Despite proclamations that peace is in the air, Jose Mourinho once again brings a team to the Emirates trying to extend his remarkable run of 11 league matches undefeated against Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, a streak that surely must end if the Gunners have any hope of a top-4 finish and another go in the Champions League next season.
The inability of Wenger to get a win against Mourinho is the first daunting figure. Next comes the fact that it’s been 24 games and over six months since Manchester United last lost a league match. Finally, there’s Arsenal’s lack of confidence, in both results and tactics, coming into this one. Playing three at the back–a fairly desperate tactical change to begin with–yielded three wins, albeit on the back of less than convincing performances, before a real drubbing at Tottenham. The 2-nil scoreline in the North London derby could have been much worse if goalkeeper Petr Cech hadn’t had his best performance of the season.
Somehow the Gunners must bounce back from that defeat and begin their extremely difficult run-in of five matches in the remaining two weeks of the league campaign by ending Mourinho and United’s remarkable streaks. A quick glance at the Premier League table shows that nothing less will suffice. In addition to winning those five matches, either Liverpool or Manchester City must drop at least four points in their remaining three games. If Arsenal can get the win vs United, they will at least have the upper hand for 5th place, assuming, once again, that they keep winning their matches.
We can only take them one at a time, however, and there could be a few mitigating factors that might favor the Gunners. Mourinho has been open about the fact that he will be rotating players for the game given that his priority–and another path to Champions League football next season–is winning the Europa League. United inched closer to the finals of that tournament with a 1-nil win in the first leg of the semifinals at Celta Vigo this past Thursday. The quick turnaround from that match plus the lengthy list of United players out injured suggests that Arsenal–if they can play anywhere near their best–have a very good chance in this one.
It’s a task that is easier said than done. Will Wenger continue with three at the back? Is a must-win match the time to switch back to the more attacking 4-2-1-3 formation used for most of the season? The manager has options, especially considering that his big off season buys, Shkodran Mustafi in central defense and Granit Xhaka, the anchoring midfielder who hobbled off at Spurs, were back in full training and appear available for this one. The 3-4-3 formation seemed a desperate measure when it was first employed at Middlesboro three weeks ago even if it eked out a decent run of results. Stick or twist seems to be the question.
I’ll go out on a limb, albeit with very scant confidence, and say twist. Back to the old formation and with four changes to the team that started at Spurs.
Substitutes: Ospina, Gabriel, Gibbs, Coquelin, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Iwobi, Giroud
I’m really just throwing darts here–blind folded and in the dark. To me, the must-win nature of the run-in matches combined with the stodgy performances, despite the promising results that the 3-4-3 produced, demands a shake up. Removing Gabriel Paulista–who gave up a penalty to set up Spurs second goal–and the ineffective trio of Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud–might spark a bit of a revival. Of course, there were other players who didn’t perform well in the last match who might also be slated for a bench seat, but those are my picks. What would be yours? Who do you believe Wenger will pick and how will he try to get the best out of his players?
The terms are stark. Mourinho, despite the vanity he must surely possess due to his record over Wenger, has downplayed the importance of this match and will enter it with a nothing-to-lose attitude that will contrast greatly with the immense pressure Wenger’s teams always carry as they try to buoy their beleaguered manager. Both managers have taken it on the chin and come into this one as wounded warriors at the tail end of very difficult and disappointing seasons. They have shown they are willing to fight, however–witness the photo at the top. Let’s hope that Wenger and his team are fully up for this one and come out as winners.
Go on then…