United's Three-Man Midfield Should Dominate Again
Ryan Giggs believes that if United play to the level they reached in the first leg, with the same tempo and intensity then they'll be fine at the Emirates Stadium tomorrow. Knowing Fergie, however, such an approach is unlikely...
Giggs and Scholes both played 90 minutes at the Riverside while Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher weren't involved at all. This certainly means that the three-man midfield that worked so seamlessly against Arsenal in the first leg will be used again, to provide steel and energy as well as confidence in possession.
With Van Persie fit, Arsenal are expected to go with a 4-4-2: the Dutchman and Adebayor (who should have picked up a yellow card at Old Trafford for a deliberate handball which would have ruled him out of tomorrow's game) up front, Walcott and Nasri on the flanks and Song partnering Fabregas in the centre.
Many feel that this is the best chance for the Gooners to create the chances they need for victory and while that might be true, it is also an excellent opportunity for United to get a stranglehold on midfield: Fletcher and co. comfortably bossed Fabregas, Nasri and Song in the first leg and they should be able to stamp their authority on the game again, depriving the wide men and the strikers from the support they crave.
We could also point to the FA Cup game of last season: many still say that Wenger put out a weakened team and that's why they were humiliated but if you actually look at the line-ups, you'll see that the Gallas and Toure both played and they field a midfield of Eboue, Gilberto, Fabregas, Hleb - which means it was very far from a reserve team. Yet they were all anonymous: the central defenders were destroyed by an unstoppable Wayne Rooney while the midfield was totally overrun by guess who? Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher.
Last week's game was actually very similar to that FA Cup game, with the strong start and the early goal but last season we quickly added a second and Arsenal collapsed after that. Had we scored a second in the first half on last Wednesday, I believe a similar drubbing could easily have been on the cards.
However, both games were played at Old Trafford, that's true. At the Emirates it will be probably different. But if we want a fine example of how to negotiate this game on their ground, we need to look no further than the league clash in London last season.
United played that game with two energetic tacklers, Anderson and Hargreaves, with a pass-master, Ryan Giggs deployed slightly ahead of them. At that time Arsenal were rampant in the league and they played well in that game, too, but we mostly restrained them to long-range shots - they didn't try to walk the ball into the net that time! And we almost won the game with terrifying counter-attacking football, with their equaliser coming in injury time.
I did not deny, nor do it now, that it was a deserved point for Arsenal. However, my point is that we'll line up similarly in midfield and with Rooney in great form and Ronaldo starting to show his best again we can be similarly threatening in attack. And it's needless to say, really, that a 2-2 draw with a last-minute Arsenal equaliser would be an absolutely fine scenario for us!
However, it depends on Fergie as well. As I said, it looks certain that he'll deploy the middle three which dominated Arsenal at Old Trafford - but it's not yet sure that he'll dare to encourage attacking as well. A shut up shop display like in the second half at Porto is not out of question: Rooney and Tevez lurking on the wings, covering for the full-backs, the midfielders occupying every bit of space in fron of the back four that could be exploited and Ronaldo roaming up front on his own.
Many pundits still spout the old cliché that United only know one way to play: attacking. Most of us sees that this is rubbish: it used to be true but these days Fergie is not afraid of a little catenaccio away from home, especially in a two-legged knockout tie. The, ahem, unambitious tactics described worked for Chelsea and, last season, United at the Nou Camp, so with all the talk about our potentially lethal away goal, I wouldn't put it past Fergie to think it could just as well work against Arsenal. In that case, a nailbiting 0-0 is the most likely.