I haven’t written about Arsenal since the season began. I wanted to wait until we at least went through ten games of the Premier League season, but other things caught my eye. Good thing too. If I had written this after the comeback at West Ham United, I would feel very elated and thrilled with what I had seen. Had I written it after the Norwich/Schalke twin stacks of shit, then you can be certain I would have been spewing venom and spitting fire. But this point is as good as any since it marks the coming together of twin forces of vengeance and disgust.
434 days ago, Arsenal received their worst defeat in modern history. It was their worst defeat in the Premier League era. It was the worst defeat of Arsene Wenger’s storied career. In fact, I don’t even need to mention the scoreline or the opponents and every Gooner knows which game I mean.
So now, 434 days later, Arsenal return to the scene of the accident, like some desperate surfer wading hesitantly into the waters once again in the hope that this time the ocean won’t toss him around before swallowing him whole. I, like everyone else, wish that it was under better circumstances. The absences of Szczesny and Gibbs mean we must once again trust our backups – Mannone and Santos this time. Mannone hasn’t been horrible, but it’s clear that he’s reached his ceiling. Santos looks lost in defense, which isn’t helped by the roaming runs of Thomas Vermaelen. The captain has not been covering himself in any glory this season – were it not for Koscielny’s equally-frightening form, it would be questionable as to whether or not the Captain would be starting.
In spite of all that I have said, Arsenal still retain the (statistically) best defense in the Premier League. Furthermore, if you take all the competitions together, the only time Arsenal have conceded more than 2 goals this year was Wednesday’s weird Capital One Cup game where Arsenal conceded 5 and scored 7. Beyond that, only Chelsea and Schalke have scored 2 in any single game against Arsenal. Considering all the injuries, all the turnover and all the chaos, that’s pretty good.
The problem, to put it mildly, has been the anemic scoring. Throw out the outliers against Coventry, Reading and Southampton. Arsenal have scored more than 1 goal in 4 games (at Liverpool, at West Ham, at Montpellier and against Olympiakos). If there’s a positive to be found there, it’s that three of those were away from Emirates. Arsenal is currently tied with Swansea and Southampton for 6th best scoring team in the league – three guesses as to what team ranks #1.
It also doesn’t help that our top league scorer is Gervinho (with 3) while the league’s top scorer is…gulp..Robin van Persie with 7 (joint top with Newcastle’s Demba Ba). That would be the same Gervinho who will be missing from the trip to Old Trafford thanks to a knock picked up during the QPR game. Perhaps the absence of Gervinho will force Wenger to play his 12-million pound striker, Olivier Giroud. While he has gotten off to a slow start, he links well with the other attackers and midfielders and has a height and power that has to be respected. Giroud versus Ferdinand/Evans could be where the game turns for Arsenal.
Looking at this game, you have to give their attacking prowess the advantage. They will field van Persie, Rooney, Valencia and Young while Arsenal will likely put out Giroud, Podolski and either Walcott (if he’s not too tired from the 120 minute game from midweek), Arshavin (ditto) or Aaron Ramsey (who’d be out of position on the right wing). Things look much better in midfield where we should expect Arsenal to field Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere against United’s Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick. There will be some apprehension at not fielding a defensive midfielder that can break up the flow of United’s attack – but since that attack is likely going to go through the wings, it might not matter. Defenses on both sides face injury issues – Gibbs for Arsenal, Vidic for United – and neither goalkeeper will fill their respective supporters with much confidence. At least Arsenal aren’t juggling between De Gea and Lindegaard.
That said, Arsenal’s supporters can enter this game knowing that it won’t be a team fielded with kids, reservists and total unknowns just thrown into the mix. This team has had opportunity to gel and come together. And if they’ve been going through a blue spell, then this provides them with the opportunity to bounce back in some sort of fashion and put a marker of their ambitions laying beyond mere Champions League qualification. It’s simple: win at Old Trafford and all the dark clouds and doomsayers go away for a while.
I don’t think we’ll see an 8-2, but I think we’ll see goals. Hell, this might be a 5-3 thriller – like United just had with Chelsea on midweek. Both sides are better going forward than protecting a lead and both sides have enough issues that they can find themselves on the losing end. A draw might seem the safest of all outcomes – but saying a draw will be the result seems cowardly. Can I expect Arsenal to be on the giving end of the thumping this time? I always do. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!