Arsenal face Manchester United on Sunday at Old Trafford for the second time this season. The last time these two teams met, Arsenal snatched a victory in the FA Cup Quarter-Finals thanks to hard and attentive work by Danny Welbeck. Angel Di Maria was sent off in that match and Arsenal were the better team on the day.
On Monday, Arsenal’s ten match unbeaten run came to an end against Swansea City. Swansea defended extremely well and Arsenal were left to rue a string of excellent missed opportunities and then a momentary loss in concentration that led to Swansea’s goal. The loss wasn’t due to a poor performance and Arsenal can take some positives back from the way they played. A good response at Old Trafford would silence critics of the past week who brought back quotes from yesteryear invoking memories of an impending doom that Arsenal are always about to face.
A win would guarantee Arsenal’s position in the top three and Man U need a win to have any chance of finishing ahead of Arsenal. Even then, Arsenal would only need to win one and draw another in their last two matches to put them ahead of Man U on goal difference thanks to the Gunners game in hand. Needless to say, Arsenal will go out looking for a win to ensure they do not play a Champions League Qualification match in August and keep their hopes of finishing in 2nd alive. A win would instill more confidence in a side that is already brimming with it and aid them in the soon to be played FA Cup Final against Aston Villa.
Arsenal will be without the services of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who strained his hamstring in training and is now a doubt for the aforementioned FA Cup Final. Danny Welbeck will just miss out with a knee injury, but he should be available Wednesday for Arsenal’s home match against Sunderland. Otherwise Mathieu Debuchy and Mikel Arteta are both still out and unlikely to play the rest of the season.
Considering that Arsenal have no new team news, expect them to field the same side as they did on Monday, including the bench. That would make it the 6th time in a row Arsenal have fielded an unchanged side.
Here is Arsenal’s probable starting lineup.
Goalkeeper – Ospina
David Ospina’s height, or lack thereof, came into question again this week after he conceded Swansea’s lone goal. The criticism seemed to be a bit harsh, although if he was as tall as Wojciech Szczesny he might have saved it.
The problem wasn’t Ospina’s height though. Hector Bellerin failed to close down Jefferson Montero’s cross and Nacho Monreal was beaten too easily in the air by Bafétimbi Gomis. Ospina almost kept the ball out, in fact everyone thought he did, which shows why goal line technology is a good addition to the game.
Against Man U Ospina will have to deal with long diagonal balls in the box and drilled in crosses from Ashley Young on the left. Ospina is a good shot stopper, but his best attribute is his command of the space around him.
Right Back – Bellerin
Bellerin should have done better to close down Montero, but that was his only mistake of the game on Monday and he is young so he will learn from those kinds of errors.
He will come face to face with Young this weekend. The last time they met Bellerin handled the occasion decently, although he was removed on the 60 minute mark after receiving an early yellow card. He will need to replicate his performance from three weekends ago against Chelsea, where he held Eden Hazard largely in check. Young has been in tremendous form lately and Bellerin will be needed at his best to match Young.
Center Backs – Mertesacker& Koscielny
Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have benefited from Arsenal’s schedule lately which has allowed them a full weeks rest after every match since March. Earlier in the season they both struggled with injuries and faced a congested schedule with little time to rest because of squad depth issues. Now they are playing at a level that saw them come in 2nd and 3rd in Arsenal’s player of the season poll last year.
Wayne Rooney will not be available on Sunday, so Arsenal’s defensive duo will likely face a combination of Falcao and Robin van Persie upfront.
Left Back – Monreal
Monday was the second time this season Monreal didn’t do enough to prevent Gomis from scoring a headed goal against Arsenal. No reason to think he won’t bounce back this weekend though.
He will go up against Juan Mata who has played well ahead of Di Maria on the left. Monreal will have his hands full this weekend but has been one of Arsenal’ must consistent performers.
Defensive Mid – Coquelin
Francis Coquelin was sacrificed in the second half on Monday to inject further attacking options into Arsenal’s side. It really pinpointed Coquelin’s inability to influence the attacking phase of the game, but you can’t have it all. Coquelin has a job to do in Arsenal’s side and he has done it exceptionally well. Asking him to defend the way he does and drive Arsenal forward is asking him to be Patrick Vieira. There are only a few players who could play that role close to perfection.
Regardless, Coquelin marshalled the midfield at Old Trafford in March and kept Marouane Fellaini in check the entire game. He will be asked to do that again and his ability to do so is imperative for Arsenal to succeed in Manchester.
Central Mid – Cazorla
It is incredibly frustrating to see such a technically gifted player of Santi Cazorla’s quality frequently make a mess of shooting opportunities. He is an excellent set piece taker and strikes a dead ball very well. But during live play he cannot seem to get the right mix of power and accuracy behind any of his shots, lately at least. Luckily he makes up for that by driving Arsenal forward with his clever turns and neat dribbling skills.
The absence of Michael Carrick should benefit Cazorla. He has a technical advantage over Man U’s midfielders and Carrick would have been an ideal player to slow Cazorla down.
Attacking Mid – Özil
Like Cazorla, Mesut Özil should benefit from Carrick’s absence, although he will likely be on the end of some clumsy Fellaini challenges like we saw in March. This is a good opportunity for him to drive Arsenal yet again on the big stage.
Wide Right – Ramsey
Aaron Ramsey apparently hasn’t practiced all week and while normally that’s a bad omen, Wenger is confident he will be fit for Sunday. Ramsey will either go up against Daley Blind or Marcos Rojo because of Luke Shaw’s absence due to injury.
It will be interesting to see how Ramssey is marked because he likes to drift in the middle of the field. Bellerin’s pace could be useful overlapping the Welshman and would take advantage of the lack of pace that Rojo and Blind exhibit.
Wide right is not Ramsey’s best position and we should see him in the center of the pitch again at the start of next season. At the moment though it is working and he is making significant contributions in every match.
Wide Left – Alexis
Alexis had a frustrating match against Swansea and was always marked by two defenders. At times he tried to do too much on his own which slowed Arsenal down a bit. Trying too hard though is a good problem to have and his individualism always shines through two or three times a game.
He should give Antonio Valencia a torrid time and Man U will be wary to break on their right knowing that would leave space for Alexis to exploit. Last time the two teams met, Alexis was going through somewhat of a dry spell in terms of goals and his level of performance. The past five games he has been excellent and he should have a greater effect on the match.
Striker – Giroud
Monday was the second game in a row that Olivier Giroud failed to impose himself in. It’s not down to effort or form though. Both Hull City and Swansea paid the Frenchman more attention than usual and he regularly had three defenders on him the moment the ball was anywhere near him. This tactic has clearly had an effect on him and is a nod to how dangerous other teams feel he is.
I’m not sure that Man U will play him that way because they are a more attacking minded team. Louis van Gaal is a clever coach and will have taken notice of how ineffective Giroud has been with three people on him, but it’s not clear that Man U have the players to do that, especially in midfield. Ander Herrera could make life difficult by helping Phil Jones and Chris Smalling and so could Blind, but that may leave too much space for Özil, Ramsey or Cazorla to operate in the middle.
If Welbeck was healthy this weekend I get the feeling he would start, and allow Giroud to rest mentally after two difficult games.