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Arsenal vs. Manchester United preview

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May 1, 2011: Never forget.
May 1, 2011: Never forget.
Arsenal vs. Manchester United
Emirates Stadium, Minas Tirith
Sunday 22 January 2011 (11am E)
ARS (5th): DWLWL | MUFC (2nd): WLLWL
SB Nation's Manchester United gang: The Busby Babe

This is not ideal. A week after a demoralizing loss to a good Swansea City side, Arsenal really don't need Manchester United coming to visit. The spectre of August's 8-2 drubbing has hung over much of this season, and it certainly is solidifying now that the Red Devils face Arsenal once more, and the team sheet looks rather similar to that match's did. With an already swollen injury list now adding Mikel Arteta and possibly Thierry Henry (among others), things are not looking good for the Homestar Runner (now that SOPA's gone I can make these references again).

The way I've seen people talk about this game so far, one would think the best solution would be not to show up. I'm as guilty of it as anyone (well, maybe not really, but I am pretty guilty), when I saw Arteta wasn't playing I very nearly lobbed my computer out a window. It's true - the match doesn't look all that appealing at the moment, but it certainly isn't a lost cause. Because I think Aidan already took this from the other side, I'm going to preview some ways Arsenal can win (or at least avoid losing).
  • Return some semblance of order to midfield.

With Arteta out, this is going to be harder than otherwise. He's more vital to this team already in about half a season of Gunnerhood than many realized (not us, though!) because of the order he can bring to the chaos of midfield, particularly when Arsenal are pressed heavily. Throw that out, he's not going to be here. There are two positives, though. First of all, Aaron Ramsey is better than this. He hasn't been good lately, but we've all seen what he can do when he's right. In fact, we saw it in this fixture last year, when Ramsey scored the game's only goal in a 1-0 Arsenal victory. With Arteta out again Ramsey will have to be more accurate with his passes and runs than he was against Swansea. That may actually be a possibility, though, because in case you haven't heard, Manchester United's midfield isn't all that hot either. It's basically Michael Carrick (who is actually good) and a revolving cast around him including noted old dudes Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Speaking of Scholes, the only reason he's playing is because he came out of retirement to fill in for them at midfield. (Sound familiar? Hey, at least Henry wasn't retired.) In short, this may not be a midfield battle we can win, but it certainly isn't one that Arsenal should be losing badly unless they play like they did at Swansea. So hold it together and we shouldn't be torn to bits.

  • Attack Manchester United's defense.

That sounds obvious, but it's a little more complicated. Much like Arsenal, Manchester United have had injury problems in their defense; where we've lacked fullbacks, they have a shortage of centerbacks. Nemanja Vidic injured ligaments in his knee in December and will miss the remainder of the season; Rio Ferdinand also has missed time, and may be out for the game Sunday due to a flare-up of a recurring back issue. This means that Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans may end up playing - certainly not bad players, but also certainly not the quality of the ones they're replacing. Is Arsenal's defense vulnerable? Of course. But United's can be beaten as well, and I think particularly through the middle, where Robin van Persie may be able to work some magic.

  • Take (some) advantage of injuries.

If there's a side with an injury list to rival Arsenal's it would be Manchester United. Three injured players (Jones, Smalling, and Danny Welbeck) appear set to return for the match Sunday, but Anderson, Darren Fletcher, Ashley Young, Tom Cleverly, Vidic, Bebe, and Michael Owen (yeah) all look like they'll be missing. Arsenal have issues; so do United. Neither club is really at anything resembling full strength. Whichever club can manage them better will have a big leg up on the opposition. In the past that's usually been Manchester United, but at times this year Arsenal have been able to create good performances from nothing with major players out. Perhaps a jury-rigged home side can defeat similarly incapacitated visitors.

Is this all likely? Probably not. The more likely outcome is a horrifying draw, and I'd see United winning more times than Arsenal. But there is a chance, this is not a kamikaze mission. If underperforming players step up and Arsenal does a better job of exploiting Manchester United's weaknesses than they do of ours, this is a game that Arsenal could win. It will be hard, but it is not impossible.

To be perfectly honest, though, I don't think it will happen.

Lineup: Szczesny; Miquel, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Djourou; Song, Ramsey, Rosicky; Arshavin, van Persie, Walcott

Prediction: Pain. Arsenal 2-2 Manchester United