Having completed the double over Tottenham, Arsenal are through the first of a massive three-match run. Sitting top of the table, Manchester United travels to London in a huge clash this Sunday. Outside of Gabriel Jesus, the Gunners are expected to have everyone available as they look for revenge for the 3-1 defeat to Manchester United in early September.
Wednesday’s draw against Crystal Palace brought to their five-match Premier League winning streak to an end. That later equalizer left United with a point bringing them level with Manchester City and eight points behind Arsenal, having played one more match than the Gunners. Following a yellow card against Palace, United will enter the weekend without Casemiro, much like when the Gunners had to travel to Old Trafford without Thomas Partey.
With this massive match looming we once again spoke with Pauly Kwestel from SB Nation’s The Busby Babe to discuss Manchester United’s season to date, Erik ten Hag, their victory over Arsenal in the fall, Casemiro’s absence, the transfer window, and this weekend’s game.
TSF: While Manchester United was always in the mix for third to fifth, their form since late October has been tremendous. Over the last 14 matches they’ve won 12, with the only loss being 3-1 to Aston Villa in early November plus Wednesday’s draw. United is now tied for second place in the table and into the League Cup semi-finals. What adjustments were made (besides the obvious departure of Ronaldo) to put them on this level of form?
TBB: Not to take any credit away from Erik Ten Hag, but at the simplest level, he’s putting better players on the pitch. For so long we had one major weakness above everything else. A defensive midfielder. United spent years trying to bolster an already decent but maybe slightly underperforming attack by signing more attackers, and doing the same thing on defense, without ever realizing that addressing their (lack of a) midfield issue would improve both the attack and defense.
Finally this season United shelled out big money for a midfielder, signing Casemiro, one of the best on the planet. The results have been predictable, they’ve gotten better on attack and defense! Couple that dropping their worst player (the aforementioned Ronaldo) and suddenly the XI guys United are putting on the pitch are much better than anything they were throwing out there the last few years (as well as some other upgrades at other positions).
Defensively Casemiro is a cheat code. He seemingly cleans up everything which is a huge reason why United’s expected goals against per 90 (per Understat) is just 0.72 in the minutes he’s been on the pitch compared to 1.59 when he hasn’t been. There have been some structural improvements but at the same time, look at what happens whenever Casemiro goes in for a tackle and misses. It usually results in the rest of United’s scampering around while conceding their best chance of the match. That speaks to how much the Brazilian is actually masking over.
I think everyone knew what they were getting defensively when United signed Casemiro. I don’t think many United fans knew just how good on the ball he was. Casemiro’s ability to see and play quick passes up the pitch - especially right after a turnover - adds so much to United’s attack as United are finally able to get the ball to their attackers quickly, allowing them to be their most dangerous. That simply wasn’t happening before and United would react by just signing new attackers.
Casemiro has started every match since the first Manchester Derby and United have dropped points in only three of those (Ronaldo started two of those three). Sometimes it really is as simple as play your really good players and don’t play your bad ones and good things will happen.
TSF: Which players are you seeing Erik ten Hag having the biggest impact on this season?
TBB: Nearly every player has been thriving this season due to Ten Hag understanding their strengths and limitations and simply not putting them in roles they aren’t suited to play, but no one has jumped to another level quite like Marcus Rashford.
Two seasons ago Rashford recorded his second consecutive season scoring 20 goals in all competitions. But most of those goals all came the same way, getting in behind the defense. If there was no room to get in behind, he probably wasn’t going to score. He just didn’t have many other parts of his game.
This season has been a new Rashford. All the bad habits he’s been developing over the past few years seem to be going by the wayside. Getting tunnel vision and trying to nutmeg and dribble through four defenders to get a shot? Now he’s using his teammates to play 1-2’s to bypass those defenders for him.
Rashford is becoming an all-round forward and nothing is more telling than this stat. Over the last three Premier League seasons, Rashford had attempted a total of 15 shots with his head, never more than six in a single season. Halfway through this season Rashford already has 10. He’s making better runs, he’s getting to the dangerous areas, and he’s building a much more diverse catalogue of goals. When he’s playing like this, he truly is getting close to unplayable levels.
TSF: Back in early September, Arsenal were handed their only Premier League loss of the season when they visited Old Trafford. How confident do you sense the players and the supporters are that they can pull the double over Arsenal when they travel down to London?
TBB: I originally answered this question Tuesday night and my answer was “very confident. Probably too confident to the point it’s bordering on expectation.” I thought United fans were underrating Arsenal a bit but nonetheless, the squad was flying. Then Wednesday happened. United dropped points to Crystal Palace thanks to a wonder strike free kick. Really just one of those things.
However, Casemiro also picked up that dreaded yellow card, ruling him out of the match. Now the mood seems to be United has no shot at winning this match. It’s the nature of supporters to go from one extreme to the other but when you factor in how important Casemiro is to this team - and how goals have become very hard to come by away from Old Trafford, it’s going to be very tough for United this Sunday.
TSF: United has brought in Wout Weghorst on loan for the rest of the season. First, how do you see him fitting into ten Hag’s system? And secondly, what other position is most in need of a January signing?
TBB: He’s going to drop deep to link up play, provide good hold-up play, work hard on defense, and provide a target in the box. I’m still not sure if Ten Hag plans for him to be an everyday starter, or a rotation option with Martial and plays a lot of the Europa League matches. Martial being hurt at the moment didn’t give us any clarity on that Wednesday.
A few weeks ago right back would have been a good shout (and it’s probably still a popular one) but Aaron Wan-Bissaka is showing that last year was more a blip on the radar than what he actually is. The answer is without question central midfield. Everywhere else on the pitch United have someone to turn to, but if Casemiro is out - and now he is - there’s just no one else that can play his role. Classic to sign one player and think they’ve solved their whole midfield. Luckily Casemiro is only out for one game, if he gets hurt and misses real time, United are in trouble.
TSF: And finally, give us your predicted starting XI for Manchester United’s visit to the Emirates and a final score line.
TBB: Casemiro’s suspension really throws a wrench into things. I think as a result United line up very similarly to how they did against City. Rashford on the left, Weghurst/Martial up top, and Bruno on the right with Eriksen playing as the number 10. That leaves good ol’ McFred in central midfield (with Shaw, Martinez, Varane, and AWB at the back).
Fans have been quick to suggest Martinez lining up in midfield, but if Ten Hag refused to play him there before Casemiro arrived I don’t see why he changes that now. If he was going to throw a curveball and move someone from the backline into midfield, don’t be shocked if it’s Luke Shaw.
United find a goal in this game, but Arsenal score one nice goal, and one entirely preventable goal. 2-1 Arsenal
Thanks to Pauly Kwestel and The Busby Babe for taking the time to talk with us.