First against third will take place on Monday when Arsenal travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United in what will be a fitting end to an exciting weekend. Arsenal lead United by the slimmest of margins, just a point, due to United missing out on league play last weekend against Blackpool because of extreme weather. Whenever two of English football’s biggest clubs meet, fireworks can be expected. Let’s face it, United and Arsenal have dominated the Premier League since its inception so Monday’s prime time match is sure to be enjoyed by millions across the world.
The interesting thing about United v Arsenal, at least this time around, is that top spot is up for grabs and both sides will look to attack with purpose while neither (in recent years) have been prone to set up defensively. Other traditional ‘big 4’ matches featuring Chelsea v Liverpool or United v Chelsea have sometimes proved to be dull, boring affairs while Arsenal v United always entertains.
All pre-match variables point to an open and attacking but tight encounter with top of the league on the line. United have yet to loose in the Premier League this year and Arsenal have the physiological advantage of actually being league leaders thanks to some sensational play in recent weeks from their emerging talisman Samir Nasri.
Before Monday’s appointment, here are three key match-ups we at EPL Talk think will make a difference in the outcome of Manchester United v Arsenal 2010-11, Pt. One.
Samir Nasri v United’s Defense – Nasri is easily the Premier League’s form player of 2010. His contributions to an Arsenal side who have lacked a full strength Cesc Fabregas or Theo Walcott or an out and out goal scorer have seen Arsenal reach the Premier League summit while many would argue they’ve yet to play their best football. Because of Nasri’s emergence as Arsenal’s best player this season coupled with the fact that the Gunners are still without first choice defender Thomas Vermaelen, many believe Arsenal to be serious title contenders when they’re finally able to put a full-strength team together.
Nasri has been instrumental in Arsenal’s success this season because of his versatility as a footballer. He’s capable in a midfield three, a good passer of the ball, pacy and has developed a healthy goal-scoring obsession in the form of eight league goals so far this season. Nasri uses his pace (second fastest on a quick Arsenal side just behind Walcott) and incredible footwork to create space and goal scoring opportunities.
Depending on how Arsene Wenger elects to use his star player will also depend on which of United’s midfielders or defenders will encounter him the most. Should Wenger place Nasri on the left side of Arsenal’s 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, he’ll run into Rafael the most. This could prove incredibly exciting because of how quick both players are while Nasri’s abilities won’t necessarily be used to provide Arsenal with width, but will more likely be used to create space for others by cutting in from the flanks.
Darren Fletcher in midfield is also a likely participant in the containing of Nasri. Because of his work rate and defensive midfield abilities, Fletcher, if fit and starting, will be key in slowing down the league’s best player.
Dimitar Berbatov v Sebastien Squillaci – Berbatov is the league’s leading goal scorer with 11 and will look to add to that tally by testing Arsenal’s (at times, shaky) central defensive pairing of Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny. Arsenal have conceded the most goals this season out of the other three title contenders-United, Manchester City and Chelsea-with 18, so it’ll be up to their center backs to keep them in the game by quieting the Bulgarian.
Berbatov has enjoyed some fine service from those around him in the form of Nani and specifically Wayne Rooney while his finishing has been equally as effective. United’s forward two of Rooney and Berbatov have begun to form quite the partnership upon Rooney’s return to first team action. Although not entirely matured as of yet, their combining in attack has produced a few moments of pure class thus far this season.
As for Arsenal’s Squillaci, the French defender has been asked to step in as cover for the injured Thomas Vermaelen more than expected this season. Although solid on many occasions, Squillaci has been error prone in recent weeks as he trudges through his first season in the Premier League. Pay special attention to his defensive positioning and look for United to attempt to test Arsenal’s back line through crosses into the box from the width that Nani will look to create on the flanks.
Alex Song v Wayne Rooney – Arsenal seem to have found the ‘hard man’ they’ve craved in recent years in the form of Alex Song. Song will sit just in front of the back four which is exactly the space that fit again Wayne Rooney likes to occupy. Playing more as a play-maker or link player than an out and out striker, the battle that Rooney and Song will encounter with each other should be a hard fought one and likely key in a tight match.
Song is a strong midfielder, good in the tackle and can get forward to support in attack when opportunities present themselves. Rooney’s desire to be involved in every movement United attempt and his thirst for the ball witnesses the England striker in more of a roaming role than a ‘high up the pitch goal poacher’. If Rooney can better Song, look for United to create more and enjoy more meaningful possession than Arsenal. Likewise though, if Song can contain Rooney in the same way Fletcher will hope to neutralize Nasri, Arsenal can use Song’s ball winning skills to spark counter attacks into United’s half.
While the predictions will be left to the punters, the match promises to live up to the hype surrounding it. Arsenal would be lying if they said they wouldn’t be pleased with a draw while three points for United would be massive heading into next weekend’s clash with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge as they pocket that game in hand for January.