It’s apparent from the matchday programme that this is a fixture that, despite Arsenal and United both falling on harder times, means a lot to Arsène. It does to supporters as well. Cruelly (and shamelessly populist) tagged a Europa League play-off, victory is nonetheless important for both sides, for the same reason. Recent form has not been good – United have yet to win away from home this season in any competition – and they are there for the taking.
And with that in mind, an expanded playlist this morning. You can listen to Midnight Run in your browser here or from the Spotify app in the right sidebar on Dad’s Jukebox, not forgetting the older playlists on the page of the same name.
It’s match that will be dominated by defences as Amy Lawrence observes in this morning’s Guardian. Neither are convincing but whilst Arsenal have the luxury of pointing to the absence of key personnel through injury, both managers are guilty of under-investment in the summer. United have not successfully replaced Vidic or Ferdinand whilst Arsène failed to replace Vermaelen with a similarly experienced player as cover. That’s tougher than Van Gaal’s task; internationals do not want to kick their heels on the bench but a player of Monreal’s ability with solid central defensive experience? There must be a few of them about, surely?
It hasn’t happened and it is what it is, the players are left to muddle their way through the absences of Laurent Koscielny and Mathieu Debuchy. The right back means that the use of Calum Chambers in the middle was curtailed and the youngster is on the right. Last time around, he was hung out to dry by Montero’s pace. That point will not have been lost and I expect United to funnel their attacks to Di Maria with van Persie or Rooney targeting Monreal.
Knowing that threat, it’s imperative that Arsène reacts and for that reason, I expect Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be deployed on the right to offer some support to Chambers. It also exposes Shaw, who will be well aware of the attacking threat his England colleague possesses; it might act as something of a deterrent for him pushing forward.
Despite the positive recovery news in midweek, there isn’t much scope for Arsène to rotate yet. The wounded may be walking but any better than the bench will be surprising. The only real change and a very positive one at that, will be the return of Mikel Arteta to the starting line-up. Personally, I hope it is at the expense of Flamini with Wilshere and Ramsey alongside the Spaniard. Jack’s form for England was verging on sparkling and Ramsey, heavily praised by Wenger in his programme notes, will play himself into form. It’s a fixture which demands the best performances from players and I hope the Welsh international took time in the last fortnight to pause for thought, get back to the basics he was doing so well before injury struck.
That leaves the line-up:
Speaking to the media yesterday, Arsène expressed concern that Sanchez had played 175 minutes for his country but this is nothing new nor is the fifteen hour flight home. It’s part of the globalisation of football upon which he has so readily capitalised in the past and benefited. Arsenal are so inconsistent this season that it is a case of ‘make do and mend’ with any exhaustion on the part of the player due as much to the use the club have made of him, as internationals. Of course, as his employer…
It’s never going to change, despite the best attempts of FIFA to wreck their hold over the game. Were Arsenal playing consistently well, would Sanchez be a substitute today with Cazorla on the flanks? Possibly but with the midfield likely to be congested, moving the Chilean to the flanks to give him more freedom seems more sensible, let Ramsey battle it out with Carrick & co.
Those choices may be available when Olivier Giroud returns to match fitness. Arsène dropped his biggest hint yet that Danny Welbeck’s future is on the flanks, certainly in the short-term, rather than as a central pairing. Welbeck, Wenger claimed, just wanted to play. He does, and he freely admits that, but he is adamant that he would prefer to play centrally.
I think it depends on how you view the wide role. If Welbeck is expected to funnel back and support the full back, it isn’t going to work. He isn’t a defensively minded player in that sense although he works hard to close down opponents in possession, he isn’t going to run the channel persistently all day and produce a goalscoring return. It’s a problem Arsène has to wrestle with in the future but not today.
Today, I wonder if it is his moment to make the difference, to prove Van Gaal wrong. I am sure at the back of his mind that motivation is there but primarily, he will be looking to contribute to an Arsenal victory. Yes, I would prefer a few more goals and the side needs it as it develops an unhealthy reliance upon Alexis Sanchez for them in Giroud’s absence, but no-one can criticise Welbeck’s work rate. Perhaps the brace for England will imbue a touch more confidence on his part?
Whatever the case, Arsenal need three points. Swansea and West Ham have tough matches today, three points for Arsenal lifts them back into the top four with at worst a four-point lead over a cluster of traditional rivals. More importantly, it helps confidence, gives the monkey on their backs about big matches, a kick up the arsenal to loosen its grip. Not taking enough points in this type of fixture preys on the players minds, you can tell that by their consistent use of it as a benchmark, a reference point. There won’t be many better opportunities to improve that record.
From The Vaults
Today’s programme revisits one of my favourite memories of this fixture and I can still remember Brian McClair’s penalty sailing into the North Bank, with Nigel Winterburn offering some sage advice to keep it down afterwards. At least, I am sure that in the true sporting nature of the fixture, that is what he said to the Scot.
This report probably has more in common with the two sides today. Both had fallen on harder times although the visitors, newly promoted from Division Two, were riding high in the top flight at the time. A month earlier, United won 3 – 1 at Old Trafford but on this day in 1975, Arsenal extracted revenge by the same scoreline at Highbury.
Enjoy today’s match wherever you are watching it.