Our recent resurgence faces a tough challenge today as we entertain Manchester United, currently sitting second in the Premier League and on a terrific run of results until their slip-up against Sheffield United in midweek.
We can take solace from the fact that prior to the Blades we were the last team to beat them in the league, winning 1-0 at Old Trafford on November 1st.
Unfortunately after that game we went on a terrible run during which we couldn’t buy a sniff of a goal let alone a win, whereas the red Mancs bounced straight back and won 10 of their next 13 (the three they didn’t win were draws against Manchester City, Liverpool and Leicester, so that’s not too shabby).
On paper you would have to say they are strong favourites to win today. Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes have 31 goals between them in all competitions; Paul Pogba is in arguably his best form since arriving in Manchester and they have started improving at the back.
A draw would not be a bad result for Arsenal, but I think we have the players to win this one if the breaks go our way.
A lot will depend on which players are available. If we can start with Partey, Tierney, Smith Rowe and Aubameyang – all of whom are currently doubtful – we have the quality to compete with Man Utd all across the park.
At the time of writing (on Friday afternoon) Partey looks likely to be available (he pulled up with cramp towards the end of the Southampton game but otherwise did not seem injured); Aubameyang has been declared unavailable (he is quarantining after flying to Gabon and back to visit his sick mother, apparently); there is no news of Tierney and Smith Rowe. Dani Ceballos and Pablo Mari have been back in training but whether they’re available to start is anyone’s guess.
I can’t imagine our new loan singing Martin Odegaard will be involved (Arteta referred to him needing match fitness) but I suppose he could be on the bench.
One area of encouragement for us is in attack. In recent games – when our new first-choice stars have started – we have begun to show glimpses of excellence: beautiful attacking sequences built on speed, one-touch passing, great movement off the ball and complete understanding between the players involved.
Smith Rowe, Saka and Lacazette in particular have been at the heart of these moves. If we can avoid being dominated in midfield and get our front line playing at that level then I fancy us to score a couple. For all their recent improvements, United have still found it difficult to keep clean sheets, conceding two goals to Sheffield United (twice), Leicester, Leeds and Southampton during their winning run.
I am going to stay positive with my predicted line-up and assume that all our ‘doubtfuls’ except Auba will be fit for today. If Tierney is still out then Cedric slots in at left back, where he did an excellent job in midweek. In the absence of Aubameyang we could start Martinelli, but I would not rule out switching Saka to the left and playing Pepe on the right after his decent outing against the Saints.
Smith Rowe is the tricky one. If he’s not available then I fear Mikel Arteta will start Willian, in which case my optimism levels will plummet. I would rather try Ceballos in the Number 10 role if he’s fit enough.
Here’s the likely starting eleven:
Bellerin – Holding – Luiz – Tierney
Xhaka – Partey
Pepe – Smith Rowe – Saka
It’s nice to be looking forward to a big game instead of dreading it. This one will probably come down to fine margins – quality finishing; great goalkeeping; refereeing decisions – but if we come away with all three points our season will start to look very different.
Come on you Gunners.