In the modern era, any Arsenal v Manchester United offering has signified a table topping battle for domestic glory and all-important bragging rights. This season’s first serving may represent a slightly less appealing dish as a result of each side’s positively under-whelming beginning to proceedings.
At sixth and seventh respectively in the table after round eleven, Wenger and Van Gaal’s sides find themselves in unfamiliar territory, searching for a vital three points to ensure that no more ground is lost to – dare I say it – Southampton, Swansea and West Ham.
To make matters worse for United, though it seemed almost impossible, injury problems have become an even bigger cause for concern over the international break. To add the seemingly never-ending list of casualties, David De Gea, Michael Carrick, Daley Blind, Angel Di Maria and Luke Shaw now find themselves among those crocked. A knee injury to Blind seems the only long-term dilemma, with seemingly nobody quite sure as to the extent of the issue (both six week and six months have been quoted). While the remaining four names are hopeful of shaking off respective knocks, it’s a worrying position to have key names – particularly De Gea, Di Maria and Shaw – not at full fitness ahead of a difficult trip to North London.
Defence would once again be the key area of concern, as if rumours are to be believed, United could line up with a back four of Valencia, Jones, Evans and Shaw, while realistically, (fitness permitting) it would be less surprise to see Valencia, McNair, Smalling and Blackett take the field.
Endless questions remain over the long-term future of Radamel Falcao who is likely to miss his fourth straight match following an 18 minute cameo at The Hawthorns a month ago. With Van Persie struggling to have the desired impact on matches, the Colombian’s leg work and clinical prowess would be of huge benefit to Van Gaal’s side, however it would seem more sensible – and less heartbreaking – to just continue assuming the on-loan front-man will miss out until definitively hearing otherwise.
A 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace two weeks ago may not have produced quite the performance that fans would desire, but the resulting three points were vital and following Arsenal’s defeat to Swansea, leave us just a point behind the Gunners with fourth or fifth place a realistic possibility come Saturday evening. Juan Mata’s match-winner from off the bench will once again cause Van Gaal selection headaches, while captain Wayne Rooney will come into the clash full of confidence having found the net three times for England during the previous week.
Numerous changes in formation throughout the season tend to have been dictated by which members of a much depleted squad are available on a week by week basis. A 4-4-2 diamond looked to have been the manager’s formation of choice, but may remain on hold until Falcao in particular is back among the action. The diamond did certainly appear to sit well with Di Maria who has been unable to produce the same kind of form from a wide position in recent appearances. Despite a ludicrous challenge from Nani on a player whose arrival was a huge contribution in his summer exit, the Argentine should feature on Saturday having come through training.
If United are to take the three points away from the Emirates on Saturday, containing Alexis Sanchez is a must whichever makeshift defence is muddled together to stand in his way. The Chilean has 12 goals in his last 14 appearances in all competitions for the Gunners, who have relied on their new big-money signing all too often so far.
Where Sanchez fits in though should be determined by the fitness of Danny Welbeck. Ah Danny * Wipes away a tear *. The one that got away. Back at the start of September, I wrote about just how good a deal Arsenal had got for Welbeck, whose contribution was often overlooked at Old Trafford due to repeatedly being played out of position. In hindsight the deal looks to have been the right option for both parties, with Arsenal being able to offer Danny first-team football in his preferred position – where as expected, he is thriving – while United received a fairly substantial fee for a player seemingly deemed 4th or –given the emergence of James Wilson – possibly 5th choice under Van Gaal.
The Longsight lad is scheduled to face United for the first time since making the switch down south, however an injury sustained during England’s friendly win could yet prevent him for appearing (and scoring an inevitable winner).
If recent results were anything to go by, United would have every right to feel confident coming into this game. Not only have they lost just once to Wenger’s side in the past 14 times of asking – winning 10 of those – but Robin van Persie has already notched three against his former club in a United shirt, while Wayne Rooney has scored the joint-most goals (10) against Arsenal of any player in Premier League history. In addition, Arsene Wenger’s nearly-men have dropped more points (9) from winning positions than any other Premier League outfit this season.
But this isn’t just any other season. New systems are in place and both sides are searching for a new formula, a new blueprint for success, with each somewhat hampered by lingering injury concerns. (Debuchy, Ozil, Ospina and Koscielny remain longer term casualties for Arsenal, while Walcott and Welbeck aim to shake off knocks for Saturday).
As stated, while the Palace performance wasn’t everything that was hoped for, confidence will be seeping back through after earning three vital points, and displayed spirited performances over Chelsea and Manchester City.
Rooney showed during the past week that with the pressure of leading his country out for his 100th cap and as he hunts down Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time England goalscorers record, that he is willing to shoulder responsibilities as Captain and a similar, bullish Rooney performance could be vital at the Emirates in securing a huge three points and really see United make a grasp on the top four.
Yes injuries are mounting, and yes, this is beginning to become a huge cause for concern, but United’s players, fans and staff alike will all view this as an extremely winnable match. With Arsenal battling on other fronts and struggling to make an impact on the Premier League, the match represents a real chance for Rooney and United to step up and offer Van Gaal a first real scalp. With United against the odds are down to bare bones, a massive three points could really give our season the kick-start it so dearly needs.
Probable line-up (anyone’s guess really): De Gea, Valencia, McNair, Smalling, Shaw, Carrick, Fellaini, Herrera, Di Maria, Rooney, Van Persie