Manchester United – Arsenal Match Preview
Football, like life itself, is about the long haul. On any given day, anything can happen, but so much remains the same. Manchester United versus Arsenal–perhaps the most important rivalry in the English Premier league–goes again on Sunday in another late season clash. It will not determine a league champion, and both clubs look comfortable in securing Champions League play with a top four finish, but its meaning cannot be denied. These clubs are big ones and how they fare against one another ALWAYS matters.
These have been turbulent seasons for either clubs and this match represents a chance for both to head towards the summer in a happier mood. Of course, Arsenal also have the small issue of an FA Cup final to play–a spot they helped secure by beating ManU at Old Trafford in the quarterfinal round, back in February. That one looms large, as it was our first win at their place in 10 tries. United will want revenge, but we will know we can travel to their place and win.
We wouldn’t mind a bit of revenge ourselves. In the difficult first half of the season, and coming off a tough loss at Swansea, we dominated play in the reverse fixture in North London but conceded on ManU’s first shot on goal. Pressing hard–too hard–for an equalizer, we were caught out and conceded a 2nd, putting the match beyond reach. A late consolation goal only underlined the painful feeling that, with a little more luck–and a bit more discipline– the better team might have taken the points.
Both teams have come a long way since that clash in November and this one is most likely a battle for 3rd place. Arsenal can secure that position with a draw, and a win, for either team, would suggest a claim of superiority heading into the close season. For Arsenal, winning twice at Old Trafford would lay down a marker that we’ve nudged ahead of our old rival and further put to bed the notion that Arsenal cannot hold their own against the bigger clubs.
While there are some eerie parallels to the reverse league fixture–again we’re coming off a loss to Swansea–there are many differences. Arsenal’s better play in 2015 has been the result of having our best players back from injury while also maintaining a more solid and stingy defensive presence. Meanwhile, Man United have crawled back into the top four with a more scatter-gun approach. Manager Louis Van Gaal, despite the expensive attacking options at his disposal, has been forced to rely on the more pragmatic presence of Marouane Fellaini at the center of attack. His knock-down play–particularly with balls directed towards Wayne Rooney–isn’t pretty, but it does tend to wear down opponents. Rooney, who took a knock in their 2-1 win at Crystal Palace a week ago, will miss this one, but others, including Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Ashley Young will be looking to step into the scoring spots. Very expensive but more peripheral players like former Arsenal man Robin Van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria will also be keen to impress. The latter was sent off in the cup match after shoving referee Michael Oliver who had booked him for diving. This time, with Mike Dean at the whistle, defenders will need to beware that these very pricey, albeit part time players, bring the full bag of tricks–including the more cynical elements–to the game. Just as we must hope the ref will not be fooled, so too must we avoid such a fate.
In addition to missing Rooney, United will also be without Luke Shaw and Michael Carrick. Marcus Rojo may be able to slot in for Shaw and Daley Blind–either from Shaw’s spot at left back or from a position as a deep lying midfielder–will surely be working hard to stop our attack and orchestrate United’s. Van Gaal’s team has struggled to look solid at the back so another big performance from the Premier League’s keeper of the season, David de Gea, might be required. Rumours that the former Atletico Madrid man might be headed to the bigger Madrid team, Real, in the wake of their recent failures in both La Liga and the Champions League, might serve to shine a bright spotlight on their man between the sticks.
Will Arsenal be able to test him or will they lay back and try to absorb whatever pressure United might bring? Certainly, the latter approach has been the more successful one on our earlier trips to Manchester. In the FA Cup match, Francis Coquelin, despite giving up several inches (in both height and hair) to Fellaini, kept the big man’s contribution to a minimum. In that one, as in the 2-nil victory earlier in the winter across town at Manchester City, Coquelin’s work was complimented by our wide attackers dropping deeper to help out. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez made strong contributions in those matches as did Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey. The Ox (who also set up the first goal in the Cup quarterfinal) is out through injury as is the former United player, Danny Welbeck, who nicked in to steal the ball and score the winner. His inclusion in that one–at the expense of usual front man, Olivier Giroud–in hindsight, looked a master stroke from manager Arsene Wenger.
Where will the inspiration come for this one? With Ox and DW missing, Wenger may be tempted to play a 6th straight match with an unchanged team. As I’m tired of picking minor changes and being wrong, that’s the squad I’m guessing at. Moreover, I think Wenger will want to give this group a chance to make amends for the smash and grab loss vs Swansea. They didn’t play poorly in that one, but a hint of complacency may have crept into their game given the run of strong results from previous matches. Knowing each others tendencies, and the little bit of extra space United might give us if they try some attack themselves, means using the same group might work a real treat. Others, of course, may have different ideas.
Subs: Szczesny, Gibbs, Gabriel, Flamini, Wilshere, Rosicky, Walcott
The Swansea match showed that the margins are tight. Slightly better finishing might have swung that one our way. Against United, in their big and hostile stadium, and against players of undoubted quality, the margins will be even tighter. With all the attacking talent they have, Arsenal will have to be ever aware to defensive positioning and execution. Still, if we can win the battle in midfield and work our attack to its full potential, we have the quality to make them pay.
Motivation may also play a role. Finishing as high up the table as possible and locking down a top 3–and automatic group stage spot in the Champions league–is nothing to sniff at. United will be buying big in the summer. Already they’ve agreed terms with the exciting Dutch winger Memphis Depay. That could mean the end for some of the attackers who will feature in this one. Will those guys (including Depay’s countryman Van Persie) be keen to impress or will they have one foot already out the door? Will Arsenal’s more collective approach (especially, if the starting 11 remain unchanged) work to show that this team can really accomplish bigger things ahead of the cup final and the new season? At the highest level, where both Arsenal and ManU aspire to reside, clubs have money and (at least in United’s case) they don’t hesitate to spend it. Still, football is a team game, and the better group tends to prevail. In my opinion, Arsenal’s season has been salvaged–and we sense some real promise for the future–because we’ve hung tight and evolved as a collective. A result tomorrow would go a long way to proving that thesis.
Go on then…