Manchester United Second Leg Preview

Arsene Wenger must get it right if Arsenal want to make it to the final

Three years from now, we might be celebrating Arsene Wenger’s genius once again. The Gunners might have won everything there is to win. We might be looking at the dawn of a new golden generation. And if that is the case, then we will all be euphoric three years from now. But it’s not three years from now. It’s today. And today, we have a chance to go to the Champions League final. It might be a little too soon for these players to do it, but we’ll know that soon enough.

The real question for tomorrow isn’t whether we play a 4-4-2, or defend well, or finish off our chances. The real question is whether our current crop of talented young players are good enough today to compete with the best on the biggest stage. I don’t want to take anything away from their accomplishments during the second half of this season, but the fact remains that we have beaten Roma and Villareal on our way to the semi-finals. We beat almost no one of note on our way to the FA Cup semi-finals. In both cases, when we came up against top quality competition, we were found wanting. Now we have a chance to show that we can compete at that level. It will be a massive test of character and ability and possibly a litmus test for the future. As supporters we will be on the rack for 90 minutes or more. There’s almost no scenario where we will feel secure until the final whistle blows. But for the players, let’s hope they see it as a chance to shine, rather than an opportunity to fail spectacularly.

Tactics will play a part tomorrow. Alex Ferguson has already hinted that he will be playing to counter attack. While United’s counter attack can be lethal, I hope that’s the approach they take. Arsenal grow in confidence when we have possession and get the ball forward. Our players need time on the ball to come into the match. If United let us come at them, then they will merely provide the opportunity for us to build genuine belief. Granted, they can score a counter-attacking goal in the blink of an eye, but better to worry about that rather than watching them pin us back into our own half for the first 45 minutes.

But if we are going to progress tomorrow, the onus is really on Wenger to make his actions match his words. He talks of “magnificent” performances, and “playing with joy” and “enjoying our style of football” but when he’s said these things in the past, his tactics have often failed to live up to his rhetoric. We MUST play a 4-4-2 tomorrow. It’s that simple. We need our best players in their BEST positions on the pitch. Nasri left. Cesc deeper in the center of midfield. That’s how you win big games. It’s an old expression and a tired cliche, but you win with the team that got you there. Wenger could have been punished more violently in the first leg for his flawed tactics. But somehow we left Old Trafford trailing by a solitary goal. It’s up to the boss now to get it right. He must give the players a chance to play the way he says they will.

I watched Arsene’s pre-match press conference and it was a little bizarre. He went through the entire event with a Cheshire Cat grin on his face. It was as if he was keeping some massive secret. I’m not sure what to make of that, but he certainly looked confident and repeated many times that he believes we are going to do it. I don’t share his optimism, but I’m happy to see that he’s confident.

It was impossible to read much from his press conference but there are some things we can glean from his responses. Van Persie is back in the team and a massive boost to our attack. His form since January has been indifferent, but he has the ability to score with his left foot at any moment. More importantly, he gives Wenger greater reason to play the 4-4-2. Mikael Silvestre will be in the team as well, although he still has a slight problem and that leads me to believe that he will yield his starting role to Djourou. We also know that Carlos Vela is in the team. Wenger can be a very unpredictable manager and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vela play tomorrow after an excellent showing against Portsmouth. But thinking like that is what hurt us in the first leg. Wenger made decisions for that game based on our romp over hapless ‘Boro. You simply CAN NOT compare anything that happens in a leage game against teams like ‘Boro or Portsmouth to what will happen in a CL semi-final against United. That thinking is naive at best.

Tomorrow’s team should look something like this:

Ade – RVP
Nasri – Song – Cesc – Theo
Gibbs – Silvestre – Toure – Sagna
Frankly, it’s a strong lineup other than our well-chronicled defensive woes. Short of Arshavin, it’s our best midfield and strike partnership. In fact, I’m not sure that this midfield and strike partnership have lined up together once this season. From an attacking standpoint, it’s the best we’ve got. If we can’t trouble United with this side, on our own pitch, then we really don’t deserve to be going to the final.
Now, I’m not assuming that Wenger will start those eleven players. There’s the outside chance that he could suffer a severe blow to the head and play a 4-2-3-1 again. He could play a five man midfield differently organized. Either option makes little sense. He might choose to play someone ahead of Song or even RVP or Ade. But those scenarios all seem unlikely at this point. The time for clever or cagey tactics is over. Arsenal’s motivation should be simple: go score goals. Score as many as you can. Get four or five. Get six if you can. Because we may well need every one of them to advance. It’s really that simple. We’re not likely to keep a clean sheet, which means that three goals are the minimum requirement. And we’re not getting three goals with a 4-2-3-1 or any other unorthodox formation.
I do see us having more of the ball tomorrow. I don’t know that we can be as dominant as United were at Old Trafford, but I imagine that we will have more possession and create problems for their defense. In the 4-4-2 our wide players really flourish and I do think that United will see a different Theo and a different Nasri than they saw last week. It’s possible that it will catch them by surprise. I also think it will force United to keep more players in their half. I don’t believe that Anderson and Tevez can get forward like they did in the first leg if we cause them problems on the wing. Their midfielders will be forced to help the Evra and O’Shea. It may lead Ferguson to keep Tevez on the bench and play an extra holding midfielder, but considering how successful they were last week, it would be somewhat crazy to change a thing.
It’s unfortunate that Ferdinand is fit to start, but that’s life. Ade will have to cause Vidic and Ferdinand problems in order to create space for Van Persie. And Cesc will really have to step up in this game. He’s the captain and the talisman and his creativity sparks the attack. We should be attacking with pace from the first whistle and Cesc’s the man who must set the tempo. For us to win this game, Cesc must see a lot of the ball in the center of the park. He must release Theo with a chance to run behind Evra and try the ball over the top to Ade. Adebayor must make himself a presence against United’s two big center halves. If they’re worried about Theo’s pace and Adebayor getting behind them, then some space should open up between Evra and the center of the defense. That’s the only way that Van Persie will come into the game. He must exploit that gap in the defense.
Nasri will have to rediscover some attacking panache. Let’s not forget, he netted twice against United in our victory earlier in the season. He is our one midfielder in this game that really can score from range and he should try to test VDS as often as possible. You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. If Nasri is in good attacking form then we have attacking options on both wings and that makes us very dangerous.
But no matter what Ade and Cesc and Nasri do, this is Theo Walcott’s game. His form lately has been nothing short of scintillating. He’s stronger and faster than ever and he seems to have better ball control these days. His finishing and final ball still leave something to be desired, but he showed against Villareal that he can get it done. Last year, he nearly put is in the semi-final with his breathtaking counter attack and pass to Adebayor for a late goal at Anfield. He repeated the feat this year at Anfield, leaving Liverpool in his wake before passing to Arshavin for what should have been the game-winning goal. He’s more than just a fast player, but his pace really creates a threat that even the best defenders can’t handle. He can unsettle United in this game and force them out of position. The more often Theo is blazing down the wing in this game, the more likely we are to come out ahead. He showed England he’s for real by scoring a hat-trick of goals against Croatia. Against United, he can show the world that he is a star.
The reverberations from this game will be massive. The outcome may impact player movement in the summer. It could have a bearing on who stays, who goes, and who we are able to acquire. It’s really that crucial. But it’s a topic that best deserves attention tomorrow evening. By that time, we will all be either euphoric or inconsolable. I pray it’s the former, while accepting that it may well be the latter.
No one wants to read a depressing Arsenal blog. In writing this entry I worry that I may be too transparent in my doubts about our chances of progressing to the final. If that is the case, I apologize if I’m not deliving the pure Gunners propaganda you crave. But sometimes being a supporter is about realistic expectations. I am also a fan of the Chicago Bears in the NFL. A few seasons ago they played the mighty Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. I was excited to watch the game and hopeful about the outcome. But in my heart, I realized that we were unlikely to emerge victorious. Then the Bears scored a touchdown on the opening kickoff and my expectations were cruelly raised. From there, it was easy to be crushed by the inevitable loss.
I only pass this along to explain that I do not want to allow my support for the Gunners to outweigh my ability to reason. Logic and reason suggest that Arsenal will not get it done against United. We were second best by miles in the first leg, they have all the experience, our defense is shambolic and our best striker was pitiful in the away leg. United have the clear upper hand and are the defending champions. When you look at it from a distance, it’s really not smart to be too hopeful about this game. And that’s why I HATE this game so much. Because I AM hopeful. Because I BELIEVE that we are going to shock the world. Because I want it so bad that I won’t sleep tonight in anticipation of the game. I want to push away all the indicators, all the reasons, all the evidence and just scream out that Arsenal are going to destroy United at the Emirates. Football is unlike anything else in life. It leads you to feel strongly about something, even when it’s obviously not smart to feel that way. But I wouldn’t change that for one minute.
We get a chance to beat United today. That’s really the thing that Wenger must impress upon the team. We get a chance to beat United. We’re not beaten yet. We’re not out. They’ve only done half the job. And if they think they can just show up and eliminate us, then they have another thing coming. That’s how we need to approach this game. Hopefully, that’s the spirit we’ll see on the pitch.
I’m so excited by this game I find it hard to write anything without slipping into hyperbole and cliches. It’s going to be gut wrenching to watch, but whatever you do, try to enjoy the match. Hopefully there will be a final in our near future. But if the outcome doesn’t go our way tomorrow, then we can say goodbye to meaningful Arsenal football for another season.
I’m going to do something I haven’t done in a long time. I’m going to predict the outcome. And I’m not going to rely on any logic to do it. I think we’re going to win the game 3-1. I’m not sure how it gets there. I don’t care if we score late to qualify, or conceed late to make in more nerve-wracking. I just think we’re going to play some of the best football of the season tonight. I think we’ll see our best possible XI on the pitch and that’s something we haven’t seen often enough. I think that Arsenal owe Barcelona for our ill-fated final against them. I think that we’re on a collision course with Thierry Henry after dispatching Robert Pires. And I think the odds are always against a team repeating as Champions League victors. United probably think that they have this tie in the bag and we’re going to show them how wrong they are. Maybe by the time they wake up and realize it’s slipping away, it will already be too late. Whatever happens, against all logic, reason and evidence, I think the final will be 3-1 to the Arsenal. Now please excuse me while I take a large dose of horse tranquilizers to sleep an hour or two before kickoff.
Whatever superstitions you have, I really hope they work!
Come On You Gunners!

About Yankee Gunner

Loyal Arsenal Supporter, Obscure Television Personality
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