Might be a bit of a short one today as I need to head off to London to do a spot of shopping and meet a few friends for lunch and I’m running a little late, but I wanted to pen some pre-United match thoughts on here before I toddle off.
Firstly, having watched some utterly scandalous refereeing decisions in multiple games yesterday, I am now 100% convinced that Greater Manchester-based referee Paul Tierney and VAR Lee Mason – also from Greater Manchester – will be shafting us somehow today. As sure as the fact that night follows day, I can see this referee – one of the worst in the leagues (think about Harry Kane last season nearly taking Robertson’s ankle off at the Toilet Bowl Stadium – yep, that Paul Tierney who deemed that only a yellow) – is going to take charge of such a heated game as this one this afternoon could become.
Added to that is the fact that we have our own injury worries ahead of the game, with question marks/confirmations over Ramsdale, Zinchenko, Partey, Elneny, Odegaard and I think I also saw somebody say something about Ben White potentially being out for today too. Hopefully that’s just unfounded Twitter rumours but if true, it would be another blow at the start of a season which has begun so brilliantly right now. The good news is that after City’s draw yesterday, no matter what happens today, we will still be top of the league come next weekend, so that is at least some kind of positive our team can already draw, despite the two potential issues I’ve already highlighted in today’s blog already. So I’m taking that as good news.
Hopefully what it means is that those that are fit and able to play are ready and firing come kick off at 4.30pm.
As for the actual football to be played, I think this is one of the most confident I’ve been going in to a game at Old Trafford, but even that is not enough for me to think that we’ll actually win a football match there. As I’ve written about a number of times over the years, we just don’t seem to ever beat them on their ground in the league. We’ve done it in the cup a couple of times (that Welbeck goal still brings a smile to my face), we’ve won behind closed doors in the league when there were no fans in the stadium, but in front of their fans, they have experienced zero league defeats against us in 14 attempts. We haven’t won in the league with fans in the stadium since 2006 and that was a slightly dodgy Adebayor goal that these days would probably be ruled out by VAR.
Last season I thought we were the better team, we played the better football, we deserved a point from the game, minimum. Yet there we were again, having scored two goals at Old Trafford, down 3-2 because of a silly challenge by Odegaard in the box. That’s the sort of stuff that happens to us up there; sometimes it is of our own doing like that, sometimes it is the refereeing decisions that are frankly ludicrous (as I mentioned yesterday – Arshavin being scythed down by Fletcher, anyone?), but ultimately we end up with nothing when we go there. And if that happens again today then it’ll just be chucked on to the pile of what always happens to us when we go up there every season. The good news will be that in the league we’ve got it out of the way early and as I said a couple of para’s back, we’ll have the benefit of at least knowing we’re still top of the league after 10 games. That’s good news and the positivity can continue regardless of what happens today.
So, what’s Arteta going to do against a United side packed full of megastars and with three wins on the bounce to get them buoyed after a shocking start to the season? I suspect he’ll keep as much as he can the same and if Ben White is fit that means he will line up with Ramsdale, Saliba, Gabriel and Tierney as our back five. In front of them it will be interesting to see if he keeps faith in Sambi and I suspect he might given the Belgian’s good showing in midweek. I think Xhaka and hopefully Odegaard with operate in front of them but if the Norwegian isn’t 100% fit then you have to go with ESR in that position and see if he can link up well with Saka on the right. Martinelli and Gabriel Jesus complete the starting XI and from my perspective that’s where I want us to show that we have come far since last season. I want us to bright and aggressive going forward, movement, intensity and a press against a United side who won’t go long, haven’t attempted a load of shots on goal this season and don’t seem to apply pressure high up the pitch. Well, that’s what the stats say on FBRef i.e. United’s pressures in the attacking third are the second lowest this season behind Wolves. Man UNited are also bottom of the league in terms of crosses, so based on this early data it says to me that they will try to come at us through the middle, they won’t press us too high up the pitch and they will probably try to win the midfield battle. That could be problematic for us and is why losing Partey is such a big blow; he is a press-resistant midfielder who could have had a grand ol’ day at Old Trafford I reckon, whereas Sambi is a young kid with still so much to learn. We have to protect him today and I think the key to the game will be our makeshift midfield delivering a stellar performance. It sounds a little cliched to say “win the midfield battle” but today I think that’s what we actually have to do.
Right, I’ll leave it there. You guys enjoy what’s left of your Sunday before the nerves kick in and I’ll catch you all tomorrow for the post mortem.