Rojo. De Gea in goal is a bonus and Daley Blind has done quite well as a utility defender filling in at FB and CB, but the newer generation of English defenders, notably Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, haven’t quite established themselves as automatic choices.
Do Arsenal have enough to stand up to this version of United and finally get a home win against them? The answer likely depends on who you ask and, in fact, can only be truly answered by what we see after the match kicks off.
Further questions loom. Will the mid-week loss make Arsenal hungry to right the wrong or will the confidence that was beginning to grow with victories at Spurs and Leicester be reduced to zero? Will Gooners come to the stadium (having payed the big money to watch the “A” level match) and be completely behind their players? Old narratives which appear after each stumble–that manager Arsene Wenger has been too long at the helm and too prone to bad selections and tactical gaffes–might be on the tips of tongues. Can the fans, the players and their beleaguered manager come together for a big performance and result this Sunday?
How should Wenger and his team try and get one over on United and Van Gaal? Will he expect LvG to set out to absorb pressure and hit on the break–a tactic proven quite successful, especially against us in our home stadium–or should Wenger expect Van Gaal to come at us a bit? What should we expect and how should we set up?
Due to injuries to Laurent Koscielny, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, (and the longer term absences of Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky) our team, I think, almost to a man, picks itself. There could be a question up front, given that Olivier Giroud should be well rested having sat out the Tuesday match due to suspension. Theo Walcott, however, has scored in his last two outings and seems more involved in other parts of our attack so dropping him seems unlikely. Aaron Ramsey likely steps in for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in his free role from the right. I guess some are asking about who plays in goal, but, to me at least, the minor calf problem which saw Petr Cech take only a bench seat vs Olympiakos was nothing more than a classic Weng-jury Rotation Ruse (copyright pending…), transparent as a well rolled sheet of phyllo dough.
Here then is the Arsenal set-up I would predict:
Bench: Ospina, Chambers, Debuchy, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Campbell, Giroud
Personally, I’d love to see Walcott AND Giroud from the opening whistle in this one and I’d choose to sacrifice Coquelin and move Ramsey central. Most analysis of the Olympiakos match suggests that we looked immediately stronger in attack when Rambo came on for Le Coq and his play helped get us the equalizer. Coquelin’s presence, however, might’ve been missed as the Greek team–almost from the ensuing kick-off–sliced through our half and scored the winner.
To me, using Coquelin suggests trying to control a low scoring match; going with Theo and Ollie–and Alexis–as a fluid front three, backed up by Ozil, Santi and Rambo, would seem a hell-for-leather, we-believe-we-can-outscore-you, sort of approach, even if it might leave us very short of attacking options from the bench if we were to need a goal or lose a player to injury. Still, it’s what I’d prefer as I think we need a definitive and aggressive showing heading into the international break.
What do you guys think?
Let’s go for it, I say. Much as I believe LvG’s United are a work in progress, so too is this Arsenal team. Until we can stride out onto our own pitch and confidently play OUR game against this sort of competition we remain an embodiment of nervous potential rather than any sort of realized excellence. We have to see these matches as opportunities to lay down a real marker rather than worrisome stumbling blocks. Indeed, another home loss would be devastating, but, at the level to which we aspire, that’s always the case. We play these games in order to win them and make our home stadium into a real fortress. In the end, these are the matches, which, if won in style, assert our place in the sport and make for great memories.