So the first of two very challenging away games is upon us, a trip to Old Trafford to play Manchester United.
It’s always a big game, even if we haven’t been as much of a threat to them as we used to be, but there’s no doubt some of the edge went out of this fixture – linked directly to our inability to maintain a title challenge in recent seasons. Today though, there’s an edge and that, of course, is because of the Dutch Skunk.
There’s the whole thing around his departure, which I kind of touched on yesterday. It’s easy to yearn for his talent but easier still to forget just how he orchestrated the whole move. He talked of respect and all that nonsense, it was just fluff to make himself look/feel good. That’s very much in the past now but, for me, the edge comes from the fact he’s a great player in incredible form. He’s got 7 league goals already for United this season and has simply carried on where he left off at Arsenal, but in a minginger shade of red.
On yesterday’s Arsecast I suggested to Amy Lawrence that perhaps familiarity might be a positive for us, that our defenders, having worked closely with van Persie, might be better off and be more aware of how he operates. I think ‘clutching at straws’ was the phrase she used which means Arsene is also clutching. He says:
They know him as well because they have played against him in training. In the game it’s a question of timing, how quickly will they read it as well as he reads it?
Maybe it’s a stretch to think it might make any difference, but having watched van Persie all to easily make fools of Ryan Shawcross (I know, I know) and Gary Cahill in recent weeks, I don’t think it’s too much to hope that Mertesacker and Vermaelen aren’t as gullible to his quick-step shuffle in the box. It’s also worth noting that he is not their only danger and it would be silly to focus entirely on him. Rooney, Nani and Valencia are all capable too, but inevitably play tends to orbit the most in-form players and we all know who that is.
From our point of view the only real decision the manager has to make is who plays on the right hand side of the front three. I suspect he’ll go for Aaron Ramsey, looking to use the Welshman to retain possession as he has in other big away games, such as City away. It hasn’t always worked but with a more traditional centre-forward in Olivier Giroud, rather than the erratic, often confusing Gervinho, it might be a decent idea.
His option, of course, is Theo Walcott who, if he’d scored a hat-trick in normal time would be a certainty, but after extra time and 120 minutes of energy sapping football on Tuesday night he might well feel it’s just too much to ask. As well as that, the bench isn’t likely to be choc-a-bloc with attacking options (despite confidence boosting midweek stuff from Chamakh and Arshavin), and he might feel Theo is a better substitute than starter today.
Where I think we might have the advantage today is in midfield. I don’t think there’s a much better technical trio than Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla, the three I think will start today. United are without Kagawa and have been playing Rooney in a deeper role behind the striker. Carrick and Cleverly are good players but I’d fancy our chances in there today, and that’s taking into account the fact that Wilshere is not really going to be 100% fit for a while yet.
I wonder if a team as confident as United, from an attacking point of view, will make the effort to nullify Cazorla the way others have in recent games. If he’s given more freedom to play, I think he’ll have a big impact. On the left I think Lukas Podolski’s first job today is to ensure that Andre Santos is given the necessary cover and help from a defensive point of view. That we go into this game with the best defensive record in the league is a testament to the way the team, as a whole, has worked this season. It’s not just been a case of leaving defending to the defenders, from front to back we’ve been disciplined and that has to continue today.
If a team like Norwich team can take full advantage of a couple of moments where we’re not fully switched on then you can be quite sure United will. That said, the attacking side of the German’s game has been a little lacking in recent weeks, perhaps hampered slightly by the ankle knock he’s carrying, but a return to form in that regard today would be more than welcome.
Overall I think there’s no reason why, if we don’t make silly mistakes, this isn’t a game we can get something from. We don’t win often at Old Trafford and perhaps three points is too much to ask but we’re in far better shape than when we went there last season (van Persie missed a penalty, remember?!), and there’s surely enough motivation and confidence in this team to make life difficult for our hosts. Smells of a draw but I’ll hope for a bit better.
After Tom’s midweek epic on the live blog I’m back on duty today with full live coverage of today’s game. That means up to the second text updates which you can follow on your browser, tablet, phone etc. It’s newly optimised for mobile too, so check back here around noon for another post with all the information and team news, or simply bookmark the default live blog page and updates will begin automatically.
Also, if you fancy betting on the game, Paddy Power will give you a £20 free bet if you sign up and bet £10. Simply click here to register.
Right then, it’s going to be a good one. Time for breakfast, then football. Come on Arsenal!