Today we travel to Old Trafford looking for our first win there since 2006. Since that time we’ve had our fair share of chances, but foolish errors and predictably biased refereeing decisions have conspired to undermine us. However, today we go there with the most threadbare squad I can ever remember under Arsene Wenger. If you are traveling to Manchester today, and own a pair of football boots, I’d recommend you bring them because there’s a fair chance that Wenger might pick you. Unless you’re a regular reader of the Young Guns website, you will probably see a few faces on the bench today that you’ve never seen before. It’s possible that one or two of them may even start.
However, if the injury situation resolves itself in our favor, we can actually piece together a decent team. Ideal circumstances would allow Wenger to name the following starting XI:
Arshavin, RVP, Walcott
Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Jenkinson
It’s far from the lineup we’d like to see against United, but it’s vastly superior to the one we could see if any of those players are unavailable. There are doubts surrounding Vermaelen and Koscielny. There are rumors that Sagna is ill. Rosicky was barely fit for the midweek match, so we shouldn’t assume he can start. If we were to lose all of those players, or even some combination of that group, it would be virtually impossible to name a starting XI using only first team players.
Francis Coquelin is back from the U20 World Cup and there are already indications that he might start today. That could be scary to some fans, but is it really any worse than the alternative? Last season, it would’ve been Denilson playing for the suspended Song and injured Diaby. He might be more experienced than Coquelin, but I’d venture a guess that we’ll see more determination from the young frenchman.
Today might be the day we see Oxlade-Chamberlain make his debut for Arsenal. It sounds strange to suggest that he would see his first action at Old Trafford, but necessity is the mother of invention as they say. Szczesny made his first appearance there, and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas made his one and only appearance in the Premier League last season against Chelsea for some reason. So it’s not beyond Wenger to throw the youngsters in at the deep end.
It’s hard to know who will start for United. In the recent past, Ferguson has played a conservative game-plan against us. He’s packed the midfield, tried to break up our passing game, and attempted to hit us on the counter. To be fair, it’s worked pretty well. But I think he might change his approach today. I’m sure he smells blood in the water and he might be inclined to have a go at us. I’m guessing he’d prefer to send out his most attacking side and this might be the match where he feels he can get away with it. To some extent that could play into our hands. We haven’t been firing on all cylinders offensively this season, but our counter attack still has punch. I actually wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be a very open, higher scoring match than anyone expected.
We have two things going for us today: momentum and diminished expectations. Wednesday’s win will have lifted everyone’s spirit and removed some of the tension that has been hanging over Arsenal since the last day of last season when we knew we’d face a Champions League playoff. But maybe more importantly, we face Manchester United today with absolutely no expectation that we can get a result. Almost every match preview that I’ve read has focused on how badly we’ll get beaten. There hasn’t even been a suggestion that we could draw the match, let alone win it. I’m sure the players know that’s the case, and they should be able to play without anxiety.
Last season we beat United at home, but only after our title bid had already fallen short. It was a match that essentially meant nothing to Arsenal and everything to United. We looked relaxed and confident on that day and deserved our victory. Perhaps there will be a similar approach to today’s match. I’m not suggesting that we have nothing riding on the game. Obviously it’s still too early in the season to write off our title chances. But considering the state of the squad, I think we’d be forgiven for coming home having suffered a heavy defeat. Knowing that’s the case, there’s no reason for the player to be fearful.
I think there’s every reason to believe we will lose today. We are missing too many key players. We’re still out of sync offensively. And United looked very impressive last weekend when they destroyed Sp*rs at Old Trafford.
But there are reasons for optimism as well. The defense looks better than we’ve seen in a long time. If Vermaelen and Koscienly start, combined with the growing legend that is Szczesny, I have some confidence that we can keep them out. Our young ‘keeper is proving that he was well worth the hype. United’s new young ‘keeper, on the other hand, has looked far from assured. And that’s another reason for optimism.
If I were Arsene Wenger, I’d be imploring my players to shoot on sight today. We may not be able to get our slick passing game going, but that’s not the only way to score goals. When a ‘keeper is playing without confidence, the best thing to do is test him early and often. We’ve seen it done many times against us in recent seasons. Crowd him on set-pieces. Get the ball out wide and send in plenty of crosses. Shoot every chance you get. If we can rattle De Gea early, maybe he’ll be the one to make the killer mistake that costs his team the points.
I think I’ll actually enjoy today’s game. Since no one expects us to win, we can only be pleasantly surprised. United won’t get any great praise from beating us under the circumstances. But if we manage to get a result against them, combined with the result in midweek, it would be a massive kickstart to our season. Any time you head into a match with nothing to lose and everything to gain it’s usually enjoyable. United might ruin that theory today, but we’ll just wait and see.
And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get a refereeing decision to go our way at Old Trafford. Maybe not.
Here’s to 3 unexpected points.
Come On You Gunners!