In looking at the Manchester United 2-0 defeat of Arsenal in the FA Cup quarterfinals, there were a number of heroes for United on the day - Edwin van der Sar stood on his head in goal; Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling were a presence in United's backline; Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez were constant pests to Arsenal's backline.
As much as each of those players were standouts for Manchester United, to me, the man of the match was Sir Alex Ferguson.
His selection of Fabio and Rafael on the flanks might have raised some eyebrows when the team was announced - selecting a lineup with 7 defenders in it (the backline plus Fabio, Rafael and John O'Shea in midfield) - but as well as both the Da Silva's played in the match, Ferguson needs to get credit for putting them in that role to be successful.
David Pleat of the Guardian writes of Sir Alex, the Da Silva twins, and United's run to the FA Cup semifinal round.
Manchester United's starting XI certainly raised eyebrows but there was logic to the inclusion of the energetic Da Silva twins in unfamiliar midfield roles. Sir Alex Ferguson recognised that the Brazilian full-backs would give United extra defensive cover out wide in the positions where Arsenal would seek to make their attacking thrusts through Andrey Arshavin and Samir Nasri. Arsène Wenger gave Jack Wilshere the responsibility of being the main provider and protected him with Denílson and Abou Diaby.
Ferguson set up his defensive-orientated line-up to allow Arsenal space in front of United's back four to weave their passing movements. But lacking energy and vitality, a hangover from their exertions and disappointment at the Camp Nou, Arsenal passed too slowly to disturb the cover.
More importantly, they had no one prepared to race behind the United defence and stretch the play. Paul Scholes, introduced late on, was able to play two passes in stoppage time because of the unfortunate Johan Djourou's injury, the type of which Wilshere was unable to conjure. Scholes hit them beyond the last defender for a team-mate's forward run into space behind the back four. That is not a criticism of Wilshere – without the run the telling pass cannot be made.
After Fábio's goal, United sat comfortably and relied on counterattacks, but unlike Arsenal they moved with pace and purpose. Antonio Valencia, returning on the right, Wayne Rooney on the left working responsibly and the sharp Javier Hernández looked far more dangerous than Robin van Persie, Nasri and Arshavin, even though Arsenal commanded plenty of the ball. Edwin van der Sar excellently stopped shots dispatched from positions in front of defenders but never had to face a forward in a one v one situation or anticipate passes played beyond defenders.
United invited Arsenal towards them but retained a disciplined shape and always had defenders goalside. Arsenal need a better balance when Theo Walcott and Cesc Fábregas are unavailable as Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky have lost their spark. All neutrals will continue to enjoy Arsenal but here, although they had the majority of possession, they could not penetrate without a player to run behind and make Nemanja Vidic face his own goal. They have fine passing players but only Wilshere here was trying – but not succeeding – to get the ball into dangerous areas.
Vidic and Chris Smalling watched carefully as Arsenal stroked the ball around but were never made to face their own goal, which is the only time Vidic looks uncomfortable.
Without Nicklas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh, the latter introduced late on, they lack the power to head a goal, so when they do get the ball wide they are reluctant to cross early without a big target in the box.
The first half sets the pattern for any game and United's use of four full-backs and John O'Shea sitting in front of the centre-backs made sure they were safe from attacking thrusts behind the defence. Sir Alex would have thought: "How are they going to penetrate us without Walcott? Arshavin and Nasri will be their main attacking weapons, so we'll block that area, put the two kids in, try to nick a goal and as the game develops we'll put on more counterattackers such as Valencia." United played the perfect game and the manager's selection hit the right notes as Arsenal failed to hurt the less creative but better-constructed home team.