Across all competitions, Arsenal have conceded 26 goals this season. It’s no secret that their defense is shaky, to say the least, and a review of all 26 reveals three key areas that United will be looking to exploit this coming Monday.
The first is the centre-backs. Bar a lunatic change in formation, Monday night will see two of Laurent Koscielny, Sébastien Squillaci and Johan Djourou at the heart of the Arsenal defence. Arsène Wenger’s usual preference in the league has been for Koscielny and Squillaci, neither of whom could be said to have really settled yet. Watching them, you are struck by their relative weakness, both in straightforward physical terms, but also their inability to dominate the area around them.
Koscielny, for example, was outmuscled against Blackburn early in the season, and had a torrid time against Chelsea. The callow nature of the defensive partnership is particularly noticeable in the air; Aston Villa’s first goal came from a weak defensive header, the second from two unchallenged headers. Tottenham’s comeback was sparked by Jermain Defoe, of all people, winning a header after a long punt forward, and Darren Bent’s late, late equaliser came from a poorly cleared set-piece.
The second area of weakness is the full-back/centre-back channel. Arsenal’s fullbacks — likely to be Bacary Sagna and Gaël Clichy — are quick and generally bright going forward, but neither is particularly sharp positionally, and can be exposed by weighted passes into the spaces behind them. This is particularly relevant in the case of Clichy, who has been short of form since sometime last season, and whose decision-making throughout this campaign has been, at times, startlingly naive. Indeed, but for the lack of an experienced alternative, he might have been dropped some time ago. Both Eduardo’s goals in the two Shakhtar Donetsk games were assisted by crosses from behind Clichy, while West Brom and Chelsea’s openers came from quick balls between Sagna and the right-sided centre-back.
Nani, as so often this season, will be crucial; if he can get time and space on the right, and cross accurately, Rooney should prosper in the air against Koscielny and Djourou. Macheda could also be effective from the bench. Accurate passing into space will be required, which means that Scholes, if fit, should play, and possibly Carrick as well. Obertan might be an option on the left, though would be an uncharacteristically bold starting selection. Park seems more likely.
The third (and perhaps most important) is a more general point. Arsenal suffer from a general lack of organisation and concentration at the back. This manifests itself in various ways: wonky offside lines, centre-backs too far apart, a lack of midfield cover (particularly from the ambulatory Alex Song), but most notably with a lack of coherence in the transitional phase. Arsenal are more vulnerable to quick breaks from a turnover of possession, rather than sustained spells of pressure. For this reason, United might be best served playing Park in a central role, to take advantage of his energy levels in disrupting Arsenal’s passing game; if he can annoy Andrea Pirlo, he can annoy Jack Wilshere. Otherwise, that will be Anderson’s job.
The key is to be direct. Arsenal’s defence is relatively new, and, in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, lacking coordination, power and confidence. If Rooney can unsettle the central defenders, and United’s midfield can move the ball with speed and intelligence, then the goals will come.
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