After surprisingly struggling in matches against Birmingham and Burnley, and unconvincingly-yet-convincingly beating Wigan, Manchester Utd ‘welcome’ Arsenal to Old Trafford at 5.15 for an early-season (but late in the day) titan clash.
All the Gunners are blazing in the Premier League so far, comfortably winning their opening games, scoring a staggering ten goals and conceding only two as they continue to shame their pre-season critics. That’s obviously ignoring the five goals that Arsene Wenger’s men put past Celtic en route to Champions League qualification.
Four competitive games, a measly 3 goals against and an astonishing 15 goals in that oh-so-important ‘F’ column. So who’s the key man? Well, sadly for Sir Alex, it’s Arsene. Wenger has changed the Arsenal formation to a fluid 4-3-3 system, so Fergie can forget plans of wafting Van Persie’s socks under Vidic’s nostrils – everyone in an Emirates stamp is filling his boots…
United, on the other hand, are a one-man show. Wayne Rooney has greedily jumped into the spotlight vacated by Ronaldo, and is carrying more than his fair share of the attacking burden on his broad green shoulders.
Though Berbatov and Owen both opened their accounts against Wigan last week, neither has looked particularly sharp, with Sir Alex already having leapt to defend the former, and Alan Hansen bizarrely championing the latter on Match of the Day last week, when all he had was video evidence to the contrary.
I remain to be convinced as to whether Owen’s exaggerated ducking and weaving in the box is, as we are meant to believe, the replacement of his pace by more intelligent movement in the area. Or whether he realises his penalty-box disco moves have managed to fool Sir Alex, and, should he prolong them, he might be getting a phone call from a gruff Italian, inviting him to South Africa.
Goal scoring aside, it is the creation of chances that seems to be Man Utd’s weakness at the minute. While Arsenal’s attacks are quick, clinical and more cutting than a Red-Bull-hopped Jeremy Kyle defending his mother, United have been slow and limited. Missing the penetration of their old mercurial winker (yes, winker), still hoping that Nani becomes even half the player Ronaldo was, and waiting for Valencia to find his feet, the Red Devils find themselves in somewhat of a transition period.
With injuries also taking their toll on this weaker squad – particularly in defence, where Rio Ferdinand’s absence couldn’t be more obvious – Arsenal have their biggest chance in years to go to Old Trafford and come away with the spoils.
Cesc Fabregas may be missing for the visitors, but their passing and movement should still be superior. Denilson is looking like the man Wenger promised the Arsenal faithful, and Diaby, Eboue and Arshavin are all in fine form.
To be Premier League champions you need your big players to perform in the big games. United’s usually do, and their chances in this match rest on their stars standing up to be counted.
Carrick needs to find form quickly, and, with Fletcher, must out-battle the Gunners in the middle of the park. Vidic has to return to his commanding presence at the back, and without Rio to help him much responsibility lays on his not-inconsiderable forehead at set-pieces. Neutralising the aeriel threat of Vermaelen and particularly free-scoring Gallas will be key.
The winner of this one is bound to be whoever makes the most of their possession. If United can carve out enough opportunities for Rooney, then judging by his excellent recent displays, he will take them. He will certainly be up for this one.
However, if Arsenal can recreate their sparkling team performances of late, and I have a suspicion that they might, the passing and breaking of Arsene’s ‘total football’ club could prove too much for Sir Alex’s one-man side.