It’s the hope that keeps you going. It’s the hope that eats you from the inside. This year is going to be our year, the one where everything is different. This is the year where the lessons of the past are learned and we move forward.
This year is usually the same as last as far as Arsenal are concerned when it comes to Manchester United (A) in the fixture list. No matter how poor United are, they invariably beat us or at the very least, stop us winning. It’s been the same every season for the past decade save for one sixth round FA Cup tie.
There are all manner of statistical markers to say we’ll lose today. The ‘Mourinho Effect’; ten years since we last won there; Wenger always loses his first match against a United manager; take your pick, we aren’t winning whichever way we look at it.
So it’s just hope which is left to rely on.
Earlier this year, on the back of beating Leicester at the Emirates to haul ourselves back into the title race, we turned in one of the worst performances of the season the following week during the 3 – 2 defeat at Old Trafford. It underlined the hex/jinx/indian sign hanging over Arsenal. Why should today be any different?
We’re in better form, for a start. Two draws in the last two home games are disappointing results for different reasons but mainly due to the opposition. Away from home, it’s a different story, unbeaten in eight in all competitions although arguably this is our most difficult game this season on our travels.
And despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds in the summer, the United side which takes to the field today will arguably be worse than the one we faced last season. Injuries are causing Mourinho more headaches than Arsène faces, underpinned by the vanity signing of Paul Pogba. A statement was made. Commercially, it was a good move but in football terms, United needed four £25m players more than they needed the French international.
Having assessed Alexis after training yesterday, it’s pretty much certain that he will start so long as there was no adverse reaction to the hamstring injury which dominated headlines in the past week or so. There’s a strong argument for including Giroud and shifting Alexis to the left – particularly since Iwobi had a poor game against Spurs – but the danger is that it doesn’t leave us with a ‘Plan B’ from the bench up front. The only alternative in that formation is Walcott into the centre.
In midfield, you can make the case for any of Elneny, Xhaka or Ramsey to start alongside Francis Coquelin. The latter will be chomping at the bit and missing out today would certainly lean him toward leaving in January should Real Madrid come a-knocking as the rumour mill claims they will.
Xhaka was probably close to, if not, our Man of the Match in the north London derby and his inclusion seems most likely, especially with an attacking quartet ahead of him. As much as we rely on Alexis for the goals, the three supporting players – Iwobi, Özil and Walcott – will be equally important and need to be effective in front of goal.
With the Chilean dropping deep to collect the ball, they need to make sure that they are running ahead of him to receive the pass. Ramsey holds the advantage in that sense and I think Arsène will fit him into the team by shifting Theo to the left. Either of Iwobi or Walcott has the advantage of pushing Ashley Young – likely to continue as a makeshift right wing back – onto the back foot, or at least making him warier of pushing forward in support of the attack.
The added benefit comes with offering Carl Jenkinson extra support. Arsène made it clear Shkodran Mustafi isn’t shifting to full back for the next month so the choice is the specialist right back or Gabriel, a centre back who played on the left briefly for Villarreal. Unless Arsène has no confidence in Jenks at all, it’s hard to see Gabriel getting the nod ahead of him.
Cech; Jenkinson, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal; Xhaka, Coquelin; Ramsey, Özil, Walcott; Alexis
There’s a lot of talk about ‘making statements’ with a win this afternoon. It will be good for the players’ confidence to win, I have not doubt but will it make anyone think any different of us? We might drop three points out of the race for a week or two but with Chelsea facing Spurs and Manchester City in their next two games, dropped points might be quickly recovered if we win.
And winning is what it’s all about. Defence mechanisms about closing gaps which open underline the edginess when thinking about the match. It’s certain that Mourinho will set his stall out from kick-off not to lose. From there, United will look to nick a winner. Forget the swash and buckle of Ferguson’s United, this one is a pale imitation of the past but nonetheless, still difficult for us to beat. But this is another of those visits to Old Trafford when we can win.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.