Arsenal and Manchester United are two Premier League giants both of whom are close to the nadir of the most recent power cycle. Fifteen years ago, this fixture was a clash that might have determined the league title. Now, a win sees Arsenal barely into the top four and Manchester United consolidate a position in the top half. How the mighty have fallen.
There is reason to believe that both clubs are already back on the way up, however. After a brutal start to the season, Arsenal have been one of the most consistent clubs in the Premier League. In fact, the Gunners are top of the “last five” table. But we’ve been here before with Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal. It’s starting to feel a bit like Groundhog Day with all the false dawns. Just when it seems as if the club is going to turn a corner, that Mikel’s style and changes are finally producing results, the team drops a stinker or three that leaves us wondering whether Mikel is the right man for the job.
Manchester United are some number of steps behind Arsenal in the rebuild cycle. Like Arsenal post-Arsene Wenger, United have struggled to find consistency since Sir Alex Ferguson retired and haven’t recaptured anything close to the full glory of what those legendary managers achieved. Also like the Gunners, United have lacked a coherent structure, plan, and direction.
I think Arsenal have found it with Mikel Arteta. And I’m concerned that United have with Ralf Ragnick. Known as one of the fathers of gegenpressing, Ragnick helped build the Red Bull football structure, turning both RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig into the player development powerhouses they are now. Ragnick will be on the touchline this season at Old Trafford before stepping upstairs into a consultant role for the two seasons after that. If Ragnick is given enough control (which is not a given with United’s power dynamics), I think he’ll be able to steer them back to being an annual title contender.
For more insight on United’s current situation, check out Nathan’s great two-part Q&A with SBNation site The Busby Babe:
Ragnick will be watching tonight’s match from the stands, his work permits only just approved sometime in the last 24 hours. Michael Carrick will be on the touchline for United for his second and final match as interim manager. He guided United to a somewhat undeserved draw at Chelsea: his side were more or less played off the pitch, scored a lucky goal off a massive Jorginho mistake, and were only bailed out by Timo Werner, well, Timo Werner-ing all night.
It’s anybody’s guess how Carrick will deploy his side to face Arsenal, but United still have the offensive firepower to beat anybody in the league. The Gunners should have the edge in the midfield, especially if Thomas Partey plays like he did last season against them rather than the less-influential, perhaps not fully fit version we’ve seen the last two weeks. And United’s backline can be had. Whether Arsenal’s attack will get at them is another question.
My eyes will be on Martin Ødegaard, who I expect will get another start for the Gunners. As he continues to settle into his role, he should become more influential on matches. Arsenal desperately need his ball retention and creativity, and, especially against United’s defenders and holding midfielders, Ødegaard’s elite pressing could be the difference. Hopefully the Norwegian will also help get more from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who has been inconsistent and less-involved this season for the Gunners. As Aubameyang goes, so does Arsenal. Mikel Arteta needs his striker and captain scoring goals.
Arsenal are mostly healthy, save for Granit Xhaka, who is ahead of schedule after his knee injury suffered against Spurs, and Sead Kolasinac. My guess is that Bukayo Saka makes the bench with his thigh injury and only sees the pitch if Arsenal need a late attacking spark.
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 - Ramsdale, Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Tavares, Partey, Elneny, Smith Rowe, Ødegaard, Martinelli, Aubameyang
Manchester United - De Gea, Telles, Lindelof, Maguire, Dalot, Fred. McTominay, Sancho, Bruno Fernandes, Rashford, Ronaldo
WHAT: Arsenal at Manchester United
WHEN: Thursday, December 2nd 12:15 pm ET | 3:15 pm PT | 8:15 pm BT
WHERE: Old Trafford
HOW TO WATCH: Streaming available on Peacock.
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