With every passing season, it sometimes feels like we find ourselves writing the “this match will define Arsenal’s season” article earlier and earlier. While surely a match in the seventh week of the season is far too early to be considered “defining,” Monday’s match against Manchester United at Old Trafford has a distinctly unique feeling - one that carries a little more weight than usual.
Despite the season’s relative infancy, the separation of the league is well underway. The Premier League’s two superpowers have already asserted themselves - Liverpool and Manchester City have already distanced themselves from the rest of the pack. Meanwhile, the rest of the top six are very much stuck in the same logjam they were last season, with a mere three points separating Arsenal from Chelsea, Tottenham, and United and no team looking particularly solid from top to bottom.
Arsenal once more find themselves on the cusp of an opportunity to do something they haven’t done in quite some time - secure a statement win away from home against a top six side and a rival. So what makes this particular tie so important at such an early stage?
September 17th, 2006. That was the last time Arsenal defeated United at Old Trafford in the league. That’s just over 13 years of futility since that day when Arsenal, led by Arsene Wenger, defeated United 1-0 with Emmanuel Adebayor scoring the match winner. If that fact doesn’t a) depress you and b) make you feel old, then I don’t know what does.
While I personally don’t ascribe to the ideas of good or bad luck being an influence on a match, I wouldn’t fault anyone for blaming the universe for the countless missed opportunities since 2006 for the Gunners to leave Manchester with all three points in hand as winnable ties have eluded their grasp time and time again. Whether it be an outstanding performance by a United keeper (see: 2017/18 season), poor finishing in front of goal (see: 2018/19 season), or awful defending (see: the past decade), Arsenal are snakebit whenever they step foot onto the pitch at Old Trafford.
It would be one thing to be weary of a trip to Old Trafford in most years. This year, though, has been one rife with growing pains. While many United fans gleefully boasted that Ole was at the wheel as the season began, they didn’t expect for him to be steering the bus straight off the edge of a cliff. Despite the opening weekend thrashing of Chelsea, United have found themselves in a run of unusually poor form, featuring losses to Crystal Palace and West Ham and draws against Wolves and Southampton. Compounding their issues are the spate of injuries suffered by stalwarts Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford ahead of Monday’s match, which means Manchester United will have to lean on the youth of Mason Greenwood and Daniel James. Not that Arsenal have ever been undone by a young United attacker before...
On the inverse, Arsenal are on a bit of an upswing. Despite (warranted) criticisms of Unai Emery’s tactics and managerial style, Arsenal have put on some impressive performances since their deflating draw against Watford. The impressive shorthanded 3-2 comeback win against Aston Villa showed a fight by the Gunners that was sorely missing in earlier matches, as the North London side refused to be undone by questionable refereeing and their own lackluster defense.
That performance was then followed by a sound 5-0 thumping of Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup which saw the return of veteran defenders Hector Bellerin and Rob Holding to the first team after lengthy injuries, as well as the debut of left back Kieran Teirney. While their return may have been the main story, the impressive performances by key young players gave Arsenal fans a glimpse of a very bright future. Let’s not also overlook the masterclass from one Callum Chambers, who has been a man in form since rejoining the Gunners after his loan to Fulham last season.
While beating the brakes off of a Championship side is nothing to brag about, it was the type of match Arsenal needed - complete from beginning to end. Arsenal have still been a side with more questions than there are answers, especially in the defense, but the last week has brought the kind of positive shift that, if Arsenal can maintain it, could finally propel them to a consistent run of form essential to finding their footing in the race to the top four.
That being said, the inescapable narrative is always looming; the one which states that no matter how good of form Arsenal are in, United will have their number away from the Emirates. Pundits and talking heads haven’t had to change their script in quite some time. They simply need to dust off the old tome, recite their usual lines, and marvel at how Arsenal cannot ever seem to get it done. While the Gunners have come close in recent years, the Red Devils have always found a way to play Lucy to Arsenal’s Charlie Brown, snatching the ball away at the last moment and sending them sprawling haplessly to the ground.
With so many things seemingly going right for the Gunners, it could all come crashing down on Monday; all of the confidence, all of the progress, all of the positives could be easily dashed with a draw or a loss. United are desperately looking for a life preserver in their own tumultuous tide, and this game could just as easily propel them as it could sink the Gunners. There is no margin for error for either side.
With all things considered, Monday will give us a better picture of who Arsenal truly are. Are they the team that has been so close to reclaiming a spot among the elites these past seasons and have just missed that final piece, or are they the same team that can’t get out of their own way when push comes to shove?