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Mar 12, 2011

Defence the best form of attack

The magnificent sevens are a custom at Old Trafford. There was George Best, then Bryan Robson, followed by Eric Cantona. More recently, glossing over Michael Owen, Cristiano Ronaldo succeeded David Beckham. This, however, was Sir Alex Ferguson's twist on a tradition: the miserly seven. By fielding seven(!) defenders, the Manchester United manager named one of his stranger sides. It was one way to keep a clean sheet, though that owed more to Edwin van der Sar's brilliance, and the surfeit of supposed stoppers was more a product of necessity than negativity.

Yet somewhere Ferguson's old friend and Arsene Wenger's antithesis George Graham was surely looking on in envy. He rarely managed to cram more than five defenders into a team, though he did combine it with an unnatural fondness for a defensive midfielder or three. And when the post-mortem commences on Arsenal's exit from another competition - three in a fortnight - the composition of the United midfield should be a prime factor.

Besides the back four, three-quarters of the men employed in the middle were, by trade, defenders. John O'Shea revisited his past as the anchor man, Fabio and Rafael da Silva evolved from attacking full-backs to roving wingers. Their accomplice was Darron Gibson, while Wayne Rooney dropped deeper to offer industrious assistance. It was not so much United's second-string midfield as the third choice, in other words. A glimpse at the teamsheet alone should have encouraged Arsenal.

Yet the FA Cup semi-finals will include United, not the side with a rather more pressing need for trophies. It is an enviable ability to turn a supposed weakness into a strength, and one that United have displayed regularly. In this instance, the da Silvas' ability to emerge untracked in and around the Arsenal area had a decisiveness; Fabio scored the opening goal, Rafael made the second, with both moves started by Van der Sar. Defence truly was the best form of attack.

For the opener, Rooney's angled cross was met by Javier Hernandez, plunging forwards to connect with a diving header. Manuel Almunia saved well but Fabio tucked in the rebound. The irrepressible strike duo, lending a dynamism the benched Dimitar Berbatov fails to supply, were both involved in the second and, indeed, in much of what United did. Rafael skipped past Kieran Gibbs with unfortunate ease, before centring. As Johan Djourou challenged Hernandez, the ball looped up. Rooney met it with a deft header to defeat Manuel Almunia.

It was an occasion when both goalkeepers excelled. Almunia is enjoying a rehabilitative week and saved a series of efforts from Hernandez, whose verve enabled United to counter-attack at pace. At the other end, Van der Sar's one-man resistance appeared an eloquent rebuttal of Wenger's fondness for youth. Robin van Persie's low shot, Laurent Koscielny's smart effort on the rebound, Marouane Chamakh's header, Tomas Rosicky's drive: all met with the same outcome. "Four or five fantastic saves," added Ferguson. "I wish he was 21 instead of coming up for 41 but nature catches you eventually in life." Wenger lamented the enduring ability of the Dutchman to fly across his goal. "The goalkeeper against us is man of the match week in, week out," he said, presumably with Birmingham's Ben Foster, rather than Barcelona's Victor Valdes, in mind. "We were not outplayed but lost to a team who were more clinical. We lost three big challenges in a strange way. Subconsciously the disappointment of Tuesday night has played a part, confidence wise."

That may have been the difference. Back-to-back league defeats did not seem to sap United's morale. Absentees were a test of resourcefulness, but offered an injection of eagerness. "The two da Silvas are such enthusiastic boys," Ferguson added. "I had to come up with a plan where I could utilise their energy. Considering we have made major changes, we can be well pleased with the result. I couldn't risk [Paul] Scholes and [Ryan] Giggs because of Tuesday's game against Marseille."

When Scholes did emerge, his 10-minute cameo could have culminated in a red card. Faced between the fury of Ferguson and the wrath of Wenger, two managers who have been angered by officials of late, Chris Foy opted for the latter and gave the veteran a reprieve. "I feel the pitch was good, the referee was good and the tackles of Paul Scholes were bad," argued the Frenchman.

But Arsenal's fate was determined before Scholes entered the fray. The quest for the quadruple had become the solitary pursuit of the Premier League. Fail in that, and they will end a season without silverware. Again.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Edwin van der Sar - Terrific once again. Of all his saves, the most important came from Koscielny, as it came at the start of a manic minute that ended with Rooney doubling their lead.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: One of Rooney's most complete performances of the season and confirmation of Hernandez's capacity to get in dangerous positions were reasons to be optimistic. Others came on the flanks, with Antonio Valencia arriving in the second half for his first appearance since breaking his ankle in September. Another conclusion, from both the team selection and the game, is the da Silva brothers are far better wingers than Bebe and Gabriel Obertan. Ferguson claimed that only Jonny Evans of his injured legion could be fit for Marseille.

ARSENAL VERDICT: Another damaging afternoon was made worse when Johan Djourou dislocated a shoulder. He will be out for the remainder of the season, leaving Arsenal looking short-staffed in a defence that has long been criticised. Of all their sidelined players, however, the ones who may have been missed most on this occasion were Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song, either of whom might have dominated a midfield populated by stand-ins.

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