Thankfully this past international break was a short one, and as usual, it came and went without much fanfare or topics of discussion. The return of the Premier League kicks off with what has historically been a blockbuster game: Manchester United v Arsenal.
Not too many years ago, this fixture was guaranteed entertainment where Arsene Wenger’s swashbuckling trio of forwards and Manchester United’s cavalier wingers played hot potato with the Premier League trophy. At the moment, though, only one of the two teams is really making a valid claim as title contenders, and that’s Arsene Wenger’s men. Mourinho, up until now, has failed to get his United team to click, and if rumours are to be believed, he’s struggling to get his entire squad committed to the cause. If Arsenal put one over on their long time rivals, they’ll not only take the Premier League summit, they may also snuff out whatever remains of United’s confidence. We’re going to have a look at how the two teams stack up against one another going into a massive grudge match that could see the Gunners climb to first by Saturday lunch time.
For fans who have been paying attention to the fortune’s of these two teams, one thing should be glaringly obvious, in terms of being a cohesive unit who are all on the same page Arsenal have a massive advantage over United. Arsenal are currently the footballing version of a well-maintained performance car; every part is in sync and the whole setup is running smoothly. United, on the other hand, are like an archaic Rolls Royce that’s been parked in some farmer’s shed for the last forty years.
Sure, it used to be great, but it’s old as hell and all the parts are rusted beyond recognition. Mourinho doesn’t currently know his best starting eleven, he has some key injuries, and most concerning of all: a few of his players don’t really seem like they have their hearts in it. Add to that the fact that Wayne Rooney is quite clearly incapable of performing at the highest level anymore and United’s starting XI becomes a minefield for Mourinho to navigate. While Arsenal will show up raring to go, United are their own worst enemy in the sense that they’ve primarily been the architects of their own problems for the majority of this season, and don’t seem much closer to finding their rhythm.
United’s biggest problem is currently in defence. They’ve lost Eric Bailly to a knee ligament injury, the Ivorian made quite a strong start partnering Smalling or Blind at the heart of defence and will be absent for several weeks. Additionally Antonio Valencia, the right-winger that’s been transformed into a competent right-back, has suffered a broken arm and will also miss the game. This puts United at an automatic disadvantage as they’ll need to assemble a defensive line capable of dealing not only with Arsenal’s width but also their intricate, fast passing. Rojo and Blind have done passable jobs in the past couple of games at centre back, but they haven’t faced a team with Arsenal’s attacking prowess yet this season. Arsenal, on the other hand, have a more consistent back four likely only featuring a single change, but they will most likely be without right-back Hector Bellerin who has been an invaluable asset both in attack and defence.
The teams’ midfield personnel may be slightly more balanced but in all likelihood the midfield possession will be dominated by Arsenal. United’s best midfield options of Pogba, Carrick and Herrera offer a lot of passing ability but seriously lack pace. They may be able to press and disrupt Arsenal’s passing game, but if Ozil, Cazorla and Coquelin are as fluid as they have been lately, United’s sluggish midfield will be left in the dust and their defence will need to cope with the forwards as well as the advancing midfield. The only silver lining for United is that Mourinho has a very good record against Wenger, and he’ll be well aware of the best tactical composition for his team to neutralise Arsenal’s fluid build-ups. The only way United will sway the tide in their favour is if Michael Carrick plays. His composure in possession is generally associated with a far more competent performance from United’s entire team. If Mourinho decides to try and outmuscle Arsenal’s midfielders with the likes of Fellaini United will be chasing shadows all afternoon.
Arsenal win the offensive face-off quite comfortably. United will be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the Swede earned his 5th yellow card in the previous match and the compulsory suspension that goes along with it. Ibrahimovic is their top scorer and effectively one of their only certain threats up front. Not a great start.
Arsenal have been in exceptional attacking form of late. Ozil has been assisting and scoring and Alexis Sanchez has been terrorising full-backs out wide with enthusiasm. Add to that encouraging performances from the likes of Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi, and Arsenal’s frontline will look indomitable compared to United’s crop of youngsters struggling to find their feet. The United forwards are all a little green and for the most part not suited to carrying all the pressure of creating and scoring goals with more experienced assistance. Marcus Rashford is still a teenager, albeit with massive potential, and the duo of Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial are struggling to develop any form or confidence. While Arsenal will simply need to continue what they’ve been doing for the last three or four games, United are going to have to pray for an exemplary attacking performance that the team has barely been able to produce in the games prior to this one.
Predicted United Line-Up
Predicted Arsenal Line-Up:
Ozil vs… Everybody: Ozil is the quintessential creative midfielder, he’s very difficult to peg down and seems to find space extremely easily. United’s midfield and defence will need to track him religiously, and like the best creative players, he doesn’t need much space or time to craft a chance, and he’ll have willing runners in Walcott and (possibly) Sanchez to play in behind a potentially uncertain United back four.
Rashford vs Mustafi / Koscielny / Mertesacker: Marcus Rashford has been one of the few bright sparks in United’s stuttering attack. He’s pacey and unusually composed in his decision making for a player so young. While Arsenal are blessed with pace in almost all areas of their team, their central defenders for the most part are quite slow. Depending on Mourinho’s choice United can stack their forward line with a glut of quick players, Memphis, Lingard and Martial are all speed merchants and may make life difficult for Arsenal’s centre backs.
Paul Pogba vs Granit Xhaka: Xhaka had a bit of a forgettable start in London, but in recent games has shown he’s got the grit and work rate to mix it up with the Premier League’s tough central midfielders. This will be a test for both players and the winner of this duel could turn over valuable possession for his team and starve the opposition of the ball.
Arsenal are waiting on the fitness of Alexis Sanchez, who picked up an injury on international duty with Chile. If he is unable to play, Olivier Giroud is the logical replacement, but since they’re fairly different players Giroud’s inclusion could alter how Arsenal will play and possibly line up. Kieran Gibbs will be the most likely to take over from Bellerin at right-back.
For United, their defence is pretty much a coin toss, they have a lot of options, but whether due to injury or inconsistent form few players really inspire confidence for them at the moment. Up front we’ll likely see Wayne Rooney take over from Zlatan, who’s built for big occasions like this but has been disappointing of late. The other option, and one that worked out well when van Gaal’s hand was forced last season, is to play the quick Marcus Rashford up front.
The youngster has been performing well and chipping in with a few goals here and there, and pace against Arsenal’s pedestrian centre backs will be a good outlet for attack. All the young talents in the world won’t be able to distract from the fact that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is going to be sorely missed up front, though.
On paper and based on overall form the advantage is indisputably with Arsenal – they will field a much more settled team and have been in fine form lately, contrasted starkly with United’s injury problems and lack of cohesion among the squad. What may count in United’s favour is that historically Mourinho is a dab hand at swiping points away from Wenger, as well as the fact that United are at home. They’re going to need all the help they can get, based on the last few games, Arsenal will walk out onto the pitch feeling very confident about their chances as they have maintained a 10-match unbeaten run. In order to avoid the likelihood of another developing meltdown, Mourinho will need to assure three points in this match, a loss will potentially bury any hope United have of competing for a top 4 spot, let alone silverware.
Predicted Result: Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal