Arsenal’s next fixture in the decisive period of January sees them host in-form Manchester United.
The pressure will be on, in part because an oddity in the fixture list means Manchester City could only be two points behind by the time Arsenal start at the Emirates Stadium – albeit with Arsenal still holding two more games on hand.
How big is the reinforcement represented by Casemiro’s absence? Where will the game win and lose? Can Arsenal avenge their only league defeat this season? the athleteArsenal correspondents Art de Roches and James McConcholas were joined by Manchester United writer Karl Anka to discuss these issues and more.
It’s another big game for Arsenal. But how big is it?
James McNicholas: This is a huge match in the context of both clubs’ seasons. United may have dropped points against Crystal Palace, but with that said, I can’t remember the last time these two teams got on well in this match. This might be the highest quality Arsenal v United game for some time – it’s almost a throwback.
Arteta himself said in his press conference on Friday: “Personally, every time I play against United I feel like they are one of the biggest clubs in the world and the tradition they have in English football, so it’s always great to play against them.”
Art des Roches: It’s not just this weekend that’s huge – it’s a whole month, from Arsenal’s perspective. It’s a big block that they have to go over in terms of Newcastle, Tottenham and Manchester United, and then when you add the Manchester City games on top of that, it just adds to the importance. With the weekend coming up, it’s all about making sure you don’t let the hard work from the first two league games of the month slip away.
No one will be surprised at how intense this game can be. We’ve seen Pep Guardiola talk this week about the Etihad Stadium being a bit quieter because they’re not particularly excited, but I don’t think we’ll get that at the Emirates. This importance will feed everyone on Earth.
Just quick: Did you expect any credit from Tottenham against Manchester City?
McNicholas: I definitely thought there was a chance for them to get a result, especially when going 2-0 up! More idiotic to me: never count on Tottenham. I think City dropping six points against Chelsea, United and Tottenham this month is a fantastic comeback and increases the pressure on Arsenal to keep up the pace.
Des Roches: I think everyone associated with Arsenal would have wanted Tottenham to win, just for one night! Everyone obviously knew City could go 10 wins together, so the glimpse of them losing in two games in a row would have been tantalizing.
What are the main lessons Arsenal can learn from their 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford in September?
McNicholas: Although Arsenal lost this match, I think their overall performance was very good. They let themselves fall to the table – and that remains one of United’s biggest threats.
I think it’s encouraging that Arsenal went to Tottenham, a strong counter-attacking team, who controlled long periods of the game without letting them break. That bit of conservatism — keeping the fullbacks tight and not going overboard — could give them much needed protection on Sunday.
Des Roches: It is true that Arsenal did not play badly at Old Trafford. The only thing that caught my attention was that in the first half they didn’t play as well. They started to push themselves a lot more early in the second half – hence a lot of encouragement.
In the first half, Granit Xhaka was actually much deeper than he has been this season. Once the second half started, it was louder again. The only lesson – which I feel they have already learned – is not to compromise themselves for another team. If they play as they have been, with constant movement across the field from the likes of Oleksandr Zinchenko, Ben White, Martin Odegaard and Xhaka, it will be tough for United – especially without Casemiro. This is my main lesson: Be yourself for 90 minutes, not 45.
What did you celebrate the most on Wednesday night: Michael Ulis’ injury-time goal for Crystal Palace or Casemiro’s booking?
McNicholas: I definitely celebrated Casemiro’s booking more than Olise celebrated his goal! For the neutral, I’m sure it’s a shame – Casemiro, Thomas Partey and Rodri have been the standout defensive midfielders in the Premier League this season and it was interesting to see two of them go head to head.
Well, poor neutrals – for Arsenal this is great news. Casemiro has played a key part in United’s turnaround in terms of form and the man to shut down could have been another one of the league’s brightest players: Martin Odegaard.
Des Roches: I was actually happier with the equalizer – not only because it was an amazing goal, but the important thing for Arsenal is to break away from anyone who can get close to them. After United beat City, had they beaten Palace, they would have brought a lot of momentum into this match. I think it gives Arsenal a little bit of a mental advantage when United faltered in the middle of the week, while Arsenal had seven full days to prepare.
Let’s get to our Manchester United writer, Karl Anka: How bad is Casemiro’s loss and how will United reorganize without him?
Carl Anka: Steve McClaren fell off his chair in the Crystal Palace ballroom when Casemiro was booked for a sarcastic lunge at Wilfried Zaha. And Erik ten Hag tried to strike with a confident tone, pointing out that United had beaten Arsenal without the Brazilian before, but that came with an asterisk that Arsenal were also without Thomas Partey.
Casemiro’s absence means United will not have a top-tier defensive midfielder for Sunday. Scott McTominay’s weaknesses when receiving a pass and passing when pressed mean he is best considered an attacking player from box-to-box and Fred’s technical and physical shortcomings make him more of a ball-winning midfielder.
Ten Hag may try to replicate his Manchester Derby form, playing McFred as the pivot of his midfield with Christian Eriksen as the 10 (to make up for the men’s weaker passing behind him) and Bruno Fernandes on the right.
Arsenal managed to finalize Leandro Trossard’s deal just in time for him to be scored in the match. Do you think he will play any role?
Des Roches: I’m probably expecting 20 minutes off the bench, at most. He has obviously been left out of two of the squad for the fixtures with Brighton, but there are no major fitness concerns. It will depend on whether the conditions of the game are suitable. After three years of Arteta, we are all used to him being very frugal with his replacements. The important thing is that he gives Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and maybe even Eddie Nketiah a chance to get some rest. We all saw they needed that at the end of the Tottenham game, so hopefully we’ll see him on the bench – along with Emile Smith Rowe.
McNicholas: I agree that Arsenal looked tall in the latter stages of the derby. This signing instantly improves Arsenal’s depth of attack. There are many scenarios I could see coming – I hope it’s because Arsenal are on a comfortable run and can enjoy their debut comfortably!
Striker Wout Weghorst made his Manchester United debut in January, making his debut against Crystal Palace. How did he get to Selhurst Park and can we expect him to lead the line again against Arsenal?
Anka: “Very good” was Ten Hag’s assessment of Fighurst, who had some elegant touches and held the ball well against Crystal Palace, but looked off the pace of the Premier League.
The Dutchman’s continued selection up front has more to do with Anthony Martial’s injury condition than his own form. Martial has a confirmed medical condition due to a problem affecting his leg and he looked uncomfortable when running against Manchester City last week. Ideally, Ten Hag wants a striker who can press, hold the ball for others, run behind defenses to extend play and finish chances himself. Weghorst can do all of these things in theory and on datasheets. But he doesn’t seem to be the fastest runner.
(Top photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)