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Arsenal vs Manchester United Preview: tables turned

Arsenal travel to Old Trafford in hopes of widening the gap on the Red Devils

Arsenal v Newcastle United - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

As the summer transfer window slammed to a close in August, a great deal was made over the signings by Arsenal and Manchester United. Arsenal’s “young but promising” transfer class stood at diametric opposition to United’s “big name” haul. Arsenal, predictably, were skewered for overpaying for their rag-tag collection of pricey homegrown talent, unknowns from Portugal and Italy. If there were any surprises, it was that they managed to sign a want-away former loanee midfielder from Real Madrid that wasn’t named Dani Ceballos.

United, conversely, were praised for their prudently prolific haul. Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane was joined by the perpetual will-they-won’t-they starlet Jadon Sancho. As the clock neared midnight, United saved the best for last by bringing home their prodigal son, the chosen one himself, Cristiano Ronaldo. And all for less than Arsenal spent on transfer fees.

Nearly four months later, things could not have played out differently for the two clubs. After four wins and a draw from their first five matches had fans praising the return of the legend, the bottom fell out by the end of September. Whatever blood pact Ole Gunnar Solksjaer had made with the Devil had finally ran out. The Ronaldo magic dried up, injuries invaded the roster, Harry Maguire existed, and the Red Devils managed just one win over their next eight matches. It was all too much to stave off the executioner’s ax as Ole the possible-hobbit-former-player-turned-manager was mercifully given his marching orders.

Following an historically miserable start, Arsenal, led by possible-bond-villain-former-player-turned-manager Mikel Arteta, have quietly become one of the league’s most solid sides. Much of the success has come from the surprising efforts of recently signed players, as the majority of the transfer class have gone from laughing stocks to having the last laugh. The Gunners, who came face to face with the depths of the Premier League table by match week three, have clawed their way out of the basement all the way to 5th place, level on points with 4th place West Ham, five points clear of Manchester United.

And lo, things are not all doom and gloom at United. Following Ole’s dismissal, Michael Carrick took over as interim manager, leading United to a scrappy 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge against league leaders Chelsea. In the lead-up to the match, it was announced that United had agreed to terms with former RB Leipzig manager Ralf Rangnick that will see him become United’s interim manager for the remainder of the season before transitioning to a consulting role for the club. Due to VIsa issues, he will not be on the sideline for the match on Thursday, but considering he has not even had a chance to work with the first team, it’s a non-issue.

For more insight on United’s current situation, check out Nathan’s great two-part Q&A with SBNation site The Busby Babe:

All of this makes Thursday’s match that much more intriguing. Arsenal’s forward momentum hit one snag in the form of a white-hot Liverpool, but the Gunners have otherwise been in fantastic form since September. A Champions League berth seemed like a pipe dream in August, but Arsenal are a different side than when the season started, a side that doesn’t roll over in the face of adversity and physicality. United finally have some hope and excitement after a dismal downturn. This

While Arsenal might have won against bottom-dwellers Newcastle over the weekend, the victory raised two big questions ahead of the United clash. The first: what to do about Auba? Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s form has taken a worryingly poor turn over the last several matches, and the typically-lethal striker has been a shell of his usual self. Arsenal will absolutely need to start shopping for a striker this summer, but until then, Arteta needs to find a way to get the best from his captain.

Secondly, what happens if Saka is out? Arsenal’s star boy has been the heartbeat of the attack, but after he was subbed off with a thigh injury in the second half against Newcastle, Arteta has yet to indicate whether the injury was a knock or something more troubling. Gabriel Martinelli played well in place of Saka, but if Bukayo is a scratch for Thursday, does Arteta give the Brazilian a shot against United, or does he lean on experience in someone like Pepe?

Arsenal are healthy, save for Granit Xhaka, who is ahead of schedule after his knee injury suffered against Spurs, and Sead Kolasinac.

Fitness and injuries remain an issue for United. Paul Pogba, Luke Shaw, and Edison Cavani all missed the Chelsea match. Varane has missed the last month and will more than likely miss the Arsenal match. Harry Maguire is back in the side after missing the Chelsea match due to a red card suspension. Mason Greenwood rejoined the side as an unused sub at Chelsea after a COVID diagnosis.

Arsenal finally got the Old Trafford monkey off their back last season after 14 years of futility away from home against United, and a second successful trip in two seasons would be a feather in the new-look Arsenal’s cap. More importantly, a win would open up an eight point lead over United and keep their top four dreams very much alive. A loss doesn’t derail Arsenal’s chance, but why settle for anything less at this point? Keep the good times rolling, Gunners.

WHAT: Arsenal vs Manchester United
WHEN: Thursday, December 2nd 3:15pm est/11:15 pst/8:15pm gmt
WHERE: Old Trafford stadium
HOW TO WATCH: Streaming available on Peacock.

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