Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Wembley awaits as Welbeck guns down Manchester United

8,600 Arsenal fans made their way up to Manchester on Monday more out of hope than expectation. This wasn’t really because there was much to fear in the current Manchester United team, but more to do with the wretched record Arsenal have at Old Trafford in recent years. Even last season, with Manchester United in a mess under David Moyes, the Red Devils still found a way to win against the Gunners, making it nine defeats in ten games for Arsenal away at Old Trafford.
In the Premier League meeting between the two teams earlier in the season, Arsenal dominated the match, played at a high tempo and should have comfortably dispatched Manchester United back up north without any points. Yet somehow the Gunners imploded again, losing 2-1. The 2-0 win away to Manchester City did offer the travelling Gooners some cause of optimism, but the Manchester United mental block was still a huge one to overcome.
While both teams showed nerves given the magnitude of the game, and the importance it would have on the season for the two clubs, Arsenal always looked to have more control than Manchester United, as Arsene Wenger got his team selection and tactics spot on. While most expected Olivier Giroud to start, Wenger selected a motivated ex-Man Utd man, Danny Welbeck, to lead the line and chase down the vulnerable home defence. While he didn’t hold the ball up as well as the Frenchman to bring others into play, Welbeck was a constant threat because of his pace. It was this speed that allowed him to capitalise on the short back-pass from Antonio Valencia in the second half, round David de Gea and slide the ball in to send Arsenal to Wembley.
There was a momentary pause from Welbeck after he scored as he contemplated not celebrating for a split-second, but the emotion took over. It was a huge goal for his new club, regardless of the opposition, but it was also one in the eye for a manager who deemed Welbeck not good enough to play for his boyhood club. The goal could be the confidence boost he needs to score more for the Gunners, and feel like he’s properly added the full stop to his career at Manchester United.
Welbeck was just one of the players brought in by Arsene Wenger as the boss made five changes from the starting XI in the previous game at Queens Park Rangers. Such is the depth of options now available in the squad, those five changes didn’t make the team look weaker at all. Before going off when he tweaked a hamstring, the returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided Arsenal with an excellent attacking outlet on the right-hand side, while Laurent Koscielny looked more like himself returning alongside Per Mertesacker.
Nacho Monreal also came back into the team after being unlucky to be replaced by Kieran Gibbs in the last few games. The battle for the left-back spot is an interesting one for Arsene Wenger because he now has two players who, while they have slightly different qualities, can be relied upon and trusted. Each time you think one is getting ahead of the other, there’ll be a great performance that changes your mind. Against Manchester United, I thought Monreal was excellent. Apart from the cross from Angel Di Maria which led to Wayne Rooney’s goal, he closed off Manchester United’s right-hand side and fought hard for the team.
His night was topped off by scoring his second goal for the club. He timed his advance into the penalty area perfectly in the first half to be the beneficiary of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s mazy run. Monreal ghosted into acres of space in the box, took a confident first touch and stroked the ball past de Gea at the near post. Considering the quality attackers who have been thwarted by Manchester United’s Spanish goalkeeper this season, it was impressive to see Monreal offer a lesson in calm finishing.
Everywhere else on the field, Arsenal players stood up and worked hard for the cause. Even against a Manchester United team that is still trying to find itself, every Arsenal player needed to put a shift in to get a result, and everyone did that. Francis Coquelin typified the spirit by being a warrior in front of the back four, while Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, bar allowing Rooney a free header to equalise, dealt with the balls into the box from the hosts.
Having not watched too much of Manchester United this season, I was staggered by their style of play when watching them live. With Marouane Fellaini in the team, United were constantly looking for the direct ball into the box, with very few alternatives. This helped Arsenal as they were happy to let United have the ball in defence, or in midfield, knowing it was unlikely they’d play through Arsenal’s midfield. Arsenal also adapted at set-pieces, with Per Mertesacker breaking out from the zonal system to man-mark Fellaini out of the equation.
While Louis van Gaal seemed to be guessing with his substitutions by making two at half-time, Arsene Wenger was more in control, making the right changes. Most fans, myself included, expected Theo Walcott to replace the injured Oxlade-Chamberlain, but Wenger opted for Aaron Ramsey, who enabled Arsenal to further control the midfield. He then sensibly replaced Hector Bellerin with Calum Chambers before the Spaniard was able to receive a second yellow card, and Olivier Giroud was able to hold the ball up and win a few free-kicks near the end of the game after replacing Welbeck.
It wasn’t an explosive Arsenal performance, but it was sensible and controlled in a frantic game. The defensive shape of the team was good, but they always looked dangerous when in possession. It has taken time, but it does feel like Arsene Wenger and his team are beginning to get the measure of these big away games.
Arsenal’s victory was helped by having a referee who was willing to make brave, and correct, decisions against Manchester United. Michael Oliver correctly booked two players for diving, before giving Angel Di Maria a second yellow card for his daft shirt pull on the referee. Because of their desire to win set-pieces to put the ball in the box for Fellaini, it seemed United players were desperate to go to ground during the whole evening, so to actually see it punished was refreshing.
The Gunners will make a fourth trip to Wembley in just over a year, with the winning run rumbling on in the FA Cup. For the second season, Arsenal have reached the semi-finals without needing a replay. In a strange way, the semi-final place was just a nice consequence of winning the game. Arsenal had a point to prove, while Danny Welbeck had a personal score to settle. The travelling 8,600 fans were loud and proud, and the Old Trafford hoodoo was broken. It was bloody fantastic!