Mikel Arteta is two from two in his Premier League encounters with Man Utd, let’s hope tonight he can secure the hat-trick.
The difference between the two teams since our 1-0 win at Old Trafford in November was marked. We came away from that game full of positivity after our first victory there since 2006. We played well, more or less contained a strong rival, and even if there was an element of a classic away smash and grab with only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s penalty to separate the sides, it felt like there was a lot to be encouraged about.
We then didn’t win another game in the Premier League until December 26th, taking just 2 points from a possible 21. United, on the other hand, put together an outstanding run of 13 games without defeat (10 wins and 3 draws), until they were beaten 2-1 by Sheffield United on Wednesday evening.
This evening a somewhat revitalised Arsenal will face a team determined and resolute to respond to losing to the league’s bottom side, but one perhaps a little shaken by the end of a good run. It can often take a few games to get going again, and obviously from our point of view I hope that happens to them, while we can continue to perform in much the same way.
In terms of team news, we’re going to be without Aubameyang, which is a blow, but against Southampton on Tuesday, the front three of Bukayo Saka, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe functioned really well. They all scored, Lacazette and Saka assisted each other, while the record signing’s performance on the left – where he has rarely played since his arrival – was about his best of the season so far. I don’t think there’s anything I’d change about that, particularly as I feel if we need a player to come on and change the dynamic of a game, that’s much more likely to be in Gabriel Martinelli’s wheelhouse than Pepe’s.
The training pictures showed Thomas Partey, Emile Smith Rowe and Kieran Tierney all taking part in the main sessions yesterday. That’s promising, although it’s not a cast-iron guarantee all will be involved. Arteta has made it pretty clear that some of these guys are being managed very carefully, walking a fine line between absence and availability, and if there are any disappointments to the team selection today, it’s probably because of caution rather than the manager thinking someone else is a better option.
The fact that Martin Odegaard is with us now is a boost. It’ll be interesting to see how involved he is. Maybe he’s not ready for 90 minutes, but if Smith Rowe is struggling a bit himself and has the same kind of issue, there might be a kind of game share thing going on there. One might start with an eye on the other to replace him and ease the burden. I also thought it was interesting that the manager doesn’t see these two player as either/or options, saying:
Of course, they can play together, and it is not about pushing somebody else out. Emile cannot play every single game, as we knew the other day. We need options.
On the basis of what he’s done in recent weeks, the starting berth today is Smith Rowe’s (assuming he’s fit enough), but when you picture a bench with the someone of the quality of Odegaard on it, it really does provide Arteta with a fantastic option if he needs to change things.
The one area I harbour some concern over though is centre-half. I think it’s nailed on that Rob Holding will start on the right hand side, but I worry a little about who partners him. Pablo Mari is back in training, but perhaps not quite ready to start. Gabriel was very shaky on his first game back (the cup defeat to Southampton), while I thought David Luiz was low-level terrible against Southampton on Tuesday, a performance which, on another night, might have cost us.
My guess is that the senior Brazilian will get the nod again, his experience means he can generally compartmentalise those dodgy nights and do better in the next game, but each time I see him the sense that this is a guy who is kind of going through the motions as his career winds down grows and grows. I know it’s difficult given that the two younger options have had injury issues, but I think the sooner we phase him out of first team action as much as possible the better (and to be fair, that’s kinda what was happening until Mari got injured and Gabriel had the Covid issue).
Our win at Old Trafford in November came on the back of a really front-footed performance from the first whistle. We put them under a lot of pressure early on and it set the tone for the game. We did something similar against Southampton on Tuesday, and although we conceded that early goal, we bounced back very well. If we can produce anything akin to that this evening, we give ourselves a decent chance. The extra attacking impetus we can generate from this move from the 3-4-3/5-2-3 to the 4-2-3-1 is important too, and it’s fair to say United are stronger as an attacking force than a defensive one.
It’s always hard to be confident against United, but I think based on what we’ve seen in the last few weeks that’s not unreasonable to be hopeful of a decent result this evening. Fingers crossed.