Arsenal FC take on Manchester United at the Emirates on Sunday hoping to make a statement with a victory against the league leaders following their disappointing loss in the UEFA Champions League in midweek
Although Sunday’s meeting of two of the most successful sides in the country will not quite be of the same magnitude as some of their classic clashes in the early years of this millennium, Arsenal FC and Manchester United will both be looking to win all three points and prove their title credentials in a season that has thus far been refreshingly unpredictable.
With Manchester City’s early-season air of invincibility shattered by West Ham United and then Tottenham Hotspur, and with Chelsea FC struggling to get going this season, an opportunity has opened up for both Manchester United and Arsenal FC to launch an assault for the Premier League title.
Their meeting at the Emirates this weekend will be a good test of Manchester United’s resilience as well as the ability of ArsA?ne Wenger’s men to bounce back from a poor result. Here are five key battles that could decide the outcome of the match.
1. Anthony Martial v Per Mertesacker
The French teenager has exceeded expectations with his performances for Manchester United thus far, starting with his scintillating d but against Liverpool FC at Old Trafford. Martial has injected some much needed pace into the United attack, with his linkup play, ability to dribble with the ball, as well as to attack spaces having a transformative effect on Louis van Gaal’s team.
Against Arsenal FC, the 19-year-old will likely try and attach himself to the slower of the Gunners’ two centre-backs– Per Mertesacker. Martial has already shown the damage he can cause when running at a defence and will try and manufacture opportunities throughout the game to charge at Mertesacker one-on-one.
Along with H ctor Beller n, who might have to play a few yards closer to his German teammate, the Gunners’ midfield will have to ensure that they reduce the space Martial has in front of the back four. Martial could pose a bigger threat in counter-attacking situations due to his pace, and Mertesacker will have to be protected as much as reasonably possible.
2. Theo Walcott v Daley Blind
Much in the same fashion as the Martial v Mertesacker battle, the Dutchman’s lack of pace could be a serious issue in this match-up. Theo Walcott is likely to start up front for Arsenal FC, and the Englishman will try and exploit the Red Devils’ high defensive line with the help of the likes of Mesut zil.
Wenger’s men attempted something similar against Chelsea FC — frequent attempts to bypass midfield entirely and play early balls in behind the defence to Walcott. The Gunners will once again try and stretch the United defence wide in order to open up gaps between Blind and Chris Smalling, or even simply play balls over the top of the centre-back pairing to the lightning-quick Walcott.
The Manchester United midfield might have to work over-time to deny the opposition midfield time and space on the ball, while Smalling will have to be careful with his defensive positioning in case he has to sweep up behind his slower defensive partner.
In contrast to Martial, Walcott is unlikely to have any interest in dropping deep to pick up the ball and run at the United defence. The Red Devils simply have to watch out for his runs off the shoulder of the last defender.
3. Juan Mata v Nacho Monreal
Mata has been among United’s best players of late, and his creativity will pose a big threat to Arsenal FC on Sunday. The Spaniard’s starting position from the right of midfield can pose a unique problem for Gunners’ left-back Nacho Monreal, who will have to be at the top of his game, particularly from the point of view of positioning.
The former Chelsea FC Player of the Year is very adept at dropping deep in midfield to pick up the ball, but is at his most dangerous when in possession in pockets of space in the final third. Mata does not have the pace or trickery to run at Monreal and is unlikely to attempt that on Sunday. However, the key to Monreal winning this battle is judging when he should follow Mata to the midfield area, and when he should stay back in line with his defence.
Attempting to close down Mata could result in a channel opening up between him and centre-back Gabriel Paulista, which a player like Anthony Martial could exploit to devastating effect. However, standing off him could give his compatriot time and space to play those killer balls in behind the defence.
Monreal will likely need help from his midfield to close the space in front of him in order to deal with Mata’s threat. With the attacking midfielder in sublime form against Wolfsburg, it will take a special performance to keep him quiet at the Emirates.
4. Alexis SA?nchez v Antonio Valencia
Luke Shaw’s long-term injury means that Antonio Valencia could continue at right-back, with Matteo Darmian starting on the left. The biggest threat Arsenal FC have going forward at the moment is Chilean Alexis SA?nchez, who could pose Valencia all sorts of problems down the Gunners’ left flank.
The former FC Barcelona attacker has taken a while to get going, but with four goals in his last two games — including a hat-trick against Leicester City — the 26-year-old will be raring to take on the Manchester United defence.
Valencia is unlikely to be left on his own to battle the Chilean, but his team’s success largely depends on how successful he can be in forcing SA?nchez outside rather than allowing the Gunners’ talisman to cut inside and wreak havoc. The Ecuadorian also has the pace to get tight on his potential adversary on Sunday, and it is something United will try and attempt, particularly when they are pressing high up the pitch.
The makeshift right-back has shown that he can have lapses in concentration in a positional sense, as he did in the opening few minutes of the Manchester derby at Old Trafford earlier this year, and the Gunners will try and exploit the channel between Valencia and Smalling if they get that opportunity.
5. Francis Coquelin v Wayne Rooney
The Manchester United captain has not been in good form of late, but does tend to show up on the biggest of occasions. Rooney is likely to play in behind Martial, and will presumably be given the freedom to drift between midfield and attack throughout the game.
Arsenal FC defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin could be tasked with shutting down the Englishman, particularly in the pockets of space Rooney likes to drop into, in and around the penalty area. Given the United attacker’s sloppiness of late — his first-touch appears to have deserted him — and Coquelin’s ability to close down his man quickly, the Frenchman could well come out on top in this one.
In Memphis Depay and Martial, as well as Ashley Young if he is introduced, the Red Devils have players who can run in behind the defence to pull back the ball for the likes of Rooney, as has been evident from United’s play this season, including in midweek against Wolfsburg.
Coquelin will have to make sure he tracks Rooney’s runs from midfield into the penalty area so he can prevent the Englishman from getting away a shot.
The game on Sunday is undoubtedly one of the biggest of the Premier League season so far, and fans could well be witnessing a team that goes on to win the title. Both sides will now have to convince the football world that they have what it takes to go all the way. An intriguing battle awaits.