Manchester United play Arsenal on Sunday in a game that has the potential to be both very easy and very difficult. Arsène Wenger has, on rare occasions, illustrated the ability to set up an intelligent defensive team, though his failure to address the age-old defensive midfield problem his lack of silverware through the years is at least in part down to his naivety. When Louis van Gaal declared the Gunners technically the best team in the league in midweek, it was -- intentional or otherwise -- a slight dig in Wenger's direction.
That said, United haven't beaten Arsenal in their last two meetings, though won 2-1 on their last visit to the Emirates last November -- and hilariously did so with Marouane Fellaini in midfield and a back three of Paddy McNair, Bad Chris Smalling and Tyler Blackett. Thanks for that own goal, Kieran Gibbs.
Of course, Arsenal's problems aren't always tactical: they're invariably dogged by injury problems to the extent that it's surely no longer pure coincidence. Even at this early stage in the season they're without a few important first teamers, with Jack Wilshere, Laurent Koscielny and formerly Dat Guy Danny Welbeck chief among them. Goalkeeper Petr Čech faces a late fitness test, as does the walking, talking, pointing, shouting, fouling French stereotype Mathieu Flamini.
For United, Luke Shaw and Marcos Rojo are both out, though otherwise van Gaal has a full-strength team available. That includes Michael Carrick, who is back from his short lay-off.
For a much longer and much better analysis of Arsenal, head on over to TBB debutant Shane Thomas' blog. For those of you left, here are a few pointers:
- Louis van Gaal's right: Arsenal are an excellent side technically. No one in the Premier League is better at retaining possession in the final third than them, and often this constant pressure is enough for them to break weak teams down. However, occasionally it's not, and against a regimented opponent they can struggle to create any goalscoring chances at all. If United press well, they could keep David de Gea from having much to do.
- However, it's difficult to legislate for the brilliance of certain individuals, and in Arsenal's case, said individual is winger Alexis Sánchez. He's yet to hit top form this season after being rushed back from the Copa América, but it's surely only a matter of time. Quick, a fine dribbler and an excellent finisher, it won't be pretty if he goes one-on-one against Antonio Valencia.
- Arsenal are by far at their most vulnerable when they lose possession. This is where the pace of Memphis Depay and Anthony Martial could be key. Arsenal's lack of a true defensive midfielder (Francis Coquelin doesn't yet seem good enough for a title-winning team) means this area of the field is often left totally exposed. A quick burst and a lethal through-ball from Bastian Schweinsteiger or Ander Herrera (one of whom must surely play) could send United's quick attackers into space. If United are too slow in possession, Arsenal will be able to recover a defensive shape and the chance to expose their greatest weakness will have passed.
- Speaking of pace, defender Per Mertesacker has the turning circle of the Titanic (the old clichés are the best ... ) so Martial will surely try and target the German.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Petr Čech; Nacho Monreal, Per Mertesacker, Gabriel Paulista, Héctor Bellerín; Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin; Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey; Theo Walcott.
Manchester United (4-2-3-1): David de Gea; Matteo Darmian, Daley Blind, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin; Memphis Depay, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata; Anthony Martial.