The prospect of facing Manchester United at Old Trafford is rarely one that is welcomed. Old Trafford, despite being the ground that we secured the 2001/02 title, holds more bad memories than good. In fact we have failed to win at Old Trafford in the league since 2005. Yet there have been ample opportunities – not least the past 3 seasons when we have failed to capitalise on one of the worst United squads in recent years.
Yet this weekend holds an entirely different prospect: Jose Mourinho. The Portuguese manager has almost taken on cartoon-esque status when it comes to his rivalry with Wenger. He’s the Wile Coyote to our Roadrunner, the Bluto to our Popeye, the Dick Dastardly to our Wacky Races, with emphasis on the Dick. Perhaps that is being unkind or at least disparaging in my comparison because at least Wile, Bluto and Dick all have some form of likability – an inherent hopelessness or ineptitude that casts them in a somewhat favourable light. Mourinho takes on something much more sinister. There is no redeemable quality. There is no affable buffoonery. Mourinho is the villain and he will try anything within his power to inflict pain or humiliation upon his rival.
That is not to say that he isn’t a formidable opponent. Regardless of the current state of this United squad, this will be a very difficult fixture. Arsene has made efforts to rectify many of Arsenal’s previous fragilities: a commanding centre back to play alongside the excellent Koscielny; an experienced goalkeeper to marshal the defence and a midfielder with equal ratio of steel and silk. Yet it would not be inconceivable to see Mourinho examine these former areas of weakness with chief prosecutor-like proficiency. Wayne Rooney is likely to be instructed to test Mustafi’s aerial ability and general strength, Fellaini will, most likely, be employed to put his elbows and head to good use at setpieces and Ander Herrera will be charged with infiltrating the Arsenal midfield and breaking up any promising signs of attack early.
Arsenal have been caught cold on a number of occasions over the last few years, not least from long shots – and Petr Cech will have to be alert when Paul Pogba picks up possession within range of our goal. The trigger happy Pogba has registered 3.3 shots per game; it’s fortunate that Zlatan Ibrahimovic is suspended as the Swede has recorded 5.4 shots per game. The best way to counter United’s tendency to fire from range is to attempt to close down their main marksmen. However, this can lead to its own problems as players are dragged out of their respective positions and holes begin to appear. This will suit players such as Rashford, Martial and Mata who are quick footed and nimble enough to allude challenges and gain momentum in those small areas of space.
Another challenge facing Arsenal is the physicality of this United squad. In true Mourinho fashion, United have several imposing characters throughout the spine of their team. The 6ft2” frame of Pogba is complemented by Bailly’s and Fellaini’s 6ft1 and 6ft2 inches respectively. Koscielny, Coquelin and Mustafi, although neither of them being that tall, will have to exert their physicality in order to subdue the Manchester United behemoths and hope that Arsenal’s quicker players are capable of picking up the scraps.
The final aspect for Wenger and his troops to be wary of is the sheer unpredictability of Marcus Rashford. His impact, although not resonating as loudly as last year, is still enough to cause concern; and with Bellerin ruled out with ankle ligament damage, one would imagine that Rashford is licking his lips at the prospect of testing Carl Jenkinson’s turn of pace. The young English man is a sturdy defender, strong in the air, capable of decent delivery – but he is yet to be properly tested and the suspicion is that he is a backup number 2 with little potential for much else. Mustafi will have to be acutely aware of his responsibilities to assist Jenkinson so he isn’t left isolated against the nippy forward.
Manchester United is still the biggest fixture of the year for most Arsenal fans – regardless of the recent form of Tottenham and the hatred between Chelsea and Arsenal fans. A victory at Old Trafford would see Arsenal widen their lead over the red side of Manchester to 9 points. Let’s hope that Sanchez eats his spinach, Ozil fills up the Penelope Pitstop’s tank and Theo is able to dodgy any suspicion looking anvils or bails of TnT.
Til Next Time,