Arsenal have a serious mental block when it comes to playing Manchester United in recent years, despite the retirement of Arsene Wenger’s arch-nemesis Alex Ferguson.
The London-based side haven’t beaten United in the league since Aaron Ramsey scored a late winner at the Emirates in 2011.
They’ll be looking to break that duck when Louis van Gaal’s thin squad visit London on Saturday.
Despite the sides’ history as Premier league superpowers, both have had an underwhelming start to the season. United sit just one place and one point behind 6th-placed Arsenal, adding an extra layer of significance to an already anticipated fixture.
Both teams are likely to feature strikers who were once fan favourites for their opposition on Saturday – United prodigy Danny Welbeck is likely to lead the line for Arsenal, whilst ex-Gunners captain Robin van Persie returns to the Emirates for the third time since he left the North London club in 2012. Welbeck has had the better season so far, but Van Persie has a lot to do to prove he deserves a place in Van Gaal’s starting XI, and will be hungry to do so on his old home ground.
Alexis Sanchez comes into this game in red hot form, and is undeniably Arsenal’s most dangerous asset. The Chilean scored again whilst on international duty this week, and has eight goals in his nine Premier League games so far. Along with ex-Devil Welbeck and the possible return of speedster Theo Walcott, Alexis could form the basis of a frighteningly fast, incisive Arsenal attack. United’s back four has been decimated by injury, and the pace of Arsenal’s forwards could seek to take advantage of that.
It’s still unclear as to how many of the first team’s ‘doubtful’ players will make the United squad on Saturday, but, crucially, their captain remains fit – and Wayne Rooney loves playing against Arsenal. If the Englishman scores on Saturday, he will become the highest-scoring player of all time in this fixture. He’s currently tied with Thierry Henry on eight goals. With Angel Di Maria doubtful, United will look to their captain for guidance. His excellent recent form with England has been given the perfect platform here to transfer itself to the Premier League.
For the first time in what feels like a very, very long time, United’s injury issues far outstrip Arsenal’s. The North London outfit have just 4 players definitively ruled out by boss Arsene Wenger, although admittedly three of those could be considered ‘key’ players; Mathieu Debuchy, Mesut Oezil and Laurent Koscielny join goalkeeper David Ospina as unavailable. Theo Walcott, Mikel Arteta and Olivier Giroud are all available for selection again after lengthy layoffs. The French forward’s speedy return is particularly pleasing for Arsenal, who have missed his physical, bullish presence up front.
United’s injury list is staggering. The club were decimated before the international break; after it, they are down to a handful of first-team players. Luke Shaw and Angel Di Maria both picked up knocks which make them a doubt for Saturday’s tie, whilst David De Gea, Michael Carrick and Daley Blind will all be missing after a dark two weeks for United. At the back, United will be missing Marcus Rojo, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Rafael, but Chris Smalling’s return from suspension boosts Louis Van Gaal’s options somewhat. It’s likely that 19-year-old Paddy McNair will start again, whilst winger Antonio Valencia could feature at right-back. Ashley Young and Radamel Falcao are also both doubtful.
On paper, Arsenal should probably claim victory over Louis Van Gaal’s battered squad. However, Arsenal’s recent poor form in so-called ‘big games’ throws the result into disrepute. United have several ‘big game’ players who, should they perform, could see Arsenal slump to defeat in yet another important fixture – Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie in particular enjoy playing against Wenger’s side. That said, Arsenal will be desperate to prove that playing United isn’t becoming taboo for them. Jack Wilshere’s fantastic form with England could be a crucial factor here, and Van Gaal may want to utilise Marouane Fellaini’s physicality to shut him down. Their are a number of similarly fascinating duels across the pitch: United’s attackers will seek to take advantage of Calum Chambers at right-back, whilst Alexis against United’s makeshift right-back could prove to be game changing. All things considered, I’d expect this game to be a draw – Arsenal dominating and taking the lead, before being pegged back by an individual moment of United brilliance…probably from Wayne Rooney.
These are incredibly difficult to predict for this fixture due to fluctuation of player form during the international break, as well as injury issues – but here’s what I’d expect to be the most likely lineups for each side.
Szczesny; Gibbs, Monreal, Mertesacker, Chambers; Arteta; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey, Wilshere, Alexis; Welbeck
Manchester United (4-2-3-1)
Lindegaard; Shaw, McNair, Smalling, Valencia; Herrera, Fellaini; Mata, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie