This season the boot is on the other foot and Arsenal must deliver it up at Old Trafford. Can they? Will they?
Manager Arsene Wenger must put aside all sympathies for Louis van Gaal’s situation. Moreover, Arsenal, having drawn blanks at home vs Hull City in the FA Cup and Barcelona in the Champions League, must start scoring goals. Van Gaal and United, perhaps buoyed by their cup victories: 3-1 over Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup and 5-1 (6-3 on aggregate) over Danish club Midtjylland in the Europa League in the past week, will have to cobble a team together and try to get a result that might give them hope of closing the gap on the top-four teams.
How different it all seems from business as usual.
Fifteen years ago Arsenal and ManU were the two clubs in England who fought for the title and passed it back and forth. All that changed with gas and oil money coming to other London and Manchester clubs: Chelsea and City. Those teams are struggling this season but so too are the two more storied clubs.
Arsenal are all but done in the Champions League after shipping a pair of away goals against the holders, while our hopes for a third consecutive FA cup took a blow when we couldn’t break down a stubborn Hull City team who were able to force a replay up in their stadium. Thankfully, a very (very) late winner vs ten man Leicester City cut the gap to the league leaders to two points in our last league match.
ManU are in far more dire straits. While Wenger stood pat with his squad in the summer, adding only Petr Cech, LvG has spent and spent and spent but only seen his team go backwards. Getting into the top four CL places gave him a lifeline a year ago. This time around they sit 6 points behind their cross town rivals for the final spot.
They’re also suffering an Arsenal-esque injury crisis. Current players who are definitely out include Wayne Rooney, Bastien Sweinsteiger, Ashley Young, Luke Shaw, and Matteo Darmian. Long-term injured players Phil Jones and Adnan Januzaj are training but lack match fitness but Antonia Valencia and Maourane Fellaini are closer to returning; Marcus Rojo was able to play 15 minutes vs the Danish team. Chris Smalling, David De Gea and Anthony Martial are additional question marks due to more recent injuries.
As at Arsenal, such injuries do not lower expectations, and Van Gaal will be expected to field a team capable of extending United’s nearly ten year unbeaten home run (in the league) against their rival. The last time Arsenal won at old Trafford in PL play was in September of 2006 when Emmanuel Adebayor scored the only goal.
Of course, the last time the two teams met in the big stadium was a year ago in the FA Cup quarterfinals, when Arsenal won 2-1 on the strength of Danny Welbeck’s brilliantly poached goal. Welbeck celebrated lustily against his former club and against the manager who let him go to Arsenal, choosing to buy guys like Angel di Maria, who, later in the same match, was sent off for touching the referee while complaining against a yellow card.
Di Maria was sold in the off season with Van Gaal hoping guys like Martial and Memphis Depay could pick up the scoring slack. It hasn’t really worked out; United are 10th in the league in goals scored with 33.
Arsenal could also use some goals. (We are 5th in this category in the league with 41.) If you cannot score you cannot win, and, with title rivals Leicester City hosting Norwich and Spurs hosting Swansea, the full three points seem necessary to keep pace.
How then does Wenger set up his team to do so?
In the reverse fixture it was Theo Walcott up top and Arsenal scored three quick goals in the first twenty minutes. Will Theo reprise that performance or will Olivier Giroud start up top? With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out with knee ligament damage, at least one forward position is up for grabs. Welbeck is looking like his very long absence due to injury has made him a stronger and wiser forward, but I’m not sure if Wenger believes he’s ready for a league start. Joel Campbell was Wenger’s choice on the right for long periods in the dead of winter so he’s my pick to replace the Ox. Theo has been finishing matches in that spot so maybe AW will choose a very attacked oriented formation with him over there from the start. There are also plenty of Gooners who wouldn’t mind seeing Aaron Ramsey back out on the right so as to give Mohammed Elneny his first league start further back in the middle of the park.
There’s far less enthusiasm for Mathieu Flamini at the rear of midfield after his late tackle on Leo Messi cost us a penalty and a goal. Per Mertesacker, who cushioned down the ball into Messi’s path, might also be a question mark as Gabriel Paulista could be recovered from a hamstring injury suffered in training before the Leicester match. Could Wenger have some other changes up his sleeve? With the reasonable rest (four days, compared to ManU’s two) I think he’ll use a largely unchanged team with only the single change mentioned above. It looks like this:
Subs: Ospina, Chambers, Gabriel, Gibbs, Elneny, Walcott, Welbeck
Having watched both midweek matches, (ours and United’s) I firmly believe we should be able to win this one. United have some dangerous players (notably Memphis, Juan Mata and Andre Herrerra) and they should be able to defend through possession. They also have some glaring weaknesses due to the injuries they’re carrying and will have to find a team effort using players in unfamiliar positions. Against Midtjylland they fielded a central back pair of Daley Blind and Michael Carrick, both fine players, but not exactly the sort our attackers, especially Giroud, cannot overpower. We need to use our physical advantages–in all areas of the pitch–to control this one, much as we did in the reverse fixture.
In fact, I’d go even further to suggest that our biggest enemy is ourselves and what could be our faltering sense of belief. Yes we rode our luck a bit and ultimately capitulated, but we also had some chances of our own against the best team in the world (Barcelona) on Tuesday. If we can take the lessons learned from that one (see my previous post on this topic, from a couple of days back) and realize our technical and athletic advantages, i.e., perform to our potential, the result will take care of itself. We need to funnel the passion and desire against the traditional rival to show our newfound superiority. We must be ruthless and offer no quarter for weakened–if not decimated–ManU.
When I used to play organized sports, one of the pre-match team “cheers” (and I use the word loosely…) in these sorts of situations (when we were the better team but wanted to be sure to be fully committed to the cause…) was “Rip off their heads and S**t down their throats!!!”
Go on then…