Arsenal Preview: Five Keys to Victory
It has been a superb fornight for Louis van Gaal and Manchester United. Since returning from Eindhoven deflated from both a 2-1 defeat and the long-term loss of Luke Shaw, the Reds have responded in style, notching four consecutive victories and sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League table after seven fixtures.
A midweek tie with Wolfsburg saw the Reds fight back after a slow start, which saw a goal conceded after just four minutes, to earn a vital victory and put the Reds firmly back among the qualification mix in Group B.
Juan Mata was undoubtedly the star of the show on Wednesday evening, turning in one of his best displays in a Red shirt, along with Chris Smalling, once again a lynchpin in the United backline, with the duo aptly combining to provide the winner and three crucial points.
Attention shifts back to the Premier League, where the Reds currently sit top of the table, for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2013 departure. A trip to the Emirates beckons, where a second successive Champions League defeat leaves the hosts in all kinds of disarray, with the fans baying for blood following Arsene Wenger’s blood following the Frenchman’s decision to leave their only summer signing, Petr Cech on the bench for Tuesday’s defeat to Olympiakos – their third in five matches in all competitions.
Last year’s corresponding fixture saw the Reds return to Old Trafford victorious – albeit extremely fortunate – after a smash and grab performance saw United somehow emerge with the points with a 2-1 scoreline, despite just 40% possession and a single shot on target. Painful as it was, it was bloody hilarious.
As United look to continue their impressive run of form and maintain their position at the top of the Premier League tree, we examine five keys to victory at the Emirates.
It’s hard to find the superlatives to describe Mata’s performance against Wolfsburg on Wednesday, surely – to oppose the thoughts of the manager – one of his best in a United shirt to date. The Spaniard’s performance against the Bundesliga side was of the highest order, assuming penalty duties to bag a vital equaliser, before a sublime flicked assist to Chris Smalling saw the Reds wrap up a vital three points.
Mata has quietly made a big contribution to United’s campaign all season, with Wednesday’s midweek fixture seeing the Spaniard mark the occasion with both his fourth goal and fifth assist of the season. But if his performance against the German side t aught us anything, is that his talents are wasted in his wide role.
Although able to make a valid contribution out-wide, Mata will naturally drift inside in an attempt to influence play. From the right, the Spaniard is unable to find the same pockets of space he is used to finding in the number 10 role, in which he excelled so much in for Chelsea.
A 97.7% pass accuracy midweek and five chances created, all from an unfavoured position highlight the attacking threat to which Mata can pose and ask serious questions as to why Wayne Rooney, and not he, still operates the space in behind Anthony Martial. The captain once again struggled to have the desired impact one again in arguably the position in need of most creativity, and having already looked questionable at number nine during this campaign, Rooney looks – if possible – more inept at 10.
Of course Rooney won’t be dropped against Arsenal, but it seems clear that given his creative talents and ability to unlock defences with ease, Mata should be a shoo-in for Wayne’s position, particularly while he remains in this current funk. Mata has had to be extremely patient at times, earning his right to be considered a key member of the first-team setup. He’ll have to do it from the right once again at the Emirates, but a similar performance to Wolfsburg wouldn’t half improve our chances.
Aside from Juan Mata, United’s other standout performer midweek was Chris Smalling, who is fast emerging as a vital cog in Louis van Gaal’s operation. Since being referred to as ‘Mike’ by the manager during the club’s pre-season, the former Fulham defender has stepped up a level, as the backline’s lynchpin, and the perfect partner for Daley Blind, who is still learning his trade at centre-half.
Smalling was on hand to snuff out any danger midweek – after the opening four minutes anyway – as United fought back to earn an all important 2-1 victory. Having now been appointed as the team’s third captain, ahead of Bastian Schweinsteiger even, Smalling is repaying the faith shown to him by van Gaal, and then some.
With a tricky fixture at the Emirates ahead, the England defender will once again be relied heavily upon, although this time, to deal with a very different kind of threat in Theo Walcott. Smalling’s presence will be of vital importance on Sunday, with Walcott’s pace a huge concern for the winger-come-striker who has netted 12 times in his last 13 starts for the Gunners.
Blind’s lack of pace raises some question marks given the speed and guile of the Arsenal attack, with Alexis Sanchez another particular threat to add to Walcott’s. Phil Jones is an option after his return from injury, but it would seem logical that Blind and Smalling rekindle the partnership which has served them – and United – so well over the season’s opening months. In which case, the latter’s form, and newfound leadership skills will be put to a stern test at the Emirates on Sunday.
“Mike” proved once again midweek that he has the ability to get forward and score goals, as he did on plenty of occasions last season, but silencing the Gunners attack remains at the forefront of the agenda this Sunday.
Drastic changes for Rooney
It gives me no great pleasure to once again discuss the faltering form of Wayne Rooney, but another sub-par performance from the skipper on Wednesday must surely offer something in the way of warning signs for Louis van Gaal.
Despite a slight resurgence in the goalscoring department, which had seen Rooney net seven in as many matches for both club and country, performance levels were rarely of an acceptable nature.
Rooney continues to be outshone by teenage sensation, Anthony Martial, a player who the United captain hadn’t even heard of at the time of his arrival last month. Martial excites in the way that Rooney used to in his emerging years, pacey, bullish and direct while wreaking havoc in the final third and turning defenders inside out. By comparison, Rooney – who has been dropped into arguably his favoured position to incorporate Martial – looks sluggish and ineffective.
In the number 10 role, arguably the position most in need of creativity in the current set up, Rooney managed to just one key pass and failed to register a single shot on target, ballooning over his only attempt after some phenomenal work from Anthony Martial.
Juan Mata on the other hand, Rooney’s main competition for that role, managed 5 key passes, adding a goal and assist, as well as a phenomenal pass completion of 97.7%, all from cutting in from the right.
Rooney’s tendencies remain to drop deep in search of the ball, yet when doing so, tends to favour backwards or sideways passes, despite being spoiled for options ahead of him.
Martial’s arrival has no doubt relieved Rooney of some of the goalscoring burden placed on him at the beginning of the season, yet in order for United to remain any kind of force and challenge for honours this season, the 29-year-old’s ability to adapt to his new role and offer something significant to United’s new look attack.
Perhaps the answer is as van Gaal seems to be doing, continue to give him minutes in hope that the skipper can work his way out of the current funk in which he finds himself. With first touch and close control – among many other things – lacking, alarm bells are ringing. Time to sort things out Wayne.
Martial v Mertesacker
A big positive for United ahead of their trip to the Emirates, is that Arsenal defender, Laurent Koscielny looks set to miss out, following a hamstring injury sustained in the Gunners 2-1 defeat to Olympiakos midweek.
Despite the Frenchman ‘s partnership with Per Mertesacker being at the heart of the Arsenal defence in recent years, it is Arsenal new-boy Gabriel who has been preferred alongside Koscielny this season. Gabriel offers a quicker, more combative option alongside the impressive Koscielny, where the German’s distinct lack of pace can – at times – cause issue.
Martial has proved in recent weeks that he has much more in his locker than just goals. Steely determination and pace in abundance has seen the teenager torment defences, twisting and turning in order to lay on Rooney’s goal last weekend, while a similar move against Wolfsburg should have seen a similar end product.
The trip to the Emirates will no doubt be the biggest of Martial’s short United career to date, but the Frenchman continues to impress when called upon, offering a constant threat and that necessary spark to create something from nothing.
We’ve already seen Martial is seemingly unfazed by his new surroundings, team-mates, position or hefty price tag, so it would seem more likely that he would once again thrive off an opportunity to ensure victory over an old enemy and retain top spot in the table.
Mertesacker offers a strong and experience figure in the Arsenal defence, but Martial can expose weaknesses in the Arsenal backline and open doors either for himself, or those around him, just as we have seen during his opening month with the club.
Van Gaal’s record over the big boys
As the Reds make the trip down south, they do so topping the Premier League table, without every really hitting the kind of form we know the team are capable of. That said, while the team continues to turn in winning performances, confidence levels seem to be rising week by week and the philosophy in which the van Gaal has been putting into practice since his arrival last summer, looks to be having a positive impact on the team.
While tough opposition in the form of Tottenham and Liverpool have already been to Old Trafford this season, the trip to the Emirates represents, by far, United’s biggest challenge of the domestic campaign to date.
The manager’s record against top six opposition does though make for positive reading, ahead of a vital encounter for the Reds if they harbour hopes of hanging on to top spot beyond the weekend.
In comparison to the six points from a possible 36 accumulated during the ill-fated David Moyes era, which saw United slump to a sorry seventh place, van Gaal enjoyed contrasting fortunes, registering 18 of 30 against fellow top six teams last season, while picking up a maximum of six this season,
Victory at the Emirates last season certainly wasn’t pretty, but it was the right result nonetheless, and van Gaal will have a plan in place for Sunday, looking to come away with all three points.
The stats seem to be in United’s favour, unbeaten in their last four at the Emirates, while quite incredibly, the Gunners have won just one of the last 13 Premier League encounters between the two sides.
Expect to see a United side a little more defensive and cautious as we have in recent weeks, with the threat of a strong Arsenal midfield to deal with. The Gunners will though be wounded following a string of difficult results, while United are playing with the confidence and positive results of their own to go the Emirates and control from the off, just as long as heads are on from the off, unlike against Wolfsburg midweek.