Fourth place in the Premier League table is a spot Arsenal have been intimately familiar with for more than a decade. But unlike seasons past, currently occupying that slot is providing previously unseen optimism as the Gunners go from an intense north London derby win to a mouth-watering clash at Old Trafford against Manchester United on Wednesday.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Since winning their last Premier League title in 2004, Arsenal (9-3-2) have finished fourth in six of the previous 14 seasons. The constant battle to remain a Champions League participant under predecessor Arsene Wenger hid the gradual erosion from the elite status the London club enjoyed – something that came home to roost over the Frenchman’s final two seasons with fifth and sixth-place finishes.
Unai Emery’s arrival, initially met with skepticism following his flameout from Paris-St. Germain, has brought renewed spark and life to Arsenal, who are now unbeaten in 19 matches (15-4-0) across all competitions after a 4-2 victory over north London rival Tottenham Hotspur in a white-hot derby clash at the Emirates on Sunday.
The Gunners shook off a 2-1 halftime deficit with three unanswered goals in the final 45 minutes. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who converted a first-half penalty, completed his brace on 56 minutes with a well-placed shot inside the right post that left Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris flat-footed.
The Gunners then grabbed the match with two goals two minutes apart starting in the 75th. Aaron Ramsey forced a Spurs turnover at midfield and sprung Alexandre Lacazette, whose shot took a fortunate deflection off Spurs midfielder Eric Dier and snuck inside the left post. Lucas Torreira then scored his first Arsenal goal, ripping a shot across Lloris after being sent through by Aubameyang.
The Emirates crowd, roiled so much by “Wenger In” and “Wenger Out” factions in recent years, roared their approval in unison as Arsenal overtook their eternal rivals for fourth place on goal difference and are one back of Chelsea for third.
“It’s not just an important game for a manager to win against a team from the top six, it’s important for us as a team,” keeper Bernd Leno told the club’s official website. “We lost the first two games against Chelsea and Manchester City but against Liverpool we played very well. We didn’t win that one but today we won against a good team and showed a very good performance.”
Emery will be forced into one change since defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka picked up his fifth yellow card and must serve a one-match ban. Matteo Guendouzi will likely fill that spot as Emery could continue with a 3-4-3 set-up for a second straight contest.
It is uncertain if Mesut Ozil will be available after the playmaker missed Sunday’s match through a back injury. Ozil did not play against Bournemouth per Emery’s decision, and with Ramsey surprisingly coming on after the club rescinded a contract offer for beyond next season, the former Germany international’s status is starting to bubble into an unwanted distraction for the Gunners. Emery, though, seems to be relishing his English adventures as they take him from one high-stakes game to another with Wednesday’s match-up.
“It’s a new match, a new challenge, a big challenge,” he said Monday. “It’s away and we need to continue improving our mentality away. We know we need to change to get more competitive away. I think the team is doing that, but it’s a new challenge because we’re going to play against Manchester United away, and the challenge is bigger than other matches.
“For us, it’s a very exciting match. The preparation for this match is also a big motivation for us. If we are stronger now, we need to (show that) on Wednesday.”
As Arsenal bring a tidal wave of momentum to Old Trafford, the inconsistencies persist for Manchester United (6-4-4). For the second time already this term, Jose Mourinho’s team recovered at least one point from a two-goal deficit after finishing 2-2 at Southampton on Saturday.
With a lack of available bodies in central defence, Mourinho opted for a 5-3-2 set-up that included midfielders Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay as his three centre backs. The plan backfired spectacularly as a relegation-threatened Saints squad were two up after 20 minutes.
United’s fightback revolved around Marcus Rashford, whom Mourinho exasperated midweek after missing a gilt-edged chance in their Champions League win over Young Boys. The England international set up goals by Romelu Lukaku and Ander Herrera six minutes apart late in the first half – the latter a spectacular run along the end line before spotting a charging Herrera — that was enough to see United through for a point.
“Yes (it was two points dropped),” Mourinho said post-match. “The result is not good so I have to say we dropped two points. If you are losing 4-0 and you get to 4-4 I would say maybe not. I think the comeback is good from 2-0 down to 2-2 in normal conditions everybody says it is a point gained, you have the game lost and you get a point, so normally you say it is a positive point, but it is a match that we want to win.”
Mourinho, though, was optimistic Lukaku’s goal will get the Belgium international to finally kick on. His fifth goal of the season in all competitions ended a personal 981-minute drought stretching back to Sept. 15 at Watford.
Like his counterpart, Mourinho is forced into one change for this match since right back Ashley Young picked up his fifth yellow card. The most likely option to replace him is Diogo Dalot, who made his long-awaited Premier League debut after left back Luke Shaw was forced off with a knock. Mourinho could also turn to Antonio Valencia or play Marcus Rojo at left back if Shaw cannot play.
Central defence, though, continues to be a nightmare as Phil Jones figures to be the only centre back certain to play. Chris Smalling sat out Saturday with a knock, and Mourinho continues to have little faith in Eric Bailly. Victor Lindelof is out until Boxing Day with a hamstring injury, so there could be more of Matic and McTominay as part of a five-man back line.
Mourinho hopes to have Rashford available after lifting him for the final 15 minutes with a knock. Jesse Lingard would be the most obvious replacement on the right attacking side for United, while Anthony Martial could be restored to the starting XI if Mourinho reverts to a 4-3-3.
Also unavailable through injury is ex-Arsenal winger Alexis Sanchez, who did play in last season’s corresponding fixture after his January move from the Emirates. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who was shipped to London as part of the move, did score in that 2-1 United victory.
Manchester United did their first double over Arsenal since 2011-12 last term and are unbeaten in their last 11 league matches (8-3-0) against them at Old Trafford. The Gunners did record an FA Cup quarterfinal win in 2015, but they are just 4-7-19 at the Theatre of Dreams in the Premier League era.
Arsenal’s last league victory at Manchester United was a 1-0 win in 2006 courtesy an 85th-minute goal from Emmanuel Adebayor.
Per Bet365, Manchester United are slight favourites at 29/20, with the Gunners 2/1 underdogs to leave Old Trafford with three points for the first time in league play in over a decade. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/2 and the longshot of this contest.
Oddsmakers are expecting the same kind of frailities at the back they showed over the weekend, with 8/13 odds for the total to clear 2.5 goals compared to 13/10 for two or fewer goals. There are 1/2 odds for both teams to score while there are 6/4 odds of at least one team recording a clean sheet.
While not surprising given his form and his club’s form, it is still a little jarring to see a Gunner lead the toteboard at Old Trafford with Aubameyang getting 7/2 odds to open the scoring. Lacazette and Lukaku are joint-second at 5/1, with the United duo of Martial and Paul Pogba at 13/2. Young Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah and ex-United winger Mkhitaryan join Rashford at 7/1 odds to open the scoring.
Aubameyang is also better than even money to score during the 90 minutes, getting 10/11 odds. Lacazette and Lukaku are again paired together at 13/10, with Martial and Pogba likewise at 7/4 odds. Nketiah, Mkhitaryan and Rashford all have 15/8 odds to find the back of net, with Lingard and Emile-Smith Rowe are both 13/5.
These are the type of matches where Mourinho is renown for finding a way to win and defy the odds of the moment… and then letting everyone know about it. Yet his refusal to play Bailly — though it was revealed before the Southampton match he has a back injury — and now, not playing Rojo has created a discombobulated back line that will have its hands full trying to stop an Arsenal offence flowing at top pace.
Then there is the on-going war of trying to get the best out of Pogba, with whom Mourinho had another tete-a-tete in the locker room at halftime of the Southampton match in which the manager “calmly” criticised the France international for turning the ball over so much. In turn, Pogba said Mourinho’s system does not give him the freedom of movement to make the passes he wants.
This is a match United need to at worst not lose if they have any serious designs on a top-four finish. They are not overturning the already-16 point deficit to front-running City. Lose this match, and Arsenal are 11 points clear of United with 23 matches to play. It sounds doable, but given the week-to-week fluctuations in quality of play and mood of Mourinho, does anyone truly know what they will get from Manchester United?
There will be many things interesting about this contest, starting with Dalot at right back in a pressure cooker of an environment with an in-form Aubameyang ready to corkscrew him into the ground. Yet the real X-factor on that side may be Kolasinac, who looks like Emery’s mad scientist experiment come to life with unorthodox runs.
Another point of curiosity is who starts in the middle of the park for United. Does Mourinho risk Matic being exposed for his lack of pace, or does he put either Herrera or Pogba? Herrera may be the better answer considering Pogba leads the Premier League in lost balls this season, but it may sacrifice link play to their front three.
This is where Lingard could be the most vital part of United’s XI because he’s the one who enjoys doing damage on the edge of the penalty area and will not be afraid to test Leno from distance.
For the Gunners, there is still concern about the back, three in this case. Xhaka’s absence could loom large, but the moment should not be too big for Guendouzi to fill his spot. Additionally, Torreira has been everything and then some since arriving from Sampdoria via Uruguay this summer. The 22-year-old embodies the renewed vigour and, dare it be said? — swagger of Arsenal, taking the yellow card for the shirt removal celebration after Arsenal’s fourth.
This could be the ships passing in the night moment where Arsenal are truly on their way while Manchester United continue to pile up a list of questions and holes that need to be answered and addressed. Yet again, it could very well be the case where Mourinho has one or two last aces in his deck and will find a way to snare a point.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Manchester United 1, Arsenal 1.
Other EPL Match Day 15 Previews:
Bournemouth (6-2-6) vs. Huddersfield Town (2-4-8)
Watford (6-2-6) vs. Manchester City (12-2-0)
Burnley (2-3-9) vs. Liverpool (11-3-0)
Wolverhampton (4-4-6) vs. Chelsea (9-4-1)