Manchester United First Leg Preview

“This is the moment. This is the moment we have waited for.”

-Arsene Wenger, April 28, 2009
Manchester United. They are easily Arsenal’s biggest nemisis during the Arsene Wenger years. We have celebrated crucial victories over United and suffered crushing defeats during that time. It’s possible that we will play the two most important games against United in our club’s history in the next week.
Tomorrow’s match will be nerve wracking for supporters and players alike. And there’s no denying that it’s a massive test facing Arsenal. Whether it’s a test that these players can pass will be decided soon enough. But Arsene Wenger has clearly made it the mantra for his players that the team who plays the best defense will prevail in this tie. It’s an idea that should chill you to the bone but it’s probably true. We will need to find a defensive stability tomorrow that has been absent recently. While keeping a clean sheet might literally be impossible at Old Trafford, we certainly cannot afford to give up three or four goals. We can’t allow United to kill this tie before we get a chance to play at the Emirates.
Wenger’s belief that defense will carry the day stands in stark contrast to his claim that we will be audacious tomorrow. According to the boss we will go to Old Trafford looking for goals. He has told us before that we will be adventurous and try to get goals in an away leg. He told us that story before our trips to Roma and Villareal. In both instances Arsenal were far from aggressive and the team selection didn’t exactly support an attacking style of play. Between the two matches we managed to score one goal and that was created out of nothing from a sensational individual effort. I’m sure that Arsene wants his club to score an away goal or two, but whether he has the courage to setup the team to score remains to be seen.
Interestingly, the team selection seems pretty obvious to me. You can bet that Adebayor will start as the lone striker with Nasri, Diaby, Song, Cesc and Theo playing in a five man midfield. In defense, I’d put my money on Gibbs, Djourou, Toure and Sagna. The only real question is whether Nasri will play in the same holding role he practiced against ‘Boro, or will he be deployed in his usual position on the left. While Wenger has hinted that he liked Nasri in the holding role, Diaby doesn’t seem like a good candidate to play on the left. Since we have no other suitable options for the left side of midfield, I expect that Diaby and Song will play the holding roles.
This is no time for dishonesty, so I have to disclose that I absolutely hate this formation and lineup. I just haven’t seen any evidence from our recent play that having a second holding midfielder improves our defensive stability. Against Liverpool we played this 4-2-3-1 formation and we looked exceedingly frail at the back while simultaneously failing to have a cutting edge in attack. The really depressing thing about this formation is that it seems to adversely effect almost all of our creative players. Only Theo has flourished in this setup. Adebayor has looked isolated, Nasri has been missing in action and Cesc has appeared a bit uncomfortable pushed up the field. It would be a delight to see Eduardo or even Bendtner start tomorrow in place of Diaby but that’s simply not going to happen. It’s going to be the five man midfield and the team are going to have to show an affinity for it that we haven’t seen so far.
Wenger suggested in his pre-match press conference that the match tomorrow would be a spectacle. With a crowded midfield, that’s less likely to be the case. Chelsea clogged the midfield today against Barcelona and, while they had almost no possession, the crowded midfield seemed to take the fluency out of the match. We could see something similar tomorrow. If you look at a chart of player positions from the Liverpool game, almost all of our players spent most of the match in their own half. My nightmare for tomorrow’s game is that we get pinned deep in our own half, content to merely counter attack. I just can’t see our current defense holding up to 90 minutes of United pressure. We need to create pressure in midfield, keep possession, and prevent United from running at our defense at full speed.
I’ll be curious to see United’s starting lineup tomorrow, but I’d guess that Berbatov and Rooney will start up front, with Anderson, Scholes, Carrick and Ronaldo starting in midfield. I would be relieved to see Tevez on the subs bench as I think he poses a much bigger challenge for our defense than the out of form Berbatov. The only question mark in defense is whether young Rafael will be tipped to start ahead of O’Shea. Rafael scored a wonder goal against us in our victory over United earlier in the season and he’s looked like a very talented young player at times this season.
Either way, the key matchups will be Adebayor against the talented duo of Ferdinand and Vidic and Theo against struggling Patrice Evra. I said it yesterday and I’ll say it again; Theo’s performance may well decide this tie. Even Ferguson himself has agreed that Theo could be the danger man for United. Theo’s pace might force Evra to stay back in his own half rather than joining the attack. Moreover, if he routinely gets the best of Evra then United’s defense will be pulled out of position creating more space for Adebayor in the box. It’s a matchup we simply must dominate.
I had a great feeling about our chances before the trips to Rome and Spain. Much to my surprise and dimay, we played relatively poorly in both matches. Tonight, I have a very bad feeling about our trip to Manchester, so conversely, that should mean we’re set for a sublime performance. United grabbed five goals at the weekend and looked completely unstoppable in the second half. Granted, they were playing the defensively challenged Sp*rs, but it was frightening to watch. They pushed Sp*rs deep into their own half and refused to let them get the ball past midfield. It reminded me of the way Barca play in La Liga. They pressured the ball high up the field and prevented Sp*rs from stringing passes together. Without any possession Sp*rs started to look completely exhausted from the constant defending. Given our current personnel, we can’t allow that to happen. There’s going to be a lot of pressure on Diaby and Song to maintain possession, but even more importantly, to distribute quickly and positively when they do get the ball away from United.
Our last two big games were unsettling from a defensive standpoint. Against Chelsea we couldn’t handle the simplest long ball and against Liverpool we couldn’t handle anything. Our defensive performance against Liverpool is still fresh in my mind and we have allowed an astonishing number of goals in the games where Silvestre has started in defense. We can only hope that he does not start tomorrow. One of my biggest concerns is that we were leading against Chelsea and leading multiple times against Liverpool but could not maintain our advantage. If we manage to get in front tomorrow, we simply must find a way to make the lead stick.
I rate us as massive underdogs tomorrow in case you can’t tell from my analysis. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think we can pull it off. I know that this team is capable of getting a decent result at Old Trafford. Yesterday I lsited some of the things that I thought we had to do in order to win the game. I won’t reiterate those points here. But the one advantage we might have tomorrow is our desire. United have won it all. They’ve had the glory. These Gunners haven’t tasted that. Cesc hasn’t won this trophy. Ade hasn’t won anything. Neither have Nasri, Theo, Song, Diaby, etc. They might be young, but professionals live for the chance at glory and tomorrow they can take a big step towards getting some of their own. If United are the least bit complacent or overconfident, hopefully our hunger will carry the day.
Remeber the start of last season? What made it so special was the incredible desire they team showed. They celebrated every goal and every win like they were proving the critics wrong. That chip on their shoulder brought out the best in every player. This season we started like we had already won something. Like we were owed victories. Instead of playing like the underdogs, we played with arrogant nonchalance. That cost us a chance at the league title. Fortunately, we rediscovered our fighting spirit in time to save our European campaign. Tomorrow more than ever, we must play like underdogs. We must win every 50/50 ball. We must contest every shot and close down every attacker. We must run hard for 90 minutes and concentrate on the finer points of the game. We must play unselfishly. If every Arsenal player can play like that, then we certainly have a chance to get a result.
Wherever you are, enjoy the match tomorrow. Too often as football fans we deprive ourselves the joy of watching a big game by agonizing over it. My hope for every Arsenal supporter is that you give yourself the chance to celebrate this occassion. There aren’t many games left in the season, so it’s more important than ever to savor what little Arsenal football remains before the summer begins.
Congratulations to Arsenal for reaching the Champions League semi-finals. Now let’s go out and win a place in the final.
Come On You Gunners!

About Yankee Gunner

Loyal Arsenal Supporter, Obscure Television Personality
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