I feel rather apprehensive about tonight’s game. It’s old wounds you see. I remember when United were a bit of a joke under Moyes just after Fergie left and they beat us on their patch and got a 0-0 at our gaff after we utterly battered them with De Gea having essentially the game of his life. I also remember us outplaying them at the Emirates and Rooney and Lukaku getting breakaway goals to sucker punch us. I remember us getting done over by a fresh-faced Rashford after United had a string of injuries with us going in to the game. I remember the disgrace that was the 50th game at Old Trafford. All of these wounds have left scars with me and that’s why I’m never really confident going up there.
And when you look at the attacking talent they have at their disposal, it only makes me more apprehensive because forget about how they’ve been of late and the decline under Solsjkaer, they still have so many players who can do damage and I suspect that despite our good record defensively, we will still face a barrage of attacks as United look to put the Watford defeat and not picking up three points against Chelski behind them.
There’s also the challenge of how United will line up now that Ragnick has been whispering his thoughts in to Carrick’s ears. There will be plenty of those United players who will have an extra swing in their step tonight and I just hope we have the answer for it.
Arteta has already alluded to how tricky it is preparing for this game and I make him right; United under Ole were not a pressing team, then at the weekend they sat in deep against United and broke on the counter. They won’t do that at home in front of their own fans, but will they suddenly be a side to convert in to a high press because the shadow of Ralf hangs over them and they know he’ll be watching? Maybe. But to simply snap in to a co-ordinated high press isn’t something that happens overnight and unless you have that organisation and have worked at it, you aren’t going to instantly be able to master it. So it’s hard to know what approach United will be looking for this evening.
Whatever it is, my hope is that we can continue our good form in general (Anfield aside), because after last night’s results a win puts us in to the top four ahead of West Ham. A draw gets us level on points and if I’m honest with you, I’d take that now and see if we can get out of town and across to Liverpool to see if we can hit a wounded Everton side after their Merseyside derby defeat.
But much like United’s last game against Chelski and their set up and approach won’ be the same as tonight, neither will Arsenal’s. It can’t be. That’s because we played Newcastle at the weekend who sat in a low block and ceded all possession to us. It made for a frustrating first hour or so as we tried to break them down, but when the deadlock was broken we didn’t really ever look like losing it. There’s no way United sit in a low block and so there might be spaces opening up for us today. That’s why I think we need players who can spring in to those spaces. For me that means we go with the usual back five that has been starting – so perhaps Nuno over KT, midfield we should be looking at Partey to play but after what happened last season there could be a temptation to play Elneny. Personally I think he sticks with Sambi and hopes that the energy and athleticism of those two can outmatch what will probably be a midfield of McTominay, Fred and Matic in midfield. If they go with that then it will likely be a 4-3-1-2 with Ronaldo and Sancho/Rashford up top, with Fernandes sitting behind looking to pull the strings.
That could be a congested centre of the park so we’ll need some proper performances from that midfield two sitting in front of our back four. But given what I’ve just said, it could mean space on the flanks and if we are to get anything from the game I think that is where we need to be able to punish United. It is for that reason that I would go with Odegaard again over Lacazette, because he likes to drift in to the wide positions more than Lacazette does. We’ve seen how good Lacazette is in dropping deep and being an option for the ball, but that position around the centre circle that he likes to pick up is, for me, likely to be occupied by a lot of traffic, so I’d be tempted to say to Odegaard to find pockets of space out wide and work with Smith Rowe or maybe someone like Pepe on the flanks.
But I suspect he’ll be tempted to play Martinelli if Saka isn’t fit and that would mean we need to be seeing good passing distribution from our midfield two, probably from deep. Picture the scene: turnover in possession in front of our back four, Partey or Sambi look up, Martinelli is making a lung-busting run wide left or right, so they look for that ball in to the channel to stretch the United defence. That could be a good approach to keeping United on their toes and it’s what I hope is in Arteta’s mind for this evening.
Whilst United haven’t been in the best of form, let’s not forget they just picked up a draw at Stamford Bridge and they’ve beaten Tottenham away as well as West Ham away, both teams who are decent and will finish in the top half of the table. We need to be weary of the wounded animal and I suspect they might come flying out of the blocks tonight. So we need to weather the storm and see if we can’t them impose our game on them. It will be tough and as I said I’d take a draw right now, but we need to see this young Arsenal team step up and hope they can lay down a marker this evening.
Back tomorrow with a post match wash up.