Sir Alex Ferguson's Tactical Masterclass

Manchester United are still on for a treble, while in under a fortnight Arsenal have gone from fighting on four fronts to concentrating on the league, if that hoariest of euphemisms may be permitted. If Arsene Wenger's players concentrate really hard they still have an excellent chance of denying United the title, though this FA Cup defeat was an immense psychological blow. Not only did United win as if the blip of the past couple of weeks had merely been a bad dream, they did so with a much-changed, almost unrecognisable side.

In all of Sir Alex Ferguson's battles with Arsenal and Wenger down the years, this victory was one that felt like a straight knockout, even if the visitors could justly claim that only Edwin van der Sar kept them out. "We could have won it by a few more, but they had chances too," Ferguson said.

"There was not that much in it, but after the major changes that were forced on us we can be well pleased with the result. I had to come up with a plan to utilise what energy was available, so I picked the players I knew would be keen and enthusiastic."

Arsenal turned up with quite a decent team despite their injuries, while United's lineup had everyone scratching their heads wondering where all the full-backs would fit in. Considering Arsenal famously failed to manage a shot on target in their last match, it was odd to see Ferguson name no fewer than seven defenders in his outfield lineup.

United started the game with only Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernández and Darron Gibson as recognised attacking players. Rooney was deployed in midfield with Hernández on his own up front.

While Ferguson had intimated in his programme notes that something needed to change – "We will need to snap out of our present form if the league match at the Emirates in May is to matter" – this seemed a bit drastic, as if the real United were being saved for Marseille on Tuesday. Didier Deschamps, watching from the stand, will not have learned much about United's likely Champions League formation, but will have formed a similar impression to his Arsenal counterpart about their fighting spirit.

"We were not outplayed, but United are always strong on the counterattack and clinical in front of goal. It was a strange game, we put in a lot of effort and got nothing. Now we need to respond quickly and win our next games," Wenger said.

Arsenal's hopes for the rest of the season cannot now be high, whereas United have a new spring in their step. Even their manager has rediscovered his combative instinct, though not as much as the fractious Paul Scholes, who was lucky to stay on at the end and will miss United's next two league games after being booked for a foul on Marouane Chamakh.

On first glance United’s starting line-up was bizarre – seven defenders – but Ferguson managed to assemble them into a cohesive side with a clear gameplan – sit relatively deep, and use the pace of Hernandez and the da Silva twins on the break. It worked. Arsenal were always going to dominate possession, but United produced chances and could have had more than two goals, although the same could be said of Arsenal’s none.

The positioning of the twins was interesting. Brazilian full-backs are stereotypically attacking and therefore can often convert to playing as wingers with little problem, but it’s not always as simple as that. When Dani Alves has played as a winger, for example, he’s looked poor because his game is about making unspotted off the ball runs from deep.

However, Rafael and Fabio both adapted very well. They showed the expected energy and pace, but also good decision-making in the final third and a habit of getting into goalscoring positions.

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