Matches against Manchester United are always of utmost importance, but matches against United after the embarrassing, negligent performance in midweek, leaving us on the brink of a group stage Champions League exit for the first time since 1999, makes this match crucially important. The Premier League is such that coming into this weekend, United, perhaps the one team in the league where even the most loud mouthed pundits can't seem to make their minds up about, sat atop the pile (that was until City thrashed Newcastle). Even more perplexing, given the largely legitimate criticism Arsenal have come in for, is the fact that we can pull level with United with victory, and remain two points off the blue half of Manchester at the top. The Premier League certainly isn't the best league, in terms of pure quality; but it is without doubt the most engaging division there is, better than most reality television shows, the best script is always the one with no script. Scratch that; the best is where the script gets torn moments into the event. Let's not kid ourselves, however, tomorrow isn't about that, it's all about getting the victory we are in desperate need of, if only to hold off that fire of discontent I wrote about after Spurs, for another week.
The club has once again swelled under a cloud of 'negative interference' largely relating to the managers decision to drop his best goalkeeper, and only summer signing for a crucial must win European match. While I agree and find it disconcerting in the extreme; do not let yourself fall into delusion as to the real reason we lost this match, which is to say, negligent, naive and arrogant defending from a team who rarely, if ever learn from previous mistakes. What we saw from Arsenal's defence Tuesday night was not good enough for a top level club and I find it extremely hard to comprehend how this has happened again, it was almost like a re-run of the Monaco match last season. No one covered themselves in any glory for the third goal, coming less than a minute after Arsenal's equalizer. Mertesacker stood there and let Finnbogason score, after Gibbs came far too central and left the wide man with as much time as you could possibly ask for in such an advanced position. The same failings came back to haunt Arsenal and it was not good enough, but as I said the loss has nothing to do with the goalkeeper making a mistake, sure it doesn't help when you have a player throwing the ball in his own net; but it was a collective failure of massive proportions.
I think the blame, first of all, lies with the players on the pitch and how they commit themselves to the cause of winning three points, but for me the buck ultimately lies with the manager on this occasion. When there are problems that present themselves on numerous occasions over a period of time, there can only be one explanation. Whether it was a lack of preparation for our opponents strengths or for another reason, I can't say, no one on the outside can say; but it certainly comes off that way. In saying that, I am not calling for the manager's head. This seems to be what most Arsenal fans don't understand; you can criticize the manager for decisions he makes, without wanting him removed from the club. Whether you like it or not, Arsene Wenger does far more good for Arsenal than bad, he has his faults, but I sincerely believe he is the right man for the job. I have no time, and frankly nor should you, for this simplistic, labeling 'AKB' and 'WOB' nonsense, and any comments using those terms on this site will be removed. They are labels made to divide and drive Arsenal fans against each other, when we should be using the football we play to unite us. I have not addressed the absurdity that was Wenger's press conference from Friday as my thoughts have been echoed in an excellent piece on 7am Kickoff, so have a look at that here.
Now you may be wondering why I spent so much time writing on old news, a reasonable question and the answer is two fold; 1) I didn't get around to writing after the Olympiacos disaster and 2) the swirl of negativity has a direct impact upon the game today. The players should use the air of disaster that sits around the club to their advantage. I believe that the players should be motivated to put things right and the combination of those emotions as well as the new ones stirred up by an old nemesis should make for the perfect storm. Then again, how often do you hear an accurate weather report?
It has become a pattern that us fans have become accustomed to; the team plays well and goes on a run of form, only for them to balloon a level of confidence that is popped by the needle of a lower level team with a good defence. We play great and them become far too relaxed and over confident and lose where we shouldn't, which usually serves as a kick up the arse for the team, only to go on and repeat the cycle a few months down the road. We can all hope that Olympiacos was that kick, but we will only find out later on today. I think we are a better team than United, but it looks like Van Gaal has finally stumbled across a team and system that works for him. Throw enough money and sophisticated looking notepads at any problem and you can fix it, seems to be the message.
The pressure on Arsenal to win this match is palpable, while a draw wouldn't be the end of the world, it certainly won't satisfy those baying for blood. There also comes a point where we have to start winning these matches on a consistent basis; we haven't won against United at home since 2011. That is clearly not good enough. This match, however, also represents United's first real challenge of the season (Sorry Liverpool fans, well not really), and will certainly serve as something of a report card from which both teams will be judged by the strictest of teacher's; football fans and media. As I alluded to above, it is very hard to judge United and how good (or not) they actually are, but one thing is for sure; Martial, unbelievable transfer fee aside, has been excellent for them since signing. He made the big statement against Liverpool and has backed those headlines up with consistent performances. One of the big talking points around the match will be how Mertesacker will deal with him (given Koscielny's absence and the presumption that the teenager will target the BFG).
I think we need to look back on how we got results against United last season, while we lost at home, we put in a very strong performance and done everything but get the three points, however, our performances at Old Trafford were impressive as we knocked them out of the F.A. cup and gained a good point in the closing months. In those matches we took on a more conservative approach, and I think the manager will send the team out like that today. He will be concerned by our defensive frailties and look to cut out the silly mistakes and loss in concentration. If we can do that then it will give us a great chance of winning the game, even with United having conceded the least amount of league goals this season, I am confident that our attack can do what is required. I am sure this game won't end goalless; keep the clean sheet and we will win. I state what seems the obvious, I know.
The biggest question for Arsenal will be who starts up front and it is a hard choice to make. While Walcott has been excellent and maintained a good scoring record, I can't help but feel that this match will be more suited for Giroud. United won't come all guns blazing and will try to keep it tight as a draw is good for them, and I always have my doubts about Theo when he plays in these kind of games. The Frenchman will be fresh and will surely be motivated to get his place back in the team; he has something to prove and this might be the match where he proves it. It's really a toss of a coin and there are pro's/con's to playing either player but overall I think Giroud would be the better option. Expect Arsene to play Walcott now...
We all know what the rest of the team will be, although injuries are mounting again; no Koscielny, Arteta, Flamini, Wilshere, Rosicky, Welbeck, but we can still field our strongest team. Ramsey will come back in on the right for Chamberlain, Monreal for Gibbs and Cech for Ospina, Obviously Mertesacker will replace the injured Koscielny also. I don't see the need to lay out the team formation below as it speaks for itself, one area that concerns me, however, is a lack of options for the bench. It will be one of Walcott/Giroud with Chamberlain and Campbell as the only attacking options, while not desperate, it is now where we really feel the loss of the likes of Wilshere and Welbeck.
This match always serves up a classic and has always been one of my favourites, i'm really looking forward to it. While it may not necessarily be an end to end match, it will be a dogfight for control of possession. Van Gaal will want to take the sting out of the game and make it a slower, tighter match, whereas Arsenal will want it more open. Midfield dominance will be crucial. It's a hard match to call and I can see a 1-1, but I am going for Arsenal to get a 2-1 win. I have a feeling United will score from a set piece and we will miss a penalty. I have no idea why, but I do! Anyway you heard it here first...
Right I've gone on long enough,
Let's hope it's a good one..
Subjectively, Cosmic Kid.