United against Real ropes
Posted Saturday, February 9 2013 at 02:00
Champions league. Against Madrid, the irony is that if United are to be outnumbered and technically bettered in midfield their escape route should be the wings where they would ideally find some breathing space.
Those who run the English Premier League couldn’t care less (they must be enjoying it all actually), but the scrutiny that the clubs, managers and players find themselves under has reached the other side of ridiculous.
When Mesut Ozil slid through the pass, a thing of true beauty, which led to Samir Khedira’s winner for Germany against France, the commentator blared: “A goal made in Madrid, and scored in Paris!”
With the commentator’s suspiciously euphoric voice still ringing in my ears, the texts and tweets begun to pour in from my gloating Arsenal-supporting mates who have been eagerly awaiting the Real Madrid vs Man United Champions League showdown since the draws were announced late last year. I momentarily wondered why on earth these guys would suppose that I want Man United to topple Real Madrid (wink wink!), but even if I did I am already on record as saying it is not going to happen.
It is a call I made right here not long after the shaggy-haired Steve McManaman had the balls (out of a bowl, that is) to pit the two modern day European aristocrats against each other. But the selective amnesia on that part allows my Gooner buddies to have someone to laugh at, which is important for their continued sanity as a welcome distraction from their own relatively sorry plight these days.
If it helps, let me assure these Gooners (not goons mind, I wouldn’t dare) that with several weeks having flown by since those predictions I made in early December, a re-assessment has me believing that Arsenal now have a much better chance of ejecting Bayern Munich than United have of bettering Real.
You see, the France-Germany game I referred to earlier was not the only one drawing my attention on Wednesday night when SuperSport was awash with international football, from those dramatic African Nations Cup semis to friendlies involving the minnows and mighty of Europe and Latin America.
Lazily lounging on my couch, it occurred to me as I flipped from one channel to the next that almost all of Arsenal’s first teamers were mixing it with the world’s finest and acquitting themselves quite well, thank you very much.
That France-Germany game had Laurent Koscielny and Bacary Sagna doggedly trying to hold off the world’s second best attacking force, which included their teammate Lukas Podolski, while on the other end Per Metersacker was doing an even better job subduing the determined intent of Karim Benzema, Frank Ribery and co.
Earlier on that same channel, new Gunners left back Nacho Monreal had come on moments after the exit of Santi Carzola as Spain saw off Uruguay, a game into which Mikel Arteta would have slotted quite easily. Two backward clicks on the remote control and up came Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott slicing through Brazil’s rearguard at Wembley, and I would see a little later on the highlights channel that Aaron Ramsey’s Wales had overcome Wojciech Szczesny’s Poland in Cardiff.
It goes beyond the mere fact that Arsenal are an outfit littered with credible internationals, or that the team’s form has significantly improved from the day of the Champions League draw, a dark time too close to the Black November that perpetually blights their season.
What is even more noteworthy is that, with their individuals and the team’s chosen shape, Arsenal are currently better equipped to compete in Europe than United.
Any three of Abou Diaby, Wilshere, Arteta, Carzola and Ramsey give the team balance, shape and numbers in the very area where European games are not only controlled but won, and the makeup of the three forwards they pick is such that they are naturally inclined to converge in that all-important zone from time to time.
Of course it takes a lot more to win ties and trophies, and United would forge ahead of the Gunners when mental strength, self belief, dogged competitiveness, ambition, the will to win and single minded pursuit of success came into it.
But since they are not facing each other, United cannot count on those qualities to navigate their way around Europe, as they so tellingly discovered against Benfica, Basle and Athletic Blibao last season, teams against which Arsenal would have fared decidedly better.
With wing play deeply embedded into United’s DNA, the central midfield numbers game which is a pre-requisite to success in Europe usually goes out the window, although the durable and surprisingly adjustable Sir Alex Ferguson has sometimes sacrificed his wingers to that very end, including in away games against Cluj, Galatasary and Braga in the group stage this term.
Against Madrid, the irony is that if United are to be outnumbered and technically bettered in midfield their escape route should be the wings where they would ideally find some breathing space and the comfort of know-how.
Yet, like Pep Guardiola in that final at Wembley in 2011, Jose Mourinho is aware and will stifle those wings. And he might not have to do much considering the terrible form United’s wingers are in at the moment, and general shortcomings which include being one-dimensional and woefully predictable (Antonio Valencia), annoyingly inconsistent and devoid of the killer edge (Nani), limited in ability (Ashley Young). While deploying two wingers and two forwards against lesser opposition, United have severally got away with the thinness of midfield because of Wayne Rooney’s versatility, tactical awareness and willingness to plug holes up and down the pitch.
But even if Fergie blanked his wingers and played the numbers game in the middle, the weaknesses in United’s approach in this formation would still be glaring. Granted too much room for a man with such gifts, Ozil had the time and space to pick out Khedira against the French with deadly precision, and I couldn’t help but catch Patrice Evra on camera, shunning responsibility and hoping for an offside call which never came.
Evra’s folly represents United’s failure to adopt the culture of closing down spaces, pressing teams upfield, harrying opponents in possession, and then using the power of numbers as well as the quality and confidence of individuals to jealously guard possession once they have it.