United surprised a few pundits with a stunning display of incisive counter-attacking football at Vicarage Road on Tuesday evening as they emerged after 90+ enthralling minutes with a 4-2 victory over a spirited Watford team. Indeed, it was much more convincing than many United fans could have hoped for, albeit Watford had a lot of possession and certainly tested Jose Mourinho’s defence on a few occasions. Ashley Young continued his recent impressive run of form by scoring a brace, the first a sweetly struck volley from the edge of the area which hit the net before keeper Heurelho Gomes could even move, the second a sumptuous finish into the top corner from a 25-yard free-kick, a strike which even left his manager breathless! After Anthony Martial had given United a 3-0 half-time lead with a trademark confident finish, the hosts hit back with two late goals to potentially leave a nervous end to the match for the visiting Reds, but a sublime 40-yard run and ice-cool finish from Jesse Lingard sealed the win, and allowed us to turn our thoughts to Saturday evening and a clash with old foes Arsenal.
As is usually the case when we meet them, Arsenal are on a great run themselves, having surprisingly easily beaten Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in the North London Derby a few weeks ago, and following that up with a hard-fought last-gasp 1-0 win at Burnley and then hammering Huddersfield Town 5-0 at home on Wednesday evening. Apparent “want-away” stars Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil have been in sizzling form, combining to great effect with the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey to help the Gunners string a run of very good results together, so United know this will be a very stiff test of our title credentials, and with Manchester City continuing to set a frightening pace at the top of the league table, nothing less than a victory will suffice for the visitors, and that is a huge ‘ask’.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (4-5-1)
GK: David de Gea – David could do nothing to prevent the two goals he conceded at Watford, the first a Troy Deeney penalty after Marcos Rojo had caught Roberto Pereyra in the area, the second a reactionary stab at a cross by Abdoulaye Doucoure which gave him no chance. He’ll hope that the men in front of him are a bit harder for the Arsenal attackers to get behind on Saturday evening, but I expect him to be a busy man given the current form of the hosts.
RB: Antonio Valencia – Tony will have his hands full again at the Emirates, with any one of Sanchez, Danny Welbeck or even Ozil drifting out on the left for Arsenal; his chances of getting forward may well be limited but as ever the Ecuadorian can be trusted to give 110% effort.
LB: Ashley Young – Ashley is right on top of his form and enjoyed a fantastic return to former club Watford during the week. Arsenal are unlikely to allow him as many opportunities to wander forward, but his ability on the ball is such that they’d be unwise to give him space around their penalty area. I worry about his defensive abilities at times, though, and his concentration will need to be very good against Mesut Ozil.
CBs: Victor Lindelof & Marcos Rojo – with Phil Jones and Eric Bailly still likely to be sidelined with minor injuries, Victor and Marcos will get another chance to cement a relationship at the heart of the defence. Victor was excellent against Watford, showing a calm assurance that has been missing in several performances to date; Marcos was a bit unfortunate to concede a penalty at Watford, but he needs to learn not to throw himself into challenges in the penalty area, and both will be put to a rigorous test by the likes of Giroud and Sanchez.
CMs: Nemanja Matic, Marouane Fellaini & Paul Pogba – I haven’t heard of any updates on Matic’s injury problem which saw him leave the pitch early on Tuesday evening, so I hope that means he will be fit to play at Arsenal, because we will need him. Along with our French midfield general Pogba and Belgian Fellaini, I’d flood the midfield and attempt to wrestle control of the game from Arsene Wenger’s men here. I think Wenger will go with three in defence and ask that Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac operate as wing-backs, making five in midfield when Arsenal have possession, and we need to make sure we don’t get over-run as happened at times against Watford. Pogba will have the license to roam forward when we are attacking, and we will need him to play well.
RM: Jesse Lingard – the young man was electric at Vicarage Road, capping a very confident performance with a simply marvellous solo goal to seal the points, and his non-stop action will be invaluable as we look to stem the Arsenal ‘tide’ and hit them on the counter-attack. Jesse is very intelligent with his runs, and hopefully can cause Nacho Monreal and Kolasinac some problems.
LM: Anthony Martial – the young Frenchman is, for me, the best finisher at United and one of the best in Europe, and in his current form you wouldn’t bet against him grabbing another goal at Arsenal. He will give Bellerin and Laurent Koscielny all sorts of bother if we can keep him involved in the game.
CF: Romelu Lukaku – the big man missed a couple of presentable chances at Watford, but I have no concerns whatsoever about him, unlike some of the British media pundits it seems. He will be a handful for the Arsenal defenders, but we have to make sure he doesn’t suffer another “Anfield Away Day”, getting starved of anything resembling service – keep him involved and he’ll do the business, though I’d imagine chances will be few against a stingy Arsenal rearguard.
BENCH: Romero, Rashford, Mkhitaryan, Blind, Herrera, Smalling, Ibrahimović.
I know this will be a very tough game, ‘Arsenal away’ always is, no matter what the form of the sides going into it. We have strung a handful of good results together, though the performances have been patchy at times – we can’t afford that on Saturday. The boys will need to be at the very top of their games if we hope to leave with the three points, which given City’s good fortune recently, is still a minimum requirement ahead of next weekend’s Manchester Derby. Normally I’d be very happy to take a draw at Arsenal, especially with them playing well right now, but we desperately need a win to keep pace with our neighbours. It’s a ‘big ask’, though we are certainly capable of it. Control of midfield will be vital, and it’s a battle we must win, or else the likes of Ramsey and Granit Xhaka will simply “load the gun” for Sanchez, Ozil and Giroud all evening….Fingernails will suffer on Saturday evening, that’s for sure…and we could do with West Ham United putting in a performance in East Manchester, too.