The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
Arsenal v. Manchester United, Wenger v. Sir Alex, Fabregas v. Ronaldo, the league’s sharpest attack v. the league’s bluntest defense, 316 wins v. 375 wins, and Howard Webb v. the human tendency to assume a falling man was tripped, in the biggest match of the Premier League season so far. Actually, forget the Premier League. This is the biggest match so far this season in Europe. That’s right. Put your hand down, Roma v. Inter. You were terrible. You lose.
What’s so big about this one?
Not the fact that it will determine the outcome of the season, because it probably won’t. Last year, Man Utd could have lost twice to Chelsea and still come out with the title, and it’s been years (since Arsenal’s mighty hiccup in the 2002-03 season, in fact) since a single result going differently between the top two sides would have altered the championship race. No, what’s big about this match is this match: these two teams are playing sensational football right now, scything down opponents and looking pretty while they do it. Arsenal won a match 7-0 last week. Manchester United have scored 16 in their last four games. What’s more, these teams are loaded with one of our favorite things to see in football, potential in the act of realizing itself. Fabregas has been a revelation for Arsenal, and Adebayor has looked lethal at times. For United, Rooney is playing like his own public image again, Cristiano Ronaldo is a handful of glitter in boots, Tevez looks like a danger to any brick wall in his path, and Nani, when he isn’t kicking weird, bending balls that go nowhere, is kicking weird, bending balls that go right into the back of the net.
If rivalries can be isolated by time period rather than just by location, this is the derby of the last fifteen years. If the talent on hand is any indication, it may be the derby of the next fifteen years, too.
What can we do? How can we save ourselves from the power of this game?
You can’t. You’re done for. But there’s always a chance that the teams will step in to save you. If Jason Street is right and God loves football, we’ll be looking at a fast-paced, flowing match that will light your eyes on fire and make you leap for joy. But for every over-hyped match that lives up to its potential (see: this match last year; remember Thierry Henry?) there’s a clock-grinding 0-0 draw or a 1-0 squeaker that only Helenio Herrera could love. Or worse, there’s a match decided on a refereeing error (see: every single Liverpool match this season). I don’t mind a good refereeing error, but the media reaction is worse than a trip to the dentist. Join hands with me now, and let’s all wish Howard Webb a good night’s sleep.
What should we expect, you know, tactically and whatnot?
That depends on what the teams themselves expect, and that’s a tough one to call. Alex Ferguson has been liberal with his praise for Arsenal in the lead-up to the match, which (although who knows) suggests that he’s feeling confident. Wenger has projected a more defiant image and has praised his own team, which has been a standard tactic in his repertoire of ways to instill belief in his corps of little Mozarts.
Playing at home, Arsenal should be looking to attack, and really, Arsenal are more or less looking to attack from the moment the maid brings them breakfast. United could try to match them, and Jesus, they might just do it, too; but their defense is so strong that they might instead look to limit Arsenal’s chances, put a wall up at the back, and keep alive the hope that has burned in the hearts of so many teams in match previews throughout history: the hope of stealing a goal on the break. Smothering the Arsenal attack seems like their best option to me (I know nothing: keep that in mind) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them start out in a patient, mid-tempo, slightly defensive style in which pressure will build from the back. If Arsenal score early, though, all bets are off.
At the start of the match, keep an eye on midfield. Scholes is injured for United, and of the other players who might step in, neither Carrick nor Hargreaves is fully match fit, and Anderson is still wet from the egg. If Fabregas is able to control the middle of the pitch against them, it will put enormous pressure on the Man Utd defenders—and possibly also on a certain Portuguese winger, who may feel compelled to pick up some of the slack.
How will it all end?
With a surprising failure to bring about Armageddon, actually, as the players mill about on the pitch without the least hint of fire, rubble, or ash. Football predictions are usually worth less than the dust on the keys they were typed on, but I’ll call this one 3-1 to Man Utd. I really like both these teams and would love to see Arsenal stay competitive in the championship race, but they looked vulnerable in the draw to Liverpool last week, and that’s a word that hasn’t been in the same dictionary with Manchester United for some time. Arsenal are a touch less dangerous without the still-wounded van Persie. And as good as their defense can be (7 goals in 10 games is nothing to be ashamed of) I don’t see them withstanding the pressure. I’ll tell you all about how wrong I was on Monday.
by Brian Phillips · November 2, 2007