Monday, January 24, 2022

Man Utd preview: Minding the gap, but improving the ‘big’ game record

A trip to Old Trafford is always daunting, regardless of how patchy Manchester United have been this season. They just sacked the manager who was responsible for some of that patchiness, although one of his patchy assistants remains in charge until the arrival of Ralf Rangnick. That makes it hard to know exactly what they’re going to do tonight, but at home and with the depth of attacking talent they have, it’s going to be a tricky task.

It’s clear they have some players who are not at the level required for that club, but it wouldn’t be smart to underestimate their threat in any way. If these players didn’t do it for Solskjaer, chances are they might up it a bit knowing a new manager is watching on and thinking about what he’s going to do with them and the team.

Our record there in recent seasons isn’t too bad, to be fair. Last season we deservedly won 1-0, a game in which Thomas Partey set a bar he hasn’t often reached again. Tonight would be a very good night for him to do something similar. In terms of team news, the only worry we know about – despite Mikel Arteta suggesting there were a few players carrying knocks from the Newcastle game – is Bukayo Saka. He came off on Saturday with what was described later as ‘muscular’ issue. At his press conference yesterday, the manager didn’t rule out his inclusion tonight, saying:

“I am hopeful but we don’t know. Obviously, it’s a really short turnaround and the player has to be comfortable playing with a little injury. Let’s see how it is in training.”

If he doesn’t make it, there’s a decision to make about who takes his place. It could be Nicolas Pepe, who is the most natural option, but he hasn’t played a lot of late. Emile Smith Rowe could move over there, Martin Odegaard too – leaving room for the addition of Alexandre Lacazette perhaps, or even Gabriel Martinelli who got the nod to replace Saka against Newcastle. He certainly took his chance at the weekend, whether that’s enough for him to start at Old Trafford we’ll have to wait and see.

Beyond that, I don’t think there’s much to talk about, although the Nuno Tavares/Kieran Tierney conversation continues with the summer signing keeping the more established man out of the team right now. Arteta admitted it was a difficult conversation to have with Tierney, but I really liked his explanation:

It was a tricky one and after what happened at Anfield and some individual errors that we had, we have to be very careful with the messages that we send to our players. I encourage my players to play with courage, to take risks, to make decisions and to be on the front foot and when they do that, if for any reason things don’t go our way or somebody makes a mistake, that’s when you have to show trust in the player because you want to build confidence and resilience.

It’s not only for the player that’s playing, it’s also for the player that’s not playing to understand that part of that decision is to support and in their case, if it happens to them, I will do exactly the same thing. It’s something that we have to build and with young players even more, because if not, they can get very confused. I have full confidence in him.

His decision to start Tavares on Saturday was fully justified by the performance, and I have to say I’m comfortable with whoever he chooses this evening. If anything though, the backing for Nuno for the Newcastle game makes it a bit easier if he does want to use the more experienced option against United. He can say ‘Look, I have faith in you, I showed you that, but tonight I feel this game is better suited to KT’. But, as I’ve said, we have a good problem in this position, and I’m not going to lose any sleep over this decision one way or the other.

As it stands, we’re five points ahead of them in the table, and while that gives us a bit of wiggle room, at the very least we have to look at coming away from Old Trafford with that gap intact. We’ve been on a good run, we’ve shown some measure of progress in the points we’ve garnered and certain aspects of our football. However, when we’ve come up against the ‘big’ teams, we’ve had some difficult games. The defeats to Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea are, in some ways, easy to understand in isolation, but while this current iteration of United are a long way from being as good as them, it’s still a big game on the fixture list and we need to give a good account of ourselves. With a trip to Everton on Monday, this is a challenging few days for this team, and hopefully one we can come through successfully.

As ever, we’ll have live blog coverage of the game for you, plus all the post-game stuff on Arseblog News.

For some extra reading this morning, Tim’s column this week touches on Martin Odegaard, while Jon Spurling writes about former Gunner and 1971 double hero Ray Kennedy who passed away this week. We have a preview podcast available for you right now over on Patreon, and I’ll catch you a bit later for the game.

Until then, take it easy.

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