An argument could be made that this fixture has had the biggest fall from grace in the Premier League era. Once a title decider. A history maker. A record breaker. The last ten years have seen this previously highly contested fixture slip away into what most fans see as a ‘good game’ and nothing else.
However this year we look set to revisit the old ‘Battle of the Buffet’ type games of the early 2000s. Arsenal have lost one game in the Premier League all season, and to add more spice to this fixture that loss was away at Old Trafford. They are flying at the summit of the table, 5 points clear of Manchester City, with recent bragging rights in the North London Derby and another opportunity to silence critics again this weekend.
Manchester United have won 10 of their last 11 games in all competitions and are finally operating as a team. Erik Ten Hag has been instrumental in helping players discover their old form; Rashford and Wan-Bissaka have both escaped their negative recent history and look like new players.
In terms of starting line up and styles of play, Arsenal are easier to predict. Barring any last minute injuries, we know the XI Arteta will deploy. Manchester United however find themselves in a tricky patch of managing players slowly gaining fitness and minutes after the World Cup, as well as the unexpected problem of suspension (Casemiro picking up his 5th booking of the season against Palace).
Playing at the Emirates will certainly suit Arsenal. No team has a better home record this season, with only Manchester City scoring more goals when playing at home. Arteta has emphasised his desire to rebuild the connection with the fans since his arrival in December 2019 and it is clear to see this is one of his most successful targets so far. The atmosphere on Sunday will be electric. This is also the first time fans will have been at the ground since the Emirates finalised its recent remodelling. New artwork, fresh coats of paint, updated entry systems and a general tidy up was promised last summer and is finally coming to fruition. Something Manchester United season ticket holders have been complaining about at Old Trafford since Ferguson left.
Tactically, this game may have parallels to the reverse fixture in September 2022. Despite their developments and cohesion, United still seek to punish teams on the counter attack. Arsenal meanwhile (especially at home) will look to dominate the ball. Although listed as a 4-3-3, in possession Arsenal are using a very fluid 2-3-5. Part of the reason Arsenal were so dominant in the first half against Spurs was Conte’s refusal to change his midfield pairing to match the number of bodies Arsenal had in the centre of the field, something Ten Hag will definitely seek to address, especially with the selection headache of Casemiro’s unavailability.
Fred will be tasked with shutting Martin Odegaard out of the game as he did against Kevin De Bruyne last week. Regardless of opposition, if Odegaard is given space and time he has the skill set to punish teams. The fact he has as many Premier League goals as Marcus Rashford (8) proves just how dangerous he is. Operating in the right half space in tandem with Bukayo Saka they will limit how much Luke Shaw can get forward, meaning United will most likely have to sacrifice another midfield spot in the starting XI to deal with this attacking threat, with McTominay being the likely candidate.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka is expected to start at right back and will certainly have his hands full with Gabriel Martinelli more than ready to run in behind. Despite Martinelli’s brilliant form, Wan-Bissaka has always dealt well with tricky wingers. Raheem Sterling never seemed to get the better of him during his time at City and Foden looked disconnected for large parts of the derby last weekend. Even last night, Zaha who can be a handful for any fullback looked out of ideas, and was tackled inside the penalty box excellently by Wan Bissaka in the game’s dying seconds.
That side of the field will be and interesting duel and one to keep an eye on across the game. If Arsenal find themselves struggling to break United down we could well see Kieran Tierney come on to help stretch the balls in behind Wan-Bissaka later on. Previously thought as single mindedly defensive, Wan Bissaka has shown real attacking promise in his last few games. Completing 3/3 dribbles against Man City last weekend and providing real threat from the start of the midweek fixture, he allows Antony that extra time on the ball to produce a piece of magic. He is a player quietly going under the radar at United.
Arsenal will be tasked with defensive duty in this game too. Marcus Rashford’s red-hot form is no secret, and bar the game last night he has scored in every game for United since the World Cup, already beating last year’s total for the season. Ben White and William Saliba will be more than ready, and confidence amongst the back line will be high after a resolute defensive display away at Spurs a week ago. Arsenal knowing when to press as a midfield unit will be crucial in stopping the supply reaching Rashford, with Eriksen and Fernandes almost exclusively looking for his runs when they have time on the ball. Stop Rashford and you have a good chance of stopping United. Whilst they have been on a brilliant run of games, many felt last weekend’s derby was their first genuine test, and Sunday is another one.
Three points for Arsenal will put them 12 points clear of Newcastle and 11 clear of Manchester United after all having played the same amount of games. Not only this, Arsenal will have come away from easily their most difficult period of the season so far relatively unscathed. No losses and no more injuries would have been a dream for Arteta at the restart, and is well within possibility.
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A win for United will feel huge for not only cementing their place amongst an ever-changing top four, but will legitimise their claims as title challengers. Beating first and second in the league in consecutive weeks is something not many teams will do this year, and will force other teams, the media and most importantly Arsenal to pay them huge respect.
I think Arsenal are the favourites going into this fixture, not only because of the fatigue after last nights fixture and the feeling of disappointment in how it ended or the fact the game is being played at the Emirates – but because of the belief within the Arsenal squad and fans.
Newcastle needed an 89th minute winner and a stroke of luck following Mitrovic’s penalty faux-pas last week to secure three points. The type of performance numerous Sky Sports pundits would have hammered Arteta and the ‘young Arsenal side’ over had it been them. We are yet to see Arsenal ‘win scrappy’. Perhaps Sunday will be that game. The history of this fixture will hopefully serve to create a pulsating atmosphere and I have no doubt the fans will play their part from the very beginning.
Arsenal have been fluid, they have been defensively resolute and they have won the big games when they have come, and Sunday is no different. A result, a good performance but most importantly three points; and Arsenal may well be looking at a thrilling second half to this season.
Arsenal Predicted Starting XI:
White – Saliba – Gabriel – Zinchenko
Odegaard – Partey – Xhaka
Saka – Nketiah – Martinelli
Manchester United Predicted Starting XI:
Wan-Bissaka – Varane – L. Martinez – Shaw
Fred – Eriksen – Fernandes
Antony – Weghorst – Rashford