On Saturday afternoon, Manchester United will host Arsenal FC at Old Trafford for a Premier League tie. These two sides met twice last season and in this same fixture in August 2011, the Red Devils exploded for an incredible eight goals at the 'Theatre of Dreams'. In the reverse fixture at the Emirates in January, United once again emerged victorious and this time by a 2-1 scoreline thanks to a late Danny Welbeck winner.
Form Guide: Sir Alex Ferguson's side enters the weekend sitting second in the league table with twenty-one points from nine matches. Their most recent match occurred on Wednesday when Chelsea defeated United 5-4 in a Capital One Cup tie. Last weekend though, against the same Chelsea side, United were 3-2 victors in a league game and that had been their fifth successive victory across two competitions. The Red Devils currently top their group in the UEFA Champions League with a 100% record from three fixtures.
Form Guide: Arsene Wenger's side come into the match sitting sixth in the league table with fifteen points from nine matches. The Gunners most recent match was a wild midweek affair as they came back from a 0-4 deficit to defeat Reading 7-5 in a Capital One Cup contest. Overall though, Arsenal's recent form has been somewhat shaky. Before last weekend's tense 1-0 defeat of Queens Park Rangers in league, they had lost two successive matches to Schalke '04 in Europe and to Norwich City in league. The North London side currently sit second in their Champions League group with six points from three matches.
United: The first thing to consider is trying to figure out which system Ferguson will go with -- he can choose from a 4-4-1-1, 4-3-3, and a midfield diamond. In goal, David de Gea is likely but Anders Lindegaard is certainly possible. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny will form a center-back partnership while Rafael and Patrice Evra are expected in the full-back positions.
You never know with Ferguson but a midfield diamond seems like the least likely possibility. If a midfield duo is deployed in a 4-4-1-1, then Michael Carrick will be partnered by either Tom Cleverley or Paul Scholes. If a midfield trio is used, then all three of those players are in contention as is Wayne Rooney and Anderson. Out wide, Antonio Valencia is almost certain on the right while Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, and Nani are in contention on the left. Up front, Robin van Persie will start and if he has a partner, any of Rooney, Welbeck, or the in-form Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) are possible.
Arsenal: For Arsenal, injuries are limiting Wenger's options and the starting XI appears somewhat obvious. Expect to see Vito Mannone in goal, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen as the center-backs, Bacary Sagna over Carl Jenkinson at right-back, and Andre Santos at left-back. In their 4-2-3-1 shape, Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere are expected in the double-pivot but Aaron Ramsey is possible. Ramsey is probable as the right-sided player in attack, though, while Lukas Podolski is expected on left-side. Oliver Giroud is anticipated to be the lead striker while Santi Cazorla will be in behind in a No.10 role.
* What approach will each side take?: Whatever approach each side takes will have an important impact on the match. Arsenal tend to struggle in breaking down sides that defend deep and while United took a reactive approach from the start last weekend at Chelsea -- where they kept their shape compact and looked to break down the right side -- this seems less likely to happen at home. It'll be interesting to see what approach Ferguson takes.
As is typical, Arsenal generally seek to dominate possession and play a short-passing game. However, they are more vertical now than they were in the past and they're capable of getting up the pitch quickly. Wenger's team defends with two banks of four when out of possession while Cazorla tends to stay high near the striker looking to spring counterattacks. Wenger is willing to be both reactive (at Liverpool) and proactive (at Manchester City) when traveling away to bigger sides. Will the Gunners have a go at Old Trafford or will the 8-2 memory from last season linger in their memories and as a result, will they be more conservative with their approach?
* Attack Arsenal's left-side: Similar to Chelsea, where Arsenal is most vulnerable is down their left flank. Fortunately for United, this is an area of strength for them and they attack more down this side (40%) than they do through the middle (30%) or on the left (30%) (*). Andre Santos, the expected left-back on Saturday with Gibbs out, is an absolute lunatic with his positioning as he's extremely prone to getting caught out. When Podolski partners him on the left, the German international generally works hard but it's often not adequate enough to compensate for the Brazilian's inept defending. Furthermore, Vermaelen is the left-sided central-defender and he has the tendency to come towards the ball as well and be drawn out of position. There are massive gaps to exploit on Arsenal's left-side.
(*) Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com)
We all know that Rafael isn't shy about getting forward and he'll have opportunities to create 2 v 1 overloads on United's right flank. Defensively, though, Rafa will have to be concerned with Podolski as the Arsenal attacker tends to dart in the space and race towards the box in the space between the opposition's right-back and center-back. Fortunately for United, if the German causes problems, then Valencia is capable of destroy Santos 1 v 1 and also, he's more than willing to track back and help. United will certainly be able to create chances by attacking Arsenal's left-side.
* Rooney needs to track Arteta: If one were to assume that Rooney will either be a secondary striker in behind RvP or that he'll be deployed as the most advanced midfielder in a 4-3-3, then he'll be the player closest in the vicinity of Arteta -- the man who sets the rhythm for the Gunners. In Arsenal's meeting with Chelsea, Oscar did a superb job in quickly closing down the Spaniard -- Arteta, on average, completes 93.1 passes per game but against Chelsea, he only completed 63. This was hugely disruptive to Arsenal.
Rooney's willingness to occupy the other side's deepest-lying midfielder blows hot and cold. As of late though, Wazza has played with passion and he's been, as the cliche goes, touching every blade on grass in recent matches. It would be immensely helpful if he could, when United are out of possession, quickly find Arteta and get tight to him. The Arsenal midfielder plays short and neat passes but he knows when it's appropriate to send in more probing passes. Contain Arteta, and you contain Arsenal's passing rhythm.
* Cazorla is Arsenal's key-man: While it's Arteta that keeps things calm, it's another Spaniard, Cazorla, that provides the incisiveness in attack. He's a brilliant No.10 and his movement is terrific. He tends to position himself high while his lateral movement tends to take him into the space between the central-midfielder, center-back, and full-back. This makes it hard for a single holding-midfielder or a single center-back to track him because then they'd continually be drawn out of position. United will either play with a single holding-midfielder (Carrick) in a 4-3-3 or with a double-pivot (Carrick with either Cleverley, Ando, or Scholes) in a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1. Cazorla is probably too good be nullified but if United can stay organized and pass him off when drifts across the pitch in the space between the lines, then they can perhaps contain him to an extent. He's the man that makes Arsenal tick in attack and generally does this with death by a thousand through-balls. Look for the playmaker to thread passes in between Rafael and Ferdinand for Podolski to run onto or for him to find Giroud when he works the channels. With RvP gone, it is Cazorla that is undoubtedly Arsenal's key-man now.
KO: 12:45pm GMT, 8:45am EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: Sky Sports 2 (U.K.), ESPN2 (U.S.A.)
Arsenal Q&A: The Short Fuse
Referee: Mike Dean
Odds: Manchester United 8/13, Draw 14/5, Arsenal 9/2