Recent history suggests that Arsenal should be wary of the threat posed by Monday’s opponents in the FA Cup, Manchester United. This is after all, a team they have failed to beat in any of their last ten meetings at Old Trafford. Even with all their recent travails, the team from the red half of Manchester has still only lost once at ‘the theatre of dreams’ in the league and continues to grind out results week in, week out. Which leads a lot of pundits to surmise that they remain odds-on favourites to finish in the top four and make further progress in the FA Cup. In addition, lest anyone forgets, they also have home advantage in this tie which leads to the supposition, perhaps a little bit misguided, that they hold a significant advantage in terms of their chances of progression.
The natural inclination as a consequence of the above synopsis is to believe that Arsenal’s only chance of winning, or even securing a draw that will lead to a replay, lies in the Gunners’ adopting an ultra-conservative approach to the encounter and battening down the hatches, with a view to replicating the kind of smash and grab effort they displayed on the occasion of their last visit to Manchester, against City in January.
If Arsenal adopts this approach, they will be making a grave mistake, however. The circumstances are completely different this time around and necessitate that the Gunners have to go on the offensive. Unlike Manchester City at the Etihad, United are a team whose confidence remains brittle, their recent decent results notwithstanding. Their performances have been workmanlike at best and it’s probably correct to say that their big players like Angel di Maria, Falcao and Rooney are not currently at the peak of their powers.
Arsenal, on the other hand should be going into this encounter with a reasonable measure of confidence. The Gunners have shown plenty of evidence in recent weeks that they possess some of the most exciting attacking options in the premier league. The best approach surely will be to be daring and attempt to take advantage of some of the insecurity that currently exists with this Manchester United team. Besides, despite doing a decent job against City, Arsenal’s players are much more comfortable playing an expansive, possession based game than they are when utilising negative tactics and attempting to make the team hard to beat. In sum, playing defensively is a tactic that can be adopted successfully on occasion, but any attempt by the Gunners to make this a regular strategy is likely to lead to decidedly mixed results.
This is not to say that the Gunners should not remain just as focused on ensuring that they defend properly and work hard off the ball when the occasion requires. Of course this is necessary, but if Arsenal is to come away with a positive result on Monday evening they have to ensure that they are first and foremost prepared to win the psychological battle of winning against an opponent that they have failed to beat on this ground in ten attempts, and this will be impossible to accomplish if every Arsenal player on the day is not absolutely imbued with the self-belief that the task is one that can be accomplished.
With this in mind, it’s expected that Arsène Wenger will probably set up his charges in a more rigid 4-1-4-1 formation with the intent to make things as difficult for United in the middle of the park without inhibiting any of Arsenal’s forward play. Aaron Ramsey is likely to come back into the starting line-up to provide greater industry and drive and also assist in pressing against United’s lynchpin at the base of their midfield, likely to be Daley Blind. That means that Mesut Özil should move towards the flanks to accommodate the pair of Santi Cazorla and Ramsey at the top of Arsenal’s midfield triangle. The German has been in good form of late and there were more signs at Loftus Road that he is beginning to forge something of a partnership with Alexis Sánchez, something that every Arsenal fan simply cannot wait to materialise. Sánchez’s breaking his mini scoring drought was another positive sign and should hopefully see him return to the kind of blistering scoring form that he possessed earlier on in the season. Alongside the brilliant Chilean upfront, Olivier Giroud’s recent good form in front of goal should ensure that Arsenal retain plenty of firepower, even though the emphasis should be on keeping as much possession as possible and allowing the frustration of Manchester United’s fans to boil over when they see their team starved of the ball for long periods.
If there is one thing that’s certain, it’s that this game will provide a stiff test of Arsenal’s nerve. There’s little doubt however, that unlike the recent occasions where the Gunners have viewed this fixture with some degree of trepidation owing to a gulf in class between the two sides, they can firmly believe that this time, they possess the manpower to pose some serious problems for Louis Van Gaal’s side. A victory is certainly attainable, but to achieve that Arsenal have simply got to believe.