The last game against a big six opponent this year is the biggest one yet. Two points separate three teams for a chance at Champions League football next season. Arsenal and Manchester United has always been a big game, but it will be even bigger at the Emirates this weekend.
It pains me to reference Manchester United like this, but when Arsenal face-off with their bitter rival on Sunday, they will need to go into it with this mentality: if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.
Arsenal will be hosting the best team in the Premier League at the Emirates this weekend — or at least the best team since December 19th, 2018. One large change has happened since that date, and that is a new man in charge on the touchline.
Following the firing of frustrated-old-man-who-points-blame-outward [and ex-manager] Jose Mourinho, his caretaker replacement Ole Gunnar Solskjær has been unstoppable.
For those who may not know: Solskjær’s links with Manchester United are incredibly deep-rooted. As a player, the Norwegian netted 122 Premier League goals in 277 appearances for United between 1996-2007. His biggest moment was his stoppage time winner in the 1999 Champions League final, where Ole slammed home a Teddy Sheringham header to cement a treble for the Red Devils [yuck].
Solskjær moved into management in 2008, taking over the Manchester United reserves. Upon firing Mourinho, United brought in Solskjær on temporary leave from Molde to fill the vacancy until May.
Under Mourinho, United were sitting in sixth place at 26 points (7-5-5) from 17 games in the Premier League. The goal differential was a gentleman’s 0. The manager never held back in his tongue-lashing monologues about his player’s inability to do their job. United look a different team since then.
After the hiring of a genuine human being as the caretaker, Manchester United have accrued 32 points (10-2-0) from 12 games in the league alone. That includes a goal differential of +20 (1st in PL) and no dropped points in six games away from home. All in five less games than his predecessor (per WhoScored). Outside the league, Solskjær has been just as good, boasting a record of 5-0-1. The only loss he experienced was a 2-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in a first round tie, which United would eventually overcame on Wednesday to advance in the second leg. Combined with his league results, Solskjær is 17-2-1 in all competitions.
Man Utd under Solskjaer— Orbinho (@Orbinho) March 6, 2019
Expected Goals 29.8
Goals Conceded 13
Expected Goals Against 21.3
Games played 17
Penalties won 7
Manchester United has yet to offer their club legend a permanent role as gaffer.
As Arsenal try to bounce back from a gut-punching end to the North London derby and a shambolic defeat in the Europa League to Rennes, they could not face stiffer competition.
In a neck-and-neck race for Champions League qualification, Arsenal and United are separated by just one point in the table for the last spot to Europe’s biggest competition. Chelsea follow the Gunners by only a point as well, and that means two points separate three teams for one spot. This will be the last “six point swing” opportunity the Gunners will have this season, with their last eight remaining fixtures all against opponents outside the big 6.
After being knocked out of the FA Cup 3-1 by Solskjær’s United in January [which I was in attendance for], Unai Emery is fairly confident that his team will learn from being knocked out of the domestic competition. In his interview Friday, Emery referenced Arsenal’s last game against United:
“[There can be] similarities on Sunday because they have similar players, because they are in a good moment like they were then, but we played well, we created chances. We played against a big team and at some moments showed we can fight and battle with them, but we lost and that is the reality. We need on Sunday to do some different tactical and individual work and after find better efficiency against them.”
A big blow for Arsenal will be the loss of Lucas Torreira, who is serving his time for suspension after a direct red card in stoppage time of last week’s 1-1 draw. Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi will likely be the deep-lying midfield tandem in what I expect to be a 4-2-3-1 formation. Without the tackle-seeking Uruguayan’s presence, Xhaka and Guendouzi may have their hands full trying to track the likes of Paul Pogba, Romelu Lukaku, and Marcus Rashford.
Expect Alexandre Lacazette to start for the Gunners as he is also serving a ban for a red card in the Europa League. The benefit of this red card is that it is exclusive to the European competition, meaning he is eligible and fully-rested for Sunday’s big game. The drop in form of Aubameyang recently leads to a conclusion that we will see him as a substitute later in the game. He needs a goal or two to get his head on right, but I don’t think Arsenal have the ability to roll the dice on him with the magnitude of what is at stake.
It just does not get bigger than this. Can Arsenal pull out three points in the biggest game thus far?
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WHAT: Arsenal vs Manchester United
WHERE: Emirates Stadium, London
WHEN: Sunday, March 10th, 9:30 AM PT | 12:30 PM ET | 4:30 PM BT
US TV: NBC
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