Matches against Manchester United have always been something special. Love them or hate them, Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson have been writers of English football history ever since the last millennium which is extraordinary in a world where managers and coaches can hardly work more than one year at a club.
Arsenal and Manchester United would probably dominate in England in the same way Barcelona and Real do in Spain if espresso-champions like Chelsea and Manchester City didn’t get billionaires for sugar-daddies and made the market go crazy like right after introducing the Bosman rule. In the period between 1997-98 and 2002-03 only Liverpool managed to steal one place in the Top 2 (second place in 2001-02) from Arsenal and Manchester United.
Saturday’s clash between Arsenal and Manchester United at Old Trafford will have a new ingredient, something that we haven’t seen before in the Wenger-Ferguson era. As we all know, our captain, best player and highest goalscorer from last season (let’s use a Dutch word to name him: Verrader) decided to listen a
spoiled brat child within screaming “Manchester United!” and signed for our biggest rival (someone would argue that Spuds deserve that name but their results and ability to choke make them a second-grade-rival) in August. That was the first significant transfer between Wenger’s Arsenal and Ferguson’s United.
In 2012-13 Verrader is the best player, goalscorer and assistant of Manchester United which adds fuel to the flame of our anger. For the first time after 8 years Verrader will face the club that stood behind him during 6,5 seasons ridden with injuries and made him what he is right now – one of the best players in the world and a member of the Footballer of the year shortlist. While he was at Arsenal, it’s not like he was some sort of menace to Manchester United – he scored an equalizer in our first clash at Emirates (we won 2-1 thanks to the last goal Thierry Henry scored in his first spell in Arsenal) and his goals against United from last season were good only for his personal statistic since we lost both matches.
In 1998-99, Arsenal and Manchester United were fighting for the title until the very end with Chelsea close behind. The Gunners had fantastic a defense that was capable of keeping clean sheet in twelve out of fourteen matches between The Boxing Day and 6th April while Manchester United scored goals for fun with an unstoppable attacking duo Dwight Yorke-Andy Cole. Therefore, the Arsenal-Manchester United-rivalry was called “Irresistible Force vs Immovable Object”. Despite the fact Manchester United couldn’t beat us once in 90 minutes in five occasions (Charity Shield – 3:0, Premiership – 3:0, 1:1; FA Cup Semifinals – 0:0, 1:1) we went short in the attempt to retain double – we lost the league by one point and the FA Cup because of Bergkamp’s missed penalty in the last minute of the replay.
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There are a lot of differences between our team and Manchester United now and then but there is one interesting thing: in Saturday’s clash we are going as the team with the best defense in the league (6 goals conceded in 9 games which means we concede every three half-times) while Manchester United, after being beaten by Everton in Week 1 1-0 (Verrader came in as substitute), averaged three goals per game in the next 8 league matches and Ferguson’s side is sitting on top of the list of goals scored.
Now, while everyone talks about Verrader and whether he will celebrate if he scores against us, I’m more worried about his team-mate. Yes, I’m talking about the man that made a lot of people grounding their grandmothers – Wayne Rooney. It is true that we had a lot of problems with Didier Drogba while he was playing for Chelsea but Rooney is the player that I consider as an even bigger menace for us. It’s not just that he celebrated his milestone goals against us, it’s the fact he was responsible for stopping two streaks of our invincibility. First, he scored his first ever goal while still playing for Everton to stop our streak at the 30th match in 2002-03, and two seasons later he was the key player in our 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford that ended our streak created by Les Invincibles. In our humiliating 8-2 defeat last season he scored a hat-trick by scoring two free-kicks and converting a penalty. His energy and non-stop team-work will be a very tough test for our midfielders and they will have to impose themselves since the midfield is the weakest link in the Manchester United formation, especially since Kagawa is injured.
Rooney has formed an excellent partnership with Verrader and that makes our mission at Old Trafford a lot harder task. His team-work and pressure on the opponents’ defense made me say a few years ago that Rooney is the best United defender because he relieves his defense from the pressure of opponents.
Manchester United have scored a lot of goals so far from Verrader’s crosses – from corners and open play. Our full-backs are key to a positive result on Saturday and not just because our left back was our weakest spot in matches against Norwich, Schalke and QPR but also because United will use their flanks with Valencia and Young, helped by full-backs Rafael and Evra that feel much more comfortable in attacking roles than defensive ones, to break our defense. If I were Wenger, I would make the defense either Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen or Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Sagna. The latter sounds better since I don’t know if Vermaelen, with his present form, can exclude Valencia from the game while Sagna is a natural full-back (granted, he is natural right-back) that could make Valencia, an excellent winger that has one big flaw – his left leg, and Rafael less dangerous. In order to do that, our left back needs help from Lukas Podolski.
The German has to be our Rooney in terms of being the first line of our defense given that majority of United’s attacks will go down the right flank. Podolski suffered from Gibbs’ injury almost as much as Gibbs himself. They made a very good partnership on the left side and it seems Podolski can’t produce any goals without our best left back. Mannone will start again which can be described in two ways: 1) it’s bad, because Mannone was one to blame for four out of five goals he conceded, or 2) it’s good, because Sczszesny conceded 8 goals last season at Old Trafford, made a big mistake against Southampton and it is debatable whether he would be ready for Old Trafford on psychological level even if he is 100 percent fit.
United’s defense is a shaky one. They did manage to keep a clean sheet in the tough match against Newcastle away and scored two out of three United goals but they have let in too many so far. Against the Spuds, United conceded three goals from only four shots on goal and lost at home 2-3 against our poor city rivals for the first time in 23 years. It is no wonder that their most common result this season was 3-2 – they won against Fulham, Southampton, Chelsea and Braga with that scoreline. Their goalkeeper David De Gea is a fantastic goalkeeper when it comes to saves from the line – he was one of the best United players (alongside Verrader and Clattenburgh) in the 3-2 victory at Stamford Bridge last week. However, he is very insecure when it comes to corners and controlling his own box. That is something Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen and Giroud should know when they go forward when we have a corner.
Bottom line: if we go into a gunfight, we don’t stand a chance. It’s no wonder we won all three matches at Old Trafford in the Premiership in the Wenger-era with a 1-0 scoreline. The only time when we scored two goals, our opponents scored eight. We must reduce their chances to a minimum and try to exploit our main strength: central midfield. Arteta, Cazorla and Wilshere will face a lot of physical football from United players and will have to keep the ball flowing to both Podolski and, I hope, Walcott in order to keep control of the match. United’s defense is still without Nemanja Vidić, their captain and key player in previous seasons, with Evans likely to start. With all progress Evans made, that could be another chance for our attacking line, let’s hope Giroud & Co. won’t miss it. Theo Walcott’s pace, dribbling and finishing is needed from the very start of the game. It is very hard to remember a big match that we won in the past few years in which Theo Walcott wasn’t one of our best players.
Our last victory at Old Trafford happened in 2006-07. We won 1-0 and we should have won that tie by a much bigger margin. Our victory was a result of a fantastic midfield display while our defenders, especially Gallas, made a lot of interceptions during the rare occasions Manchester United came in to our final third. Still, we needed one classy save from Jens Lehmann in the last seconds of the match to keep three points. That match was one of my favourite Arsenal matches despite the fact we had an awful season. If we win this match, we will compensate for that loss against Chelsea at home and keep our hopes for the title alive. Yes, we are underdogs and nobody can expect the team to win this fixture. However, another 1-0 victory would make me very, very happy, not just because of the big question mark above Verrader’s head that would show up if, say, Santi Cazorla makes an assist to, say, Theo Walcott’s winning goal but also because that would show this team can win big matches. And, no matter how much money Manchester City or Chelsea spend on their expensive toys every year, no matter how many excellent players they buy from us because they are incompetent to make one, no matter if they are the main title contenders, victory over either of them will never produce the look of Ferguson’s face when we beat Manchester United at Old Trafford.
P.S. Verrader is the Dutch word for a traitor.