Arsenal head to Old Trafford on Monday after vastly different outings in the Carabao Cup. The Gunners rolled past Nottingham Forest 5-0, seeing young players flourish and the return of Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding, and Kieran Tierney. Meanwhile, United need penalty kicks to see off League One side Rochdale.
Last year Arsenal and United split their three matches going 1-1-1, including an FA Cup tie. The Gunners have found success in their last five trips to Old Trafford - 2 wins and 3 draws. Ahead of the Premier League clash, we spoke with Brent Maximin from The Busby Babe to get his thoughts on United’s season thus far, the current squad, Solskjaer’s fate, and a prediction for the match. When you’re done you can check out my answers to their Arsenal questions here.
TSF: Before the season started, looking at your transfers in and out, along with what happened at Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham, what were your expectations for this year?
TBB: The last few years have been so chastening for United fans that I don’t think many people had high expectations for this year. Given the obvious weaknesses in the squad, finishing in the top four was always going to be a challenge. We were - and still are - relying on Chelsea/Arsenal/Spurs to struggle in their own ways to provide an opening. The best case outcome, realistically, is 3rd or 4th in the league and a cup win. But that depends on turning around this current early slide, getting lucky with injuries, and reinforcing in January. An eighth-placed, trophy-less season isn’t hard to imagine either.
TSF: Three transfers into the club this summer - Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Daniel James, and Harry Maguire - who are all key parts to this team. Give us your grades on how they’ve started their Manchester United careers?
TBB: Relative to expectations, I would give all 3 an A. Wan-Bissaka is brilliant, and is already the best full-back we’ve had since Patrice Evra. Maguire has settled right in, and although he hasn’t been perfect, he has been a massive improvement on the clowns we’ve had at center back in recent years. I didn’t expect James to become as important as he has so quickly - and that speaks to how thin United’s attack is - but he has been a pleasant surprise, especially with his (much needed) goal threat.
TSF: Meanwhile, there was an exodus of players, senior team and academy prospects, which player is this United site struggling to replace the most at the moment?
TBB: At the moment, you’d have to say Romelu Lukaku. Lukaku was in embarrassing condition last season, and he’s not truly top class. But with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford injured, United got exposed very quickly for the folly of not replacing a proven, senior striker. Lukaku may have the first touch of a cart horse, but he could always be relied on to score against the average sides. As highly as we all rate Mason Greenwood, it’s madness that United are now relying on a school boy to salvage a draw against League One opposition.
TSF: It’s been a start-stop run in the Premier League so far for United. How would you evaluate the opening six matches of the season after that impressive opening day win against Chelsea?
TBB: I don’t think United are as good as the result against Chelsea indicated, but not as bad as the West Ham result either. I think the results so far sum up everything good, bad, and ugly in this current United side. When clicking and confident, United have the players to tear teams apart on the counter. But when asked to pick apart a stubborn defense, we struggle. And when key players are missing, well: YIKES.
TSF: Sitting in 8th place, how hot is Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s seat heading into the game? And how does that change if Arsenal win?
TBB: We have to believe that Solskjaer’s job is safe. The results and the lack of goal scoring since the win against PSG last season are alarming. But the fans and board must both realize now that this is a rebuilding project. A loss against Arsenal doesn’t mean that the club should change direction yet again. If this slide continues going into November and December, however...well. We’ll see. In football, it’s always easier to sack the manager, even if it’s not his fault.
TSF: The owners this week stated that results on the pitch come before commercial success. Are you buying that 1% or not at all?
TBB: That statement was from a previous fans forum, so not in response to last weekend’s result. I think the owners are perfectly happy if the club are just successful enough to keep it able to line their pockets. Which it is. They’d be happier if United improved to be in the Champions League every season, but I don’t think they’re particularly bothered beyond that.
TSF: Welcome to the Europa League, we hope you enjoy your time here with us and the endless run of Sunday Premier League matches that it brings. You’re in what looks to be a very light group - AZ, Partizan, and Astana. Where will this competition rank for importance this year compared to the Premier League and both Cups?
TBB: No one wants to be in the Europa League, but we can’t afford not to take it seriously. As it stands, it’s a better shot at CL qualification for United than finishing 3rd or 4th in the league. I don’t expect the kids will be playing in it in the later rounds.
TSF: What is the status of Marcus Rashford’s injury?
TBB: No official word yet, but the manager says that it’s not as bad as originally feared. He could be back after the next international break.
TSF: Give us your predicted starting XI for Monday’s match and the formation Solskjær will use.
TBB: De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelöf, Maguire, Young; McTominay, Fred, Pogba; Greenwood, Martial, James.
TSF: Scoreline prediction?
Thanks to Brent and The Busby Babe for answering our questions.