Guts. Character. Steel. Ruthlessness. Some of the words which have been used to describe Arsenal’s performances this season. Strange? Yes. Surprising? No. Its strange because this time last year, the players’ attitudes and mentality were questioned, with Arsène Wenger’s side struggling to consistently impose their attractive style on opponents, which also explains why the Gunners were brilliant but only in patches, last season. However, Arsenal’s renaissance wouldn’t be so surprising because such profligacy last season didn’t go unnoticed at London Colney, and after the frustrating 2-1 loss to Tottenham at White Hart Lane in March, the Arsenal coaching crew led by Arsène and Steve Bould decided it was time to go back to basics, putting more emphasis on stifling opponents at the back, while launching ruthless counter attacks whenever the opportunity arose. It took a great deal of discipline to achieve success, but the Gunners executed this approach almost impeccably, for the business end of last season and they were rewarded with a Champions League slot. Job done.
The main aim of Arsenal going back to the drawing board wasn’t to please critics. In the thoughts of Wenger, lied a strategy to build the sort of confidence that would see the Gunners reclaim their status as the League’s most balanced team; a feat the Frenchman often achieved in his 1st eight years in London, and although Aston Villa
threatened to ruin all the details the North-London side had been paying attention to, Arsenal responded quickly from the set-back and have since gone on a blistering run that has seen them pass stern tests against Tottenham, Napoli, Liverpool and most recently, Borussia Dortmund. Those victories have seen the current EPL leaders play beautiful football once again, while also shutting out the opposition, and that’s all down to a collective confidence in each of the players’ abilities. The Gunners however, have one more task just before the international break, which is to maintain their impressive form against EPL title holders, Manchester United on Sunday.
It doesn’t take the brain of a genius to realise how much intensity has disappeared in recent games involving Arsenal and Manchester United, especially when you consider how the pendulum has swung in United’s favour in the last few years. A decade ago, matches between these two teams were too close to call, irrespective of who was at home or on the road. Well, that could be coming back once again. Both sides are in positions where they can’t afford to lose. For United, the objective would be to have closed the gap between them and Arsenal to five points at full-time, which should surely kick-start their title defence. For the Gunners, the aim would be to continue their excellent away record since March, and end a nightmare spell at the Theatre of Dreams. Spine tingling for observers, nerve-racking for the fans.
The Ramsey Factor.
In a season that was meant to examine the impact of Arsenal’s summer acquisitions like Mathieu Flamini and Mesut Ozil, Welshman Aaron Ramsey has completely stolen the show. He had scored thrice this season, when the Gunners didn’t have any signings to highlight their new found wealth, and has now added eight more since the arrival of the two renowned midfielders, while also assisting five goals, with two of those going to Arsenal’s creative hub, Ozil. The transformation of the 22-year old Welsh International is still perplexing. He was missing gilt-edged chances and easily surrendering possession this time last year, but is now the complete package in midfield, with high tackling, passing and productive numbers. This isn’t good form, this is quality meeting confidence.
From the start of the season till yesterday, Ramsey benefited from the nonchalance of Arsenal’s midfield opponents. He’s taken full advantage of being neglected by the opposition for the likes of Ozil and Santi Cazorla, with his silent penetration that stems from the off the ball runs he makes. His fantastic engine has enabled him to balance his game, knowing when to support Mikel Arteta, as well as when to offer an outlet in attack. On Sunday however, its almost certain David Moyes would look to keep the box to box midfielder quiet, by assigning Phil Jones to man-mark him. This is a strategy which Sir Alex used in tight games like the 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu in February, and also in last season’s 2-0 victory over Everton, where Jones was once again assigned to track the runs of Fellaini. The man-marking approach was also evident in the goalless draw between Arsenal and Everton in April, where Marouane Fellaini was tasked with nullifying the threat of Jack Wilshere. It will be interesting to see how Wenger and Ramsey respond to this possible tactical ploy and I won’t put it past the Arsenal boss to pull out something off his sleeves.
Other key battles on Sunday will include Koscielny tracking the intelligent movement of RVP, Wayne Rooney denying Arteta space to build attacks from Arsenal’s defensive third, Michael Carrick covering the lines Ozil would be looking to exploit, Kieran Gibbs matching the pace and width Antonio Valencia provides and Nemanja Vidic going head to head with Olivier Giroud. Scintillating to say the least and certainly one for the purists.
Predicted line ups:
Manchester United: De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra; Valencia, Carrick, Jones,
Januzaj; Rooney, RVP.
Subs: Lindegaard, Smalling, Buttner, Fellaini, Kagawa, Young, Hernandez.
Arsenal: Szczesny; Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Flamini; Ramsey,
Ozil, Cazorla; Giroud.
Subs: Fabianski, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Monreal, Rosicky, Gnabry, Bendtner.
There was nothing between both sides on numerous occasions a couple of years ago. The games were decided by the smallest of margins, usually a moment of sheer brilliance from either side. They hated each other too. Defeat wasn’t an option for Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira. Both would do anything to emerge victorious on the day and ensure only one of the teams go home the happier side. These days, United have gotten more joy over their London counterparts with 8-2’s and little boy tales. Arsenal on the other hand, are on an exciting upward curve and in the best possible shape to get their pound of flesh. Like the good old days, its too close to call. Both sides begin a battle that won’t be won this Sunday.
A pulsating 1-1 stalemate.