26th February 2016: Wenger on Manchester United

Happy Friday. Following two consecutive disappointing results in cup competitions, we return to Premier League action on Sunday against Manchester United in a fixture Arsene Wenger today labelled ‘special’.

Not ‘special’ in the sense that the game will be a Portuguese, loudmouthed, bus-parking, hypocritical bellend, but special because it’s a meeting of two teams with a rich mutual history, and who shared a fierce rivalry as they dominated English football for the first decade or so of Arsene’s tenure at Arsenal.

Speaking at his pre-match press conference this morning, the boss said:

Yes [it still has an aura] because Manchester United are a big club, Old Trafford is a special place and I believe for every club it remains a special fixture. Against Arsenal, the United fans and players will be up for it. In one week all has changed. I didn’t believe that they would lose against Shrewsbury and Midtjylland. Old Trafford is always a difficult place to go and even if they had lost against Midtjylland, I would have said that it is a difficult game.

All of the above accepted, this has to be the first time, certainly in my living memory at least, of us going to Old Trafford and being widely expected to take all three points. I mean, we may have failed to win our last two games without scoring a goal and we may have a dysfunctional central midfield, but Manchester United are a relative shambles at the moment, regardless of their big win in Europe on Thursday.

If I was to go through the United squad and try to pick their best players, David de Gea, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial would certainly be on the list, but all five are either already ruled out, or serious doubts, to face us on Sunday. Which means a squad that’s been struggling all season and currently has various other players on the sidelines, is stretched to the point of having to blood a bunch of untested academy hopefuls.

Yet the boss maintains his side will need to produce a ‘special’ performance against Louis van Gaal’s men, and cited the 3-0 spanking we gave them at Emirates stadium in October as a kind of blueprint for Sunday. He said:

If you look all the titles of Manchester United, to beat them at Old Trafford it needs to always be special. They have never won many more games than us away from home in their whole history. There are a lot of ingredients [for success] in there. We had a good performance against them in October. I think we took them a little bit by surprise and we played at a high pace from the start and closed down well early on. We need to play at that pace again because our game is based on pace and speed, and if we don’t have that I don’t see how we can win there. We have to raise our level at the right moment. You want to raise your level and after, individually, the players will benefit from that. When we attack well, Alexis will be very dangerous so we have to focus on attacking well together. After that it’s important to remember that we worked very hard to be in this position. At half time against Leicester, we were eight points behind Leicester. Today we are two points behind. We have to take advantage of that.

Meanwhile, Per Mertesacker has also been remembering our emphatic win over United earlier this season, highlighting our game-plan that day and suggesting what will be needed to secure another win over them this weekend. The defender told Arsenal Player:

I think we came out really strong, trusted in ourselves, nicked balls from them in their final third and then broke them down. It was remarkable how we played and how we reacted. We were really active from the start, pressed them high and tried to get the ball as quickly as possible. It completely worked out. It will be a different game this time but I want to see the same effort from our side. That was our plan, to get the ball early, so the distance between where we got the ball and the goal was short. We are dangerous when we win the ball early. I think that’s something we need to emphasise. I would say we are more comfortable going there, or away from home in general, and performing well and to our best [than before]. We need a good performance in Manchester, there’s no doubt about it.

Obviously United’s generally poor form and performances this season are offset a little by our own recent struggles and in particular, the absence of Santi Cazorla, who was outstanding when the two sides last met.

Regular readers will know just how highly I rate our little Spaniard and how much I think he’s missed in the middle of the park right now, but his performance in that 3-0 win encapsulated his brilliance for me.

In the build up to our first goal, eventually flicked home at the near post with aplomb by Alexis, Cazorla picked up possession from one of our centre-halves and toyed with Bastian Schweinsteiger, rolling his foot over the ball and teasing his opponent before drawing him in and releasing it to a team-mate to set us on the attack. And for our second, Cazorla’s control, elusiveness and vision in releasing the ball to Alexis under pressure from Rooney was as brilliant as it was effortlessly efficient.

But aside from those two bits of play, Cazorla ran the game for us alongside Francis Coquelin and played a pivotal role in us dominating the ball and producing fluent football, particularly in that devastating opening 20 minutes in which we scored all three of our goals. We won’t have that level of control on proceedings on Sunday in his absence in my opinion, because the under-rated, over-worked and misunderstood Aaron Ramsey will play in his place, but perhaps we can find another way to be just as effective. I hope so.

Back tomorrow with a preview.

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