Another injury, another late hurdle, and another response by Arsenal. The team and Mikel Arteta continue to overcome challenges in the early part of the season, this time the absence of Mohamed Elneny and a 74th-minute equalizer by Aston Villa. The current squad has a sense of belief that they can get back in control of a match, something we haven’t seen for a number of years. As a result, they remain perfect so far this season and top of the Premier League by two points.
Manchester United have been going through some of the steps Arsenal traveled at the beginning of last season. Difficult losses to open the campaign and a handful of late transfer window deals as they look to rebuild under Erik ten Hag. Now on the back of three straight wins United have lept from 20th to 5th in the table and will be confident heading into the home fixture against Arsenal.
For the opposition Q&A this week we welcomed in Pauly Kwestel from The Busby Babe.
Note: These questions were asked and answered prior to the midweek Premier League matches for Arsenal and Manchester United.
TSF: After a dire start to the season, highlighted by the 4-0 loss against Brentford, Manchester United responded quite well. A 2-1 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford and 1-0 against Southampton. Have they put those woes behind them or are you expecting an up-and-down season throughout?
TBB: This will undoubtedly be an up-and-down season. For starters, four games in we still don’t know what the team will look like. Antony has just signed and Casemiro has played all of 11 minutes so who knows what Erik Ten Hag’s first choice XI is going to be. Then there’s the fact that we’re only four games in and Christian Eriksen already looks completely knackered. He’s the only passer United have in midfield and if he starts to break down that could become a problem.
United bounced back from the 4-0 defeat to Brentford with two “strong” wins but neither were as good as they looked. They came out flying against Liverpool and their energy did a good job of masking the technical gap between the two sides. This was NOT Liverpool’s day, they were incredibly poor. The numbers show the game was as dominant as perceived. Things got nervy at the end and if Liverpool were half-decent on the day they probably get a much better result.
The match against Southampton was similar. United did just enough to win, but the underlying numbers suggest a bit of luck. Two-thirds of their xG for the match came from their flurry of chances early on. A performance like that against a better team probably doesn’t have a happy ending for United. They’re still a team that struggles to create chances. Hopefully, Antony helps with that, but Eriksen’s durability is definitely something to keep an eye on.
TSF: Do you believe that Erik ten Hag is the manager to restabilize the club, perhaps not this year, but over the next few seasons? And how confident are you that club management will allow him the time to reshape the squad, similar to what we’ve experienced with Mikel Arteta and the Arsenal squad?
TBB: I like Ten Hag. I like his vision. I think it’ll take a long time to get the club where he wants it and ultimately I don’t think he’ll get the time. I was just talking about this to some friends a few weeks ago. United will never be able to pull off what Arsenal did. The club is too online, they're too prone to reacting to criticism, the fans, the board, the pundits (entirely too many of the mainstream media are ex-United players), are all far too impatient. They just won’t accept being on the outside for too many years (they just opted to bring in two midfielders north of 30 instead of buying young ones and developing them). Arsenal were bad for a few years and the calls for Arteta’s head were LOUD, but they came out better for it on the other side. There’s no way United have that kind of patience.
TSF: If you were suddenly appointed Club Director for Manchester United and were asked to plan for the future, knowing this window is closing & the winter window may be limited, how many players are you keeping from the current squad? Players you want to stick around for a 3-5 year rebuild.
TBB: What are the rules here? Anyone I want to leave can leave? Or do I have to be realistic about who would actually leave (IE: would another team try and sign him? cough cough Ronaldo, or if I may want him gone but his cushy wages mean he’s never leaving)? If it’s the former, then here are the players I’d definitely keep around: Malacia, Dalot, Martinez, Lindelof, Maguire, Shaw, Casemiro, Eriksen, Bruno, Sancho, Martial. Obviously not all those guys are starters but if the players on that list are backups then you’ve got some really good squad depth (within a year I’d want Casemiro and Eriksen to become rotation players). I’m not actively selling Raphael Varane or Marcus Rashford, but if someone calls up and offers me money for them I’m definitely not saying no.
If it’s the latter... well, then no one is leaving. As this summer showed us, no one is really interested in any of our players and none of them are interested in leaving. They’re all under contract so they’re all going to stay.
TSF: Anthony is the late window big money transfer for United. How do you rate him, how do you see him fitting in with this squad, and do you believe it is money well spent?
TBB: I don’t watch Ajax so I don’t know enough about Antony to speak to his quality. What I know is he’s a left-footed right winger which is something United need. He’ll slot in at RW which will allow Jadon Sancho to move over to the left wing which he likes playing more (and in his later years at Borussia Dortmund he was far better on the left than the right) so that’s a good thing.
Here’s the thing about the money. It always comes back to what can you afford. If the fees affect your future budget then that puts even more pressure on these guys to be successful, because if they’re not, you may be tying your hands up financially in the next few years and won’t be able to recover. When Jose Mourinho came in United spent £146.3m his first year and £145.7m the next year plus some very expensive “free” deals for Zlatan Ibrahimovic as well as Alexis Sanchez who was possibly the most expensive transfer ever that didn’t involve a transfer fee. After two years, United didn’t have any money left. That was due to spending far outweighing revenue as well as they were right at the FFP limit. FFP is taken less seriously now and the rules have been relaxed a bit due to COVID but you still have to worry about how the owners are going to choose to run the club.
Put it this way, Chelsea are a club that are willing to write off bad deals, so spending £100m on Romelu Lukaku only to see him flop doesn’t hurt them. United have historically made bad deals and let those bad deals inhibit them from trying to fix that mistake in the next few years. The Antony (and Casemiro) money is scary because it really seems like United are in store for another Fred-Diogo Dalot-Lee Grant window on the near horizon. That puts even more pressure on the current crop to work out.
TSF: And knowing that a lot can still change between now and Sunday, give us the formation you believe ten Hag will use against Arsenal and your scoreline prediction.
TBB: I think Ten Hag makes some changes for the Leicester match on Thursday then goes with the same tactics he used against Liverpool on Sunday. I’d say Casemiro comes in for McTominay and Antony maybe comes in for Elanga, but it’s hard to expect much different at this point in time. 2-1 Arsenal.
Thanks to Pauly & The Busby Babe for chatting with us ahead of the weekend’s fixture.