On the surface, Manchester United and Arsenal’s Premier League clash this Sunday is little more than a dead rubber. United are going to finish in the top four and have their eyes on the FA Cup final; Arsenal are going to finish outside the top four and need to score away at Atletico Madrid on Thursday to book their place in the Europa League final.
With priorities laying elsewhere, the immediate assumption is that the coming encounter, their 52nd to date in the Premier League, will lack natural competitiveness. But this is two of English football’s most historic clubs we’re talking about, lead by two managers who have been at loggerheads ever since Jose Mourinho dethroned Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles in 2004/05.
That should ensure there’s some intensity to Sunday’s game. But which manager is faced with the bigger injury problems, how could the referee influence the match, who boasts the better form and can history tell us anything about the likely outcome? Our match preview covers everything you need to know before the 4.30pm kickoff…
From their 51 Premier League meetings to date, Manchester United have no doubt enjoyed the better fortune in this fixture, claiming almost twice the amount of wins as the Gunners and scoring 21 more goals in the process.
In fact, Arsenal’s famous win at Old Trafford to seal the 2001/02 title was something of an anomaly – the north Londoners have only ever won there three times in the Premier League, and United are currently on a ten-game undefeated run for top flight clashes with the Gunners at home.
However, there has been a better balance to this fixture in recent years; the last six meetings resulting in two draws, two wins and two defeats for both sides. That will give Arsenal some confidence in getting a decent result on Sunday, as will their impressive return of clean sheets – just one less than United despite the disparity in results.
At first glance, there isn’t a great deal to choose between Arsenal and Manchester United in terms of recent form, but at closer inspection the Red Devils will feel they enter this match on a much firmer foothold, because the calibre of the opponents during their last six Premier League clashes has been far more considerable than the Gunners’.
While Arsenal lost to the highest-positioned team they’ve faced, Newcastle, United beat their toughest opponent in Premier League champions Manchester City, and also claimed a victory over Liverpool at Old Trafford as well. Likewise, both of those defeats for Arsenal were on the road, and they’re still the only team in England’s top four divisions yet to win an away point in 2018.
The real positive for this weekend’s visitors, however, is the strong form of January signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He’s scored five goals in Arsenal’s last six games and his overall Premier League return stands at six goals and three assists in just eight starts.
Kevin Friend is a rather unusual referee, as the statistics show. On the one hand, he’s shown incredible leniency on the most-part this season, ranking in the bottom two of the Premier League’s twenty referees for fouls per game, fouls per tackle and yellow cards. He’s also yet to send any body off this term.
On the other though, he’s issued eight penalties during his 18 top flight outings this season and actually has the highest average when removing referees to only officiate one game – Simon Hooper and Andy Madley – from the equation. For whatever reason, Friend is as strict inside the box as he is lenient outside of it.
The other curious concern for the Gunners is the incredible number of matches overseen by Friend that have resulted in home wins this season. Of course, that’s partly due to the nature of the games he’s been given, but his 61% home win bias is the highest throughout all Premier League referees who have worked in 2017/18.
Mourinho has confirmed his side boast a clean bill of health this weekend with the exception of backup goalkeeper Sergio Romero who remains a long-term absentee. Accordingly, we aren’t expecting any changes from the starting XI that beat Tottenham in last weekend’s FA Cup semi-final with the exception of the right wing berth.
Mourinho reveals: "Everybody is fine [ahead of the Arsenal game]. I have 22 players and apart from Romero as a goalkeeper, everyone is fit to play.” #MUFC
Lingard [Achilles] and Valencia [calf] have shaken off minor knocks. #MUFC
— Ben Dinnery (@BenDinnery) April 27, 2018
Jesse Lingard has been United’s saving grace at times this season, often providing the moment of magic to get them over the line, but he’s struggled to really assert himself since moving from a No.10 role to the right flank, and that might just convince Mourinho into making a change. Juan Mata, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford can all play there – but we reckon the United boss will opt for the 20-year-old, who has a knack of delivering for United against quality opposition.
Arsenal aren’t exactly facing an injury crisis either, but the key issue for Wenger is how to balance out his priorities. On the one hand, he’ll want a solid performance during his potentially last trip to Old Trafford; on the other, it’s the second leg of Arsenal’s Europa League clash with Atletico Madrid on Thursday night that will define the north London club’s season.
Therefore, we’re expecting Wenger to rotate his starting XI for Sunday’s clash. For starters, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is cup-tied in Europe, so bringing the Gabon international in for Alexandre Lacazette seems like a natural change anyway. But we could see swaps in both full-back positions as well, Sead Kolasinac and Calum Chambers coming in for Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin respectively.
It’s more than likely Mesut Ozil won’t start and is rested for Thursday, paving the way for Alex Iwobi to return to the starting XI. But Mohamed Elneny’s injury does limit Wenger’s ability to rotate in midfield, so Jack Wilshere and Granit Xhaka may have to play this one out, with youngster Ainsley Maitland-Niles replacing Aaron Ramsey who is still carrying a long-term injury issue.
Petr Cech, meanwhile, should replace cup goalkeeper David Ospina as the last of six changes from Thursday’s starting XI.