Former Gunner Ray Parlour believes Wednesday's crucial Premier League clash between Arsenal and Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium will be won or lost in midfield.
The two teams go head-to-head in north London after disappointing results at the weekend; reigning champions United drew 2-2 with relegation-threatened Fulham while Arsenal were on the wrong end of a 5-1 drubbing at Liverpool.
Both sides need to get their seasons back on track quickly and Parlour believes command of the engine room will prove decisive.
“Central midfield is such an important position because you can control games from there,” the three-time Premier League title winner told FourFourTwo.
“Midfield is the most crucial area of the pitch – that’s why most teams have put an extra man in there and play 4-2-3-1 or they go 4-1-4-1. Managers knows they can dictate the pace of the game and the movement if they dominate the midfield.”
Parlour was part of an Arsenal midfield that had some titanic clashes against United – locking horns with the likes of Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Paul Scholes alongside Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Freddie Ljungberg and Edu.
After Saturday’s heavy defeat at Anfield, Parlour thinks Arsene Wenger will deploy spoiler Mathieu Flamini, returning from suspension, in front of the defence to offer the back four some added protection.
“Wenger will look at the opposition and say ‘OK maybe they’re going to have a lot of the ball and they have dangerous players in [Juan] Mata and [Wayne] Rooney behind [Robin] Van Persie so we may need to have two holding midfielders in there and Flamini can fulfil one of those roles’,” he said.
“That said, he’s got to take the game to Manchester United because if you sit back and let them come on to you they have the players to punish you.
“It’s a big game for both teams after their recent results. Arsenal are at home and the fans will expect three points. If they really want to challenge for the title they have got to win this game.”
Parlour, who played under Wenger from1996-2004, feels 'Le Professor' will halt panic spreading throughout the team by sticking to the usual pre-match routines.
“The preparations will be the same as they would for any game. The manager will do a bit of team shape the day before and most of the players will know if they’re playing,” the former England international explained. “Then it’s all about preparing yourself and getting your mind mentally right for the game.
“Players do it all different ways – some players will be noisy, some will be quiet thinking about what they have got to do before the game.”
A win for Arsenal will take them back to the top of the Premier League after Chelsea could only draw 1-1 at West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday.
Ray Parlour was talking to FourFourTwo at the Budweiser Open Trials, in association with BT Sport, helping decide which London based amateur footballers will have a dream opportunity to play in front of professional scouts at Wembley. Watch the first part of the Budweiser Open Trials on BT Sport on Saturday March 8, as part of its FA Cup coverage. Subscribe to YouTube.com/BudweiserUK to keep up with all the action.