Friday, 2 October 2015

AND SO IT BEGINS


It is the dreaded run of fixtures that has gotten fans and rivals alike looking forward to the litmus test that is October's run of fixtures for Manchester United. Arm chair pundits and commentators have rightly reserved judgement about Louis van Gaal's side pending what is, on paper at least, the club's most difficult month of the season.

United are away at the Emirates this Sunday and travel to Goodison Park immediately after the International break. The Champions League trip to Russia at CSKA Moscow is quickly followed by their first home game of the month---the Manchester derby!

Ironically, United's best spell last season came during their toughest four weeks that involved games against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea. The impressive run of results in that period quickly followed by a run of defeats against inferior opposition led to the birth of the notion that United were much better against top teams that have a go than against inferior opposition that set out to defend deep and hit on the counter.

United however, have already been exposed by decent opposition this season. Swansea City and PSV used every strategy in the book that United are not comfortable with. At Swansea, van Gaal, incredibly admitted that a five minute tactical shift by Gary Monk (midfield diamond) beat his set-up of United hands down. It will be interesting to see whether the Dutchman's style still holds the club in good stead in the big time.


On the Match
Arsenal vs Manchester United once upon a time used to be the premier fixture of the English football calendar. The decline of the pair of clubs put paid to that but the irony is that this particular clash, despite the recent failings of both clubs, is as close to a summit meeting we've had between the two. United are top of the league but just three points ahead of fourth placed Arsenal.

United
Louis van Gaal has guided his side to three straight wins in the league taking them top of the log outright for the first time since May 2013. United will extend their leadership of the league table to at least three weeks if they overcome the Gunners on Sunday because of the International break following soon after.

There were cries of fatigue at the back end of the Champions League clash with VfL Wolfsburg in midweek and Louis van Gaal, speaking yesterday to the media, said his fatigue specialist will look at the players on Saturday and decide who to play. The Dutchman has hardly rotated his squad over the season so far with many players notching up maximum appearances. It remains a criticism of Louis van Gaal's selection that he is short of a depth in quality to complement an injury crisis or fatigue.

More than any other department, it is in defence that United are blatantly short. Luke Shaw's injury has with varying results caused a chopping and changing in the full-back positions, so much so that it has been directly or indirectly responsible for the goals United have conceded since that fateful night in Eindhoven.

Ashley Young replaced Antonio Valencia on Wednesday at right-back and you feel that the Englishman will keep his place for Sunday, if only because he is marginally better than the Ecuadorian. Expect Arsenal to test United out wide whenever they get the chance. As such, Louis van Gaal will have to work out how to neutralise Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott. Sanchez in particular has scored more goals with his head lately than you would expect from a player of his height. There is more diversity than meets the eye in his game.

United ceded possession to the Gunners last time out in a smash and grab win at the Emirates but were more in control of proceedings in the return leg at Old Trafford in May. It is more likely that they shall have a foothold of proceedings this time round at the home of the Gunners.

Arsenal
Arsene Wenger is back under the microscope after his decision making was largely responsible for his side's shocking 2-3 defeat by Greek champions Olympiacos on Tuesday. Petr Cech sat out the game and David Ospina dropped a clanger that sapped the confidence out of Arsenal.

In conceding goals on Tuesday just after taking getting back into the game, Arsenal displayed a mental frailty that has haunted their recent campaigns. When the pressure is on, when it really matters, they tend to fold.

However, the Champions League form aside, Arsenal have been okay in the league. Their 2-5 victory away at Leicester City last week was an excellent result by any standards and hauled them back into the reckoning for the summit positions in the league. They remain a potent attacking force whose method could easily prize open the meanest of defences.

Arsenal will not have Laurent Koscielny available after the defender injured himself in the mid-week defeat. It breaks up the budding partnership between him and Gabriel Paulista. Per Metersacker is not a terrible replacement but it will be interesting to see how the big German copes with the pace of Anthony Martial.  


The Sub-Plots
Wayne Rooney, yes him, has a knack of getting his act together in games vs Arsenal. His record against the Gunners suggests that he could be due a goal on Sunday. It would certainly be more than welcome for both player and fans.

Manchester United completed the third league game in succession last week without picking up a yellow card. There is therefore a sense that United are probably becoming a little too 'nice' but on the flip-side, credit to Louis van Gaal who has improved the discipline of his side after three red cards at this stage last season. You do stand a better chance in games when you are XI. Whether that record will extend to four matches is very unlikely simply because of the number of yellow cards United picked up in mid-week trying to stall a very good passing side in Wolfsburg. Arsenal are just as nippy zappy on the ball and so it is unlikely that the cards will be blank come Sunday evening.


The Bottom-Line
United have not lost to Arsenal at the Emirates stadium in the league since 2011. A disciplined approach as well as precise counter-attacking has been the yardstick on which success there has been built. Because Arsenal are such that you know what is coming, losing to them feels like a touch of negligence.  

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