They may not have much left to play for in the Premier League this season, but Manchester United versus Arsenal remains one of English football’s most iconic fixtures. Throw in the fact this may well be Arsene Wenger’s last ever trip to Old Trafford, the scene of one of his most famous triumphs when the Gunners lifted the title there in 2002, and Sunday’s meeting will be ninety minutes of intriguing nostalgia at the very least.
So, how will this one pan out? Football FanCast’s very own Man-United-mad Sam Preston shares his thoughts and predictions ahead of the 4.30pm kickoff…
In many ways, it’s a shame Wenger’s last meeting with the Red Devils as Arsenal manager has come at this stage of the season. United will finish in the top four and are preparing for the FA Cup final; Arsenal will finish outside the top four and have a Europa League semi-final on Thursday night to think about. Both managers look set to rest key players with greater priorities in mind, and that could see a disappointing lack of competitiveness on Sunday.
Will this match end up being something of a dead rubber?
Sam: “I think it will, but it’ll be because Wenger rests players ahead of the return leg with Atletico. Of course United have the FA Cup to worry about, but that’s not for a few weeks yet so I’d expect Jose Mourinho to field his strongest side. Arsenal may well lack intensity and Mourinho will want to capitalise on that to all but clinch second place. Mourinho has set his side the target of getting seven more points in their last four games and there is a massive opportunity to get three of them here.”
A bitter rivalry with Mourinho has of course been one of the defining factors in the latter half of Wenger’s Arsenal tenure. The Portuguese’s arrival at Chelsea back in 2004 brought the abrupt end of the Invincibles’ dominance, and a year later Arsenal would win their only trophy for almost a decade. That’s no coincidence either; Mourinho’s defensive 4-3-3 counteracted Arsenal’s expansive style of play and has resulted in a formidable record against the Gunners gaffer. From 18 meetings to date, Mourinho’s won nine compared to Wenger’s mere two victories.
What are the key aspects of the Mourinho game-plan that have helped create such a dominant record over the Frenchman?
Sam: “Mourinho is a pragmatist so he’s always been willing to let Wenger’s sides dominate possession without penetration before exploiting the spaces Arsenal invariably leave behind. On Sunday, he will have no problem letting even a weakened Arsenal team have more of the ball and ruthlessly punish them on the counter attack. There’s usually much more pace and power in Mourinho’s sides than Wenger’s and that will be the key again on Sunday.”
Amid such a disappointing season, albeit one that could still end in a European trophy, it can be easy to forget how talented this Arsenal side is, even after losing Alexis Sanchez to United in January. After all, Mesut Ozil is one of the best playmakers in the world and mid-season acquisition Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was one of the most potent forwards in Ligue 1 before rising to the same status in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund.
Which Arsenal star is capable of causing United the most damage this weekend?
Sam: “It has to be Aubameyang. I wouldn’t expect any of Arsenal’s other big hitters to play but obviously Aubameyang is cup-tied and should spearhead the attack at Old Trafford. He is growing in confidence and in the continued absence of Eric Bailly, United don’t have anyone else who can live with his raw speed. His pace in behind will ensure Mourinho sets his team up to play reasonably deep as well.”
And where will this game be lost and won?
Sam: “On the counter-attack. If United can rob Arsenal in midfield and use the speed of Romelu Lukaku, Sanchez and Jesse Lingard to break into the spaces they leave behind, then they should win fairly easily. But if Arsenal are able to keep the ball away from United and pin them back then that’s their best chance of securing the win. There’s a fine line between soaking up pressure – controlling the game without the ball as Mourinho calls it – and being penned in, unable to break out. United must make the most of their chances to counter.”
Finally Sam, let’s hear your score prediction…
Sam: “If this wasn’t Wenger’s last trip to Old Trafford as Arsenal manager then the visitors wouldn’t care about this game at all, with the Atletico match on the horizon. The Wenger factor adds something extra but I still expect Arsenal’s hearts to not really be in it, and a stronger United side to clinch the victory. 2-0 United.”