These games used to be the highlight of the whole season. Not only could they have a say in who was going to win the league, but the players absolutely hated each other, as did the managers, and the fans. It was brilliant.
The excitement surrounding these games has faded somewhat in recent years, despite the importance of some of those meetings. We tore Arsenal apart in the 2009 Champions League semi-final, before the 0-0 draw we secured at Old Trafford won us the title. The season before we beat them 2-1 just weeks before we won the league.
It was brilliant to see a repeat of our European game against them at the Emirates last season, with us winning 3-1 and outplaying them again. Our home game against them was less brilliant but we picked up all three points regardless.
We’ve certainly had all the bragging rights where Arsenal are concerned, in terms of recent results and trophies lifted, but that matters little tonight. Like Patrice Evra said last week, Arsenal won’t get to wear a medal if they beat us, it’s not honours at stake tonight, but a win for United would be a massive boost in our title challenge. We would go three points ahead of Chelsea before playing them at Stamford Bridge, whilst still having a game in hand.
It’s difficult to predict how the manager is going to approach this game though. Last season we went with just one striker, Wayne Rooney, up front, and a five man midfield, in both the home and away games. Our midfield is weak and is exposed even against poor sides, so it stands to reason that we would pack it.
This season is different to last though, as Rooney is just coming back in to the team and has yet to score, whilst Dimitar Berbatov is the highest scorer in the league. However, Berbatov’s best games this season have come when playing up front with Rooney, meaning we wouldn’t want him as a loan striker.
So, does this present us with playing Rooney to the left and Nani to the right of Berbatov, with a central midfield of Ji-Sung Park, Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher? But where does this leave Anderson, who has been in a couple of very good shifts since his return for injury. We used to rely on him as our big game player, a tag which Fletch has taken on, but being honets, Fletcher isn’t playing like the same player he was a year or more ago. Could Ferguson drop him for Ando? Or would it be Park, who has just been named our Player of the Month for November and whose energy and hard work is often relied upon for Arsenal games. It’s hard to imagine that Fletcher would get the chop but if this was a decision made on form alone, he should be. Michael Carrick doesn’t get a shout for the starting line-up from me, despite his improved performances. We need something cutting edge for this game and Carrick hasn’t offered that for some time. Ryan Giggs has just returned from injury and could be used as a valuable sub at some point, whether we’re in need of someone coming on to change the game in our favour, or a player to maintain what’s going right already,
Predicting our line-up is almost impossible, particularly for such crucial games like this, but whilst taking the game to Arsenal should be in our players’ minds, we do need to be mindful of stopping them playing their game too.
A draw wouldn’t be the worst result here but I’d love to see United go for the kill. I wasn’t impressed with our tactics last season, despite managing to finish the game the winning team, so hopefully we will see something a bit more special tonight. That doesn’t mean we need to be gung-ho about this, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show Arsenal some respect, but we should go out there tonight with the belief we are the better side and play like that too.