In the past few seasons, this fixture meant a guaranteed 3 points for United. United, under Sir Alex always stuck to a plan – let Arsenal keep the ball in the middle of the park but stop their slick passing in the attacking third and counter attack at a brisk pace. And United invariably used to prevail using the same tactics – be it at home or away, be it in Premier League or FA Cup or Champions League. It’s difficult to find another example of such a rivalry where one team has dominated another – using the same tactics time and again. Last year, Arsenal seemed so much occupied with the 8-2 hammering of 2011-12 season that that their first priority appeared to be avoiding a big defeat! But that was last year. Footballing equation between these two teams has changed a great deal in just a year. Arsenal, the perennial bridesmaid in last few seasons, have become a serious title contenders this year, whereas United, usually among the top two teams in the league, find themselves in the middle of the table.
In last few seasons there has been some gulf in the quality of these two sides and this time around it’s no different. Only change is, United and Arsenal seems to have traded places. Barring the opening day hiccup, Arsenal has been the team to beat in the league so far. The 2nd half of the last season had already given some indication of the quality that this Arsenal side possesses. On top of that they have added a real gem in Ozil and Flamini could already be the most value for money player in the league. One thing that is beginning to stand out about this Arsenal team is their mental toughness, a lack of which has been a hallmark of Arsenal teams in recent past. This Arsenal team has found that knack to win matches and they are flexible also to use horses for courses to get the desired result. Their 2 matches against Dortmund are a case in point. In the home game at Emirates, they tried to be aggressive and were sucker punched by Dortmund. In the away leg, it was apparent that they had learnt their lesson; they were patient against Dortmund, wore them down and then stuck a sucker punch. Similarly, against Liverpool they brilliantly isolated Liverpool’s attackers from their midfield.
United on the other hand has had the same squad that won the league last year by a comfortable margin. But have lost, arguably the best manager in the game. And the results are there for everyone to see. David Moyes is still finding his feet and if the recent run of unbeaten in 8 consecutive matches is any indication, it appears that he is beginning to settle down and so is United. But still, there is a long way to go and a game against Arsenal will be a good yardstick. A win against Arsenal will indeed confirm the ascendancy of United and may possibly make them outside contenders for the league. A loss on the other hand will leave them 11 points adrift of the league leaders, which may not be insurmountable at this stage of the season but a herculean task nonetheless.
How will United approach this game?
There are two approaches that United can take. One is to be adventurous and play to their strength of wing play and play with two wingers. That will stretch Arsenal’s full backs and can possibly cause Arsenal to lose their shape a bit. But at the same time, this leaves United vulnerable through the middle. So that means United will either have to play Rooney on the wing or Rooney will have to drop a little deeper in the midfield. This could mean that United will end up playing one of their better performers of the season a position that he doesn’t prefer. Other approach is to play a compact midfield to try and nullify Arsenal’s strength in the middle of the park and try and break quickly on the counter. Sir Alex has often used this approach to a great effect. I feel United will go with tried and tested formula of playing a compact shape with a packed midfield and we might see one of either Cleverly or Jones in the midfield to provide some energy to the midfield. For United the plan at least is well known, it all depends on how they execute it.
How will Arsenal approach this game?
Given the season Arsenal have had so far, Arsenal may not need to change and try too many things to win this game. It possibly presents one of the best opportunities for Arsenal to beat United at Old Trafford and send a strong signal to the rest of the league. Arsenal have to guard themselves against two things – one is complacency, as they might be thinking that this United team is there for taking and they just need to turn up and the game will be won and two, though sounds exactly opposite, they should not give United undue respect because of the past results they have had at OT.
What does form guide suggest?
Arsenal has had a very good season so far. In fact if one considers the entire 2013, they have been the team of the calendar year 2013 so far. They are coming on the back of some very good performances against Liverpool at home and Dortmund away. United on the other hand seem to be getting their act together after an indifferent start to life under David Moyes. But this Arsenal team will pose a serious challenge and United may have to pay their best game so far to beat them. Form guide clearly favours Arsenal.
Key players to watch out: Aaron Ramsey for Arsenal and Robin Van Persie for Manchester United.
Prediction: I expect a very close game with United just about to nudge Arsenal by a score of 2-1