Van Gaal wanted to surprise Arsene Wenger with his team selection on Sunday. By opting to omit Valencia, (who did well against Alexis last season), move Darmian to the right and install Ashely Young at left back I have no doubt Wenger was surprised. Pleasantly surprised.
I said last week that our best attacks would come down our right side, because I believed we would target Darmian. If he was going to struggle against Ramsey, how on earth was he ever going to play against Alexis Sanchez.
Ashley Young was another inspired selection, (for us). He is a capable player but a left back he is not. He was given no help from Memphis and was abused over and over by a combination of Bellerin, Ramsey and Özil. It came as no surprise to me that our first goal came from that side.
United fans making the short journey home will have been asking themselves the same question we were after the Olympiakos debacle.
Why sign a marquee player for big games like this if you’re not going to play him?
Whilst I understand that Carrick is a very good player, neither he nor his fellow starter Bastian Schweinsteiger have the mobility and tackling prowess that Schneiderlin possesses.
Seeing him start (and stay) on the bench would have been another pleasant surprise for Arsene and also Mesut Özil, who was then free to operate under very little pressure and with enough space to destroy United inside of twenty minutes.
I’m still not sure whether Schweinsteiger was instructed to close down Cazorla or whether he took his own initiative to do so.
Seeing Rooney starting once again as a central attacking midfielder, (because Van Gaal has finally figured out that he’s not a great striker) I assumed that if anyone would have been instructed to close Santi down it would have been him.
Perhaps the plan was for the German to win the ball and give it to Rooney, however that only makes sense if LVG doesn’t trust him to take the ball forward in attack. Maybe the theory was that Schweinsteiger would win the ball from Cazorla and then create a five on five situation. If it was a tactical decision then it was a bad one, because it left a gaping hole in the United midfield.
Personally I think that it was a decision that was taken by the player at the time, and his enthusiasm was curbed by LVG at the break. Why would you risk going forward to tackle Cazorla and leave one of the best number 10’s on the planet in acres of space, away from home and with only a patchwork backline to defend with if the move broke down.
One of the main benefits of a deep lying playmaker like Santi Cazorla is that they are very hard to tackle in the first place. Like Pirlo, Xavi and to an extent Clarence Seedorf, our diminutive Spaniard is very adept at escaping tight situations and creating the space needed for an accurate pass. (Who remembers how easily Pirlo escaped a high press against England at the last World Cup and ran the game from his position).
The reason the Coquelin-Cazorla partnership works so well is not just because Francis can win the ball and give it to Santi, it’s also because when he does receive it he rarely gets caught in possession.
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United rectified most of their problems in the second half. They brought on Valencia for Darmian and Fellaini for Memphis but they weren’t made with a view to attack, they were made with a view to keep the score at three.
What was very positive from the second half was that they still couldn’t break us down. Part of the reason for that was we weren’t needlessly chasing a fourth goal. We’ve been guilty of letting big leads slip before now for the sake a scoring another in a game which is effectively over. United played their part by not being very efficient going forward or punishing the mistakes that we made in defence. They also lacked creativity in attack and resorted to moving Rooney wide left and trying to use Fellaini almost as an attacking midfielder, when he sometimes seems to me to run around like a ridiculously hairy headless chicken without much end product.
Overall we were superb in attack and good enough in defence to upset United’s fragile balance. They had been getting away with winning without looking very convincing until they came to the Emirates, and hopefully other teams will have taken note and will have a real go at them.
Just a quick word on Theo Walcott. A lot has been made of how he’s been talking to Thierry Henry a lot and that this could be one of the reasons why he’s been so good recently. Personally I don’t discount the possibility, however it appears to me that he’s taking more leaves out of Alexis’s book than Henry’s.
He was everywhere against United, and even though he didn’t score himself he put one on a plate for Özil. He created space with his runs, tackled when he could and made good decisions in possession. He’s getting more effective with each passing game, and if he keeps this form up he’ll be every inch the £50 million striker we all wanted over the summer. (I wonder how much Coquelin is worth?). Theo should now be knocking on Roy Hodgson’s door asking why he isn’t starting up front for England given his current form. His performance against Estonia was very good, and I’d wager that had he started centrally he would have scored more than one. (Harry Kane was awful).
Editor: this post was written before the England game, which saw Theo starting up front (and scoring.)