Just two days until the match of the season
It’s not likely that we’ll be playing in the Champions League final. It’s important that I keep reiterating the difficulty of the task ahead of us. We must approach Tuesday’s match as a chance to show that we can play with United. If we happen to get a result, that’s a bonus. But given the performance we put in at Old Trafford, anything beyond aspirations of competitiveness are unwarranted.
I said this yesterday, but it bears repeating. If you have any doubt about the challenge that we face then consider this; if we are somehow able to score two unanswered goals against United on Tuesday, then the tie would still be hanging in the balance. Even with a 2-0 lead in the 89th minute, a single goal would eliminate us from the tournament. We must win by two clear goals on Tuesday and I can assure you that United will not just claim to be audacious, they will actually come to the Emirates intending to score. As principled as Arsene Wenger can be about his football, Alex Ferguson will certainly want to show Wenger what audaciouness means on Tuesday. United know that an away goal really puts us to the sword and he won’t hesitate to bring the game to us on our own pitch. We must be equally eager to attack and Arsene’s decisions regarding the lineup will be crucial.
My biggest concern is that Wenger will want a 1-0 result. It’s hard to see us getting three goals and if we conceed then that’s what we’ll need. Consequently, Wenger might believe that the match requires caution first. If he believes that our best chance to progress is on penalties, then he might line us up cautiously on Tuesday. He might believe that we should play for a 0-0 until the hour mark and then turn the screw. If we can nick a goal in the last half-hour it puts us into extra time. That would be a fatal philosophy. No matter how cautiously we approach the game, we will always have vulnerability at the back. If we invite United to attack us, it’s asking for problems. Without revisiting tired topics, we are best we we control the game in midfield.
Barcelona put on a clinic in possession football on Saturday at the Bernabeu. They used high pressure and sharp passing to control the game and demolish Real Madrid. That’s the gameplan we need to employ. These young Gunners looked so good against Portsmouth because they played with joy and enthusiasm. When we’re on the back foot, we look like a team enduring torture. Even Wenger said, ”Football is enjoyment first, no matter what is at stake. You can only play well if you enjoy what you do and enjoy the level of the game, to enjoy the game we love.”
Rather than doing an entire United preview today, I’ll leave you with quotes from Wenger and Walcott. First, here’s a quotation from the boss that either excites you or worries you depending upon your interpretation.
”We looked more comfortable with 4-4-2 and it looked more threatening, but it also depends on who is available. However, when you play [Theo] Walcott on the right you play more 4-3-2-1. He is a winger not a midfielder, so you have to balance the side to be a bit more defensive. Also, when [Cesc] Fabregas plays behind the striker, the striker looks to be a little isolated so you have to get the balance of the team right.”
This is simultaneously worrying and comforting. Wenger clearly acknowledges our aptitude in the 4-4-2 formation, but hedges his position by noting that it’s effectiveness is dependent upon the available personnel. He further qualifies our use of the 4-4-2 by suggesting that Theo’s attacking play necessitates a more defensive setup. I think he’s wrong on both counts. Firstly, we can play the 4-4-2 no matter who is available. We might not have our first choice strike partnership, but the 4-4-2 gets us playing more in the opposition half than our own. Secondly, Theo’s attacking play forces the opposing right winger and right-back to stay out of our half. They get so preoccupied with Walcott’s pace that they can’t get involved in the attack. That only serves to relieve pressure from our defense. As the game wears on, his pace proves a greater and greater threat.
Wenger does acknowledge, however, that Cesc’s more advanced position leaves the striker too isolated. He couldn’t be more right on that point. But he failed to mention that it also leaves Cesc looking out of place. Against a side like United, it’s best that our players get the opportunity to play in their natural position. I really hope that this quote isn’t the early sign of an excuse to play a five man midfield again. It worries me that Wenger might be leaning towards the five man midfield. I really believe that he’d love the game to be 0-0 at 60 or 70 minutes and then revert to the 4-4-2 knowing that a solitary goal gets us to extra time. Unfortunately, I think that a five man midfield actually makes us more vulnerable, not less. I think we would probably see less of the ball, give United more opportunity to settle into the match, and likely allow a goal because of that.
More than anything, you just hope that the players have a sense of the meaning of this game and are looking forward to playing. Last week, it didn’t look like any of them wanted to be at Old Trafford. That’s a shame. The best players always want the biggest challenges. So I was thrilled to read a quote from Theo that leads me to believe we might have the right attitude heading into this match.
”Now we’re all buzzing and we have to believe that we can do it, It’s the biggest game of our careers on our own pitch, in front of our own fans. That will be crucial – and we can’t wait to get going.”
Now that’s how you approach a big game. Go into it buzzing with excitement and looking forward to getting on the pitch. I hope Theo speaks for the whole team when he says that’s how they’re approaching the match.
Full United preview tomorrow. Like Theo, I’m buzzing already.