|photo by O. Taillon Photography
I can't remember the last time I had this feeling.... I'm so excited I'm bouncing off the walls. The famous Man United are back, after almost two weeks of doubt, misery and consternation, the pace, the excitement, the hustle and flat out desire were all on exhibit today in the 2-nil thrashing of the fomer quadruple candidates, Arsenal. Backs to the wall, the team responded with what I think and hope will be a season-making type of performance. Fielding an unusual lineup, Sir Alex justified his reputation as a strategic genius, firing up the squad to play one of their most complete games of the entire season.
This one had it all: the old Wayne Rooney, the one with the pace, touch, and finishing skills; the legend that is Edwin Van der Sar, rolling back the hands of Father Time to produce yet another Man of the Match performance, rejecting Arsenal's advances time and again; the Gunners punching at twin shadows on the flank, the speedy Brazilian Da Silva brothers injecting infectious excitement that rippled throughout the entire squad and home crowd; Vida and Smalling, laying down the law and showing once again who's boss in the middle of the pitch; O'Shea, Evra and Brown turning in steadily confident performances; Gibson, battling back at his critics and offering a stellar performance in midfield, suggesting he does have a future at Old Trafford; Chicharito lurking like a silent killer, providing dangerous runs and creating space where none seems to exist; Giggs reaching back for inspiration and channeling days of the past; and most unbelievably of all, most incredibly, Antonio Valencia looking as if he hadn't missed a day of practice in the past five months. To say Valencia was a revalation is to understate the matter. He's been missed, but today gave us a beacon of hope, the hope that his steady touch and devastatingly direct brand of football will once again be on regular display for United. Only Paul Scholes looked slightly off-key for the home side, but even he had his point to prove: this is our house, our trophy, and we're not backing down an inch.
What a sharp contract to the other side of the pitch, as once again the media darlings from London have proved curiously fragile. Let me be clear here: I enjoy watching Arsenal, and I don't hate them in the same guttural way that I do Liverpool, Chelsea, and (increasingly) City. They even have some likeable and skilled players, and I'm growing more impressed by Jack Wilshere with each passing performance (call me late to this party, but I had some early season doubts). And I think Wenger is a damned good coach. But at the risk of alienating my entire French readership, like many a Frenchman, Le Professor is stubborn.
To mangle Shakespeare, there's something wrong in France. It starts with the coach, and his continued resistance to strengthening the spine of his team, and adding some real teeth to his Arsenal squad (teeth that have been missing since Vieira departed, to be honest). And it continues with El Capitan, Cesc Fabregas, who is an eminently skilled ballplayer and seems like a nice enough guy, but one who is not yet ready to have the responsibility of being Captain thrust upon him. I mean, seriously, can you imagine Rio Ferdinand hugging John Terry in the tunnel, pre-game in a Champions League knockout round, because they are teammates on the national team, as Cesc did with his friends from Barcelona? The mere thought is laughable, and in the end, maybe this is what's wrong with Arsenal: they're too nice, too pretty, too intent on creating the "just-so" brand of football, and not vicious enough, lacking the killer spirit necessary to win trophies.
There was plenty of that on display from the men in Red today. The fact of the matter is that the final score might only have been 2-nil, but the game never felt close, and but for Manuel Almunia the final margin could have been larger -- much larger, in fact. Most amazingly of all, Arsenal were defeated with what could easily be described as a "rag tag" side, thrown together seemingly at the last minute, and lacking both Berbatov and Nani -- United's two biggest influences to date this season.
Shown below is my article for the game: I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it:
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Unconventional is perhaps the easiest thing we can say about the lineup put out by Sir Alex this afternoon. Appearing to have been drawn straight out of a hat, United line up against their hated North London rivals with no less than seven natural defenders on the pitch. With one eye keenly tyrned toward Tuesday's Champions League match with Marseille, the names read straight out of a defense manual: O'Shea, Smalling, Brown, Vidic, Evra, Rafael and Fabio. For good measure, Sir Alex has thrown in Darren Gibson to complement Rooney and Chicharito on offense. Once again, the enigmatic Bulgarian hitman, Dimitar Berbatov is left on the bench.
United start on the front foot, pressing Arsenal high up the pitch and forcing turnovers. Arsenal counter with a quick strike through Arshavin, and United's makeshift lineup is momentarily exposed as the diminutive Russian tests Van der Sar with the day's first shot. Arsenal string together pass after pass early on, and the games modus operandi is immediately clear: Arsenal's controlled and calculated passing game versus United's speed on the counter, with the Brazilian twins set to bomb down the wings.
Fifteen minutes in and Fabio offers a fine cross to Rafael directly in front of the goal, and it's the best opportunity for the home side to this point in the match. Showing his unfamiliarity in his newfound position, though, Fabio's twin image heads it well over the bar and Arsenal are let off.
A quarter of the way through and both teams have struggled to create any real offensive chances, with Arsenal passing around the box and United stuck in, with the home side dropping deep but struggling at this point to get men up the pitch. Van der Sar is the busier of the two 'keepers, occupied primarily with retrieving balls shot from distance, but hasn't really been tested yet.
It's the twin Brazilians who turn in the first play of the day, and the sequence is as breathtaking to behold as it is to describe: Fabio with a searching cross-pitch pass to Rafael, who quickly passes the ball back to Fabio, and it's on to Rooney, in the air to Chicharito, and when the young Mexican's header is well parried by Almunia, it's Fabio providing United with the early 1-nil lead. It's a fine header by Chicharito, head coiled and striking like a deadly cobra, with the Arsenal 'keeper doing well to keep it out before Fabio's finish. It's an inch perfect pass from Rooney to set up the header, and perhaps an omen of things to come.
Van Persie threatens at the other end, and it's Van der Sar to the rescue with a finger-tip save, the first time all day that the Dutchman has got to really show his chops. It's Van Persie again, breaking free on the resulting corner, and he's just wide off his head from the near post, exposing United's weakness in set plays this season.
Arsenal have lots of possession but are unable to break United down; Wenger cuts an increasingly frustrated figure on the sideline as Arsenal lack a cutting edge of any sort. Just before the half Nasri tests Van der Sar once again, shooting between the legs of Wes Brown, and forcing the Dutchman to dive for the ball once again.
Antonio Valencia replaces Fabio at the interval, and it's a welcome return for the once and future United star. Immediately Valencia picks out Rooney in midfield, and there's hope that the partnership that sparkled so brightly last year can spring back to life. It's Arsenal, though, with the first real chance of the half, and it's Koscielny and Arshavin with successive missiles on target, denied again by the big man between the sticks for United.
It's at the other end of the pitch, though, that the game is defined when Rooney puts the nail in the Arsenal coffin after Rafael has picked out Hernadez. The deflected shot falls right to Rooney, who makes quick work with his head off the post to put United up by a two goal advantage. It's another brilliant play by Rooney on a day full of them, and Djourou can only stare as the ball bounces in off the post and Arsenal's fingers slip off yet another trophy opportunity.
In truth, this United side is startlingly brilliant today, full of life and verve. The defending is acrobatic and resourceful, and the effort level is pinned to maximum. There is so much desire and zest in this United squad today that it's hard to believe this team contains some of the same players who turned in such an insipid performance against Liverpool last weekend.
It's a measure of depseration that Arsene Wenger turns to Marouanne Chamakh in an attempt to turn the game around, the Frenchman a stranger to the goal in recent times. Ryan Giggs replaces Rafael in the game's 65th minute, and you've got to hand it to the two young Brazilians today, giving their all for the team. Giggs makes almost an immediate impact, picking out Rooney, whose pass is critically intercepted by Arsenal before Chicharito can tap it into an empty net. Two minutes later and it's Valencia, Smalling (!), Hernandez and Giggs once again, with Giggs lingering just too long on the ball in front of net, taking it away from Hernandez and a certain third goal.
Aaron Ramsey returns for the Gunners, and along with Valencia, it's terrific for anyone who loves football to see both players back on the pitch. Van der Sar is forced to beat back yet another Arsenal challenge shortly thereafter, as Chamakh (Chamakh!) almost makes himself useful on a cross from Sagna. The 40+ year old United 'keeper has been immense today, as if trying to make up for his spilled ball last weekend. A couple of minutes later and it's Rosicky testing the Duthcman from distance, the ball stinging off ven de Sar's palms, but the United defense is first again to the ball, for the umpteenth time today.
At the other end it's Almunia with a world class save, somehow palming the ball out of the goal at the end of an absolutely scintillating counter-attack involving Rooney and Chicharito. Sadly, Johann Djourou is injured on the play, his shoulder ripped out of its socket by Bacary Sagna as the two collide in an attempt to stop the Mexican from adding to United's lead.
Without a sub to replace Djourou, Arsenal are reduced to 10 men for the last five minutes plus the eight minutes of stoppage time. The Gunners appear dead tired at thi spoint, reminiscent of their mid-week loss to Barcelona, as they fail to chase down the ball for the first time all game. When they do gain possession, Tomas Rosicky misses a clear opportunity to put Arsenal back in the contest, on the end of yet another useful Bacary Sagna cross, but it's just not happening for Arsenal today.
Paul Scholes adds a bit of red menace to the game's ending, sparking a bit of controvery and some furor, as well as some minor pushing and shoving. United are unlucky not to add to the final score today, as Rooney and Chicharito combine once again on the counter, but Almunia bails out his side once more. Both goaltenders have been terrific today, and Arsenal are fortunate to leave Old Trafford with only a two goal deficit. It's United's day, as the Reds go marching on, all the way to Wem-ber-ly and an FA Cup semi-final.
This is farlieonfootie for March 13.