Manchester United Preview: Injured Pride And Injured Players
A weekend where, so far, results have gone Arsenal’s way. It is a vaguely familiar feeling when we say, “Win and the gap closes“. One which lesser opposition – no disrespect entirely, Blackburn excluded – have successfully screwed up previously this season. This time, with the Premier League’s second placed team visiting, the fidgeting when that thought fleetingly crosses minds is intensified when that is considered. How can Arsenal win today when previous chances have been spurned?
The contrary nature of football, of human beings, offers the solutions. Even with a team that was hopelessly out of form, Arsenal beat the soon-to-be-crowned Champions in the corresponding fixture last season. It was a stronger line-up, granted, but then so was the one fielded by United that day, compared with the expected starting XI today. Motivation is no problem, even before you take into account the feelings of revenge, stung personal and professional pride from earlier this season. As much as they might seek to play down such emotions, it is unnatural for them not to surface.
At his press conference, Arsène considered not playing Champions League football to be a “disaster” from a personal and professional point of view. I can understand his view that the opposition in other competitions is not of such high a standard and it is not. You expect every avenue to be explored in pursuit of that goal and to be honest, those who believe he is not doing so are fools. He might not be pursuing a course of action that coincides with your viewpoint but to claim he is doing nothing opens yourself to ridicule. Whether it is right or not, history will be the judge.
So to this afternoon. United are once more challenging for the title despite, once more, having a team that we are told is sub-standard, not a patch on previous ones forged by Sir Alex Ferguson during his reign. If this side is not up to par, it says much for the current state of football that despite all of the billions invested in playing squads, they are are still the second best in the country.
It serves to emphasize the gap between the two clubs and managers. Both have their strengths and weakness, have made undeniable and significant changes to the English game during the Premier League era. Yet only one of them has been able to forge consistent title-winning teams. Arsène has been bridesmaid more often than the centre of attention. It is hard, maybe impossible, to quantify why there is this difference in the silverware. Talent-wise, Arsenal have more often than had the better squad yet United have nabbed the trophies. Ferguson has been able to more readily identify and gel a winning mentality into his charges. How and why is unproven, subjected to conjecture but it leaves a sense that Wenger’s reign is how Revie must have felt when it came to his Leeds days. Except without the darker elements that pervaded those squads.
The ability to dominate teams at home has underpinned their success. Barring none, the home record in the Premier League is impressive. Claims of refereeing bias often overlook the reason for it; sustained attacking on the opposition area creates pressure on the referee who, in situations where a decision is required, will more often than not believe that the defender has erred due to mental and physical duress. Equally at the other end, borderline decisions are likely to be seen as an act of desperation to gain. It is not a conspiracy of United supporting officials, one where the Mancunian clubs have exploited human weakness.
Injury news for today is better for Arsenal. Thomas Vermaelen and Thierry Henry passed fitness tests yesterday which barring adverse reactions this morning, mean they will take their respective places in the squad. Even if there is a reaction, last weekend’s defeat at Swansea means that copious quantities of painkillers are likely to be injected into the Belgian in the hope of giving some stability to the defence. Wojciech Szczesny has been exceptional in his progress this season but culpability in goals conceded at Craven Cottage and Liberty Stadium identify him as not quite the finished product. Having a stronger defence helps that along the way.
Swansea identified a more natural replacement for Arteta and it is not Yossi Benayoun. The Israeli has always seemed to me to be more of a replacement for Arshavin or Walcott, in the wider midfield role. Tomas Rosicky has more technique in that passing role. Possession, Arsène is being surrendered as the team moves more directly in style which is at odds with the received wisdom that Arsenal are not a team transiting from one formula to another. Whether Rosicky can entirely compensate for the Spaniard is debatable, Arteta brings a steadiness to the central area of the pitch.
Otherwise, the team picks itself such are the paucity of options due to injuries and internationals:
Szczesny; Djourou, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen (Miquel); Song, Ramsey, Rosicky; Walcott, van Persie, Arshavin
A win is essential. For too long we have been talking of taking advantage when Spurs slip up. They did last weekend, so did we. The gap widened as a result. Chelsea dropped points but have increased the gap between themselves and Arsenal. If that continues to happen, forget fourth. That as much as playing Manchester United ought to motivate the players. And motivated Arsenal players are capable of winning this fixture.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.