Analysis and Observations: Sir Alex’s experiment turns into masterstroke

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal: Observations

Manchester United v Arsenal - FA Cup 6th Round

There is always something very enigmatic about the way Manchester United goes about and plays the game. There is sometimes something mystifying about the way the club is run, their transfer policy and even the players they possess. It’s almost impossible, then, to predict who manager Sir Alex Ferguson will entrust in to win him a football game.

Injuries severely limited options ahead of a key game at home to Arsenal, so he instilled faith in no less than seven players you’d regard as players of a defensive nature in what looked, if you broke it down, a 4-4-1-1 formation. Certainly confusion ensued. It looked a gamble that would almost certainly benefit the visitor. Instead, at the end, you were left with the impression that Sir Alex is a genius of the distinguished sort, and that his anticipated risky ‘experiment’ was a tactical masterstroke.

Twins thrive down the flanks. It was quite incredible. Much has been spoken of how both Rafael and Fabio would be suited to the role of wide men, which is plausible seeing as they have earned their reputation playing as a ‘wing back’ rather than a full back. They’re offensive game is, arguably, more developed than their defensive game. With all the injuries, they were given the chance to strut their stuff – and strut they did. The tactic proved effective, and both were allowed such freedom and the comfort of having a Rooney to compliment them.

Showing such dynamism and verve, the duo mirrored each other in not just appearance, but in quality and efficiency of their performance. Both swapped positions and occasionally drifted up front. And, sure enough, Fabio got onto the scoresheet started by a counter that involved his brother. Hernandez had forced Almunia into a good low save and Fabio, steaming into the box, was there to pounce having sensed a rebound. They were both substituted soon after; but they could reflect on a job well done and perhaps a starting position against Marseille on Tuesday night.

The Rooney and Hernandez combination. Having seen the team sheet, it was perceived that Wayne Rooney would drop into the ‘hole’ behind Javier Hernandez and occasionally drift into midfield and give support to John O’Shea and Darron Gibson. Correct. And that, like the da Silva deployment, proved successful. He scored with a nifty header in the second half and without trying to sound too reactionary, looks close to be discovering his form of last season. His drive, his obligation to the cause had set United up on the route to victory. He was excellent in supporting Javier Hernandez, who flourished himself as a lone forward. The Mexican would, however, be a touch regretful that he didn’t score but will surely take heart that his positional awareness and movement was as good as ever.

Arsenal prevented by stubborn defence. The Gunners showed great urgency at times and had created more chances, almost understandably having found themselves two goals down just minutes after the restart. Chamakh’s header late on was their best chance and, for a player so usually successful in the air, he would be annoyed at himself for not turning that chance in. It was van der Sar who pulled off the save, amongst many others, playing so well that when he was awarded Man of the Match, it was accepted by both sets of fans. His shield, consisting of the ever-reliable partnership of Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidic, were more than useful and had Arsenal kicking their heels all evening.

Other talking points. Paul Scholes should have perhaps seen red for two rather rash challenges, and had he seen red, there surely could have been no complaints considering his needless reactions after his second tackle where he confronted some opposition players. But on the good news, John O’Shea and Darron Gibson provided solidity and stability in the centre of midfield and proved valuable in stifling the Gunners’ rhythm. And even better than that was the sight of Antonio Valencia returning from his long lay-off – well timed you might say with Nani said to be out until April.

The Report Card. United can give themselves a welcome pat on the back for an encouraging performance in the aftermath of two defeats against two of their rivals.

Van der Sar A; Wes Brown C, Chris Smalling B+, Nemanja Vidic B+, Patrice Evra C; Rafael B, Darron Gibson C, John O’Shea C, Fabio B+; Wayne Rooney B+; Javier Hernandez C

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