Ryan: Manchester United take on Arsenal at Old Trafford on Saturday in a clash between two of the Premier League’s traditional powerhouses.
Previous hostility between managers José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger means that most of the pre-game talk is focussed on whether another technical area tête-à-tête could be on the cards.
But the on-field action will be far more intriguing. Despite only being 11 games into the season, the title race is already shaping up to being contested between as many as six teams; any time two would-be contenders face off, there is the potential for one to rubber-stamp their credentials, while sending the defeated side to the back of the queue.
And United are already at the back of the queue in terms of title contention. Perhaps the first three months of the season has shown us that the 20-time champions ought to set their sights a little lower, to manage expectations and shoot for a top four spot.
But if you’re not in the title race this season, you are likely outside the Champions League qualification places too — that’s how closely fought this season is looking like being.
And just yesterday, Ed Woodward confirmed that if United miss out on the top four this term, they will lose around £20 million from the Adidas sponsorship deal.
So, my question to you both is: it seems way too early to say this but are we in ‘must-win’ territory against Arsenal this weekend?
Jack: I’m not yet sure we’re in ‘must-win’ territory, but I do think we’re in ‘must-not-lose’ territory. That would maintain a six-point gap to Arsenal, who currently occupy the final Champions League qualifying spot, which seems perfectly surmountable at what is still a very early stage in the season. It would also sustain the illusion that we’re only a game or two away from things finally clicking, and it seems illusions are just as important as realities when it comes to sporting confidence.
A defeat would, in contrast, certainly be confidence-shattering, and doubtless set United back another few games in which ever more ground is lost to the top four. Just managing to find some consistency in avoiding defeat seems to me as important as anything, and I’d probably take a draw as a result.
Andi: I think Jack's right, at least in terms of crisis avoidance, which seems to be the most important thing at the moment. In any sensible world the result wouldn't matter at all, and all we'd be worrying about is the performance: Mourinho's had the job for less than six months, the season's only three months old, and United, on the back of three mediocre-to-rubbish seasons and two mediocre-to-rubbish managers, are up against a team that Arsène Wenger's been tweaking for years.
But this isn't the sensible world and football happens at ludicrous speed. It's quite sad, actually, that United need to avoid defeat not because a loss would be fatal to their title ambitions or Champions League aspirations — though it wouldn't help, obviously — but because it's the only way Mourinho and the players will be able to get on with their jobs in any kind of peace. Lose, and the various egos and interests at United will spend the entire week arguing with one another and leaking stories to the press, while the press spend their time giddily searching for traces of CRISIS. It would be nice to want United to win a football game for the pleasure of seeing them win, and not just to keep the headaches at bay.
Ryan: Yeah, I think that’s fair. It might feel very crisis-y if United lose this one, but Chelsea have shown that a poor/indifferent run is quickly forgotten if you can string a few wins together at some point. One of the advantages of a log jam at the top of the table is that the contenders will all be taking points off each other, so it seems less likely that any one side will be completely cut adrift.
Do you think United are well-equipped to get a result against this Arsenal team? It seems as though Wenger might finally be getting all of his ducks in a row, whereas, as you point out, Andi, Mourinho is still new in the role.
How likely is it that United will be set up to stifle and play for a draw/nick a one-nil?
Jack: I think it’s very likely. Wenger vs. Mourinho games have, over the years, come to represent the archetypal encounter between the starry-eyed — but ultimately naive — idealist and the ruthless pragmatist, and I don’t think Mourinho would have it any other way. Of course, this is a great journalistic ‘narrative’, and one could feasibly argue that Mourinho has paradoxically often been dogmatic in his pragmatism, but when it comes to facing up against this Arsenal incarnation, it seems sensible to me to take a measured approach.
It’s possible that they’ll have their usual post-Christmas collapse once again this season, but for now we have to take things at face value: they look a very good team indeed. They may still have Theo Walcott out on the wing, but they also have Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil thriving through the middle, as well as a midfield that looks uncharacteristically capable of resembling something other than soggy paper whenever they lose possession. All of this is to say that I’d be surprised if Mourinho did anything particularly un-Mourinho in this one.
Andi: I suspect we'll see something quite similar in approach to the teams that Alex Ferguson used to put out, back when it felt like he'd basically 'solved' the problem of beating Arsenal. It was quite a Mourinho-like plan, as it goes: the specifics and personnel varied, but basically United looked to sit deep, let Arsenal's moves break down in front of the defence, then break forward quickly taking advantage of the space.
Two possible boons for United are the absence of Hector Bellerín, who is terrifyingly quick from right-back, and the possibility that Alexis Sánchez might not quite be at full power, having carried a fitness concern through the international break. If Carl Jenkinson ends up filling in at right-back, it might be time to unleash Ashley Young. But whatever happens, I think pace up front is going to be the key for United. Who would you start in the attacking positions?
Ryan: I mentioned on this week’s Facebook Live chat that I’d like Anthony Martial to be played up front again. He was excellent there early last season but the return from injury of Wayne Rooney and the emergence of Marcus Rashford meant he was moved out wide. With his pace, calmness under pressure and finishing, I think centre-forward might be his best position in the long run.
But for this one, I don’t see Mourinho using Martial in place of the suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic, so it’ll be either Rashford or Rooney. I know who I’d prefer of the two, and I think I’ll be disappointed to that end.
Jack: I agree; the absence of Bellerín could leave Arsenal exposed in the right-back area, and so it could be beneficial to have a more traditional and direct attacker than Martial out on the left, who tends to make less of the space in behind the full-back than that in front of it. His excellent technique also arguably makes him a better option for a spot through the middle than Rashford, who is still not yet up to his team-mate’s standard in that department.
Ultimately, I expect we’ll see Martial on the left, either Rashford or Lingard on the right, and Rooney through the middle; though my favoured selection would omit the latter, and have Rashford and Lingard flanking the former.
Ryan: We usually do full line-up predictions but with the current defensive injury casualties, that might be a bit pointless this week (there is a chance we could line up with a back four of Young, Blind, Rojo and Darmian!). And with the way our near-full-strength defence was shredded by the intelligent movement of Chelsea a few weeks back, I’d really rather not think about what Sánchez and Özil could do.
But let’s finish with predictions. Give me a score and one thing United need to do in order to win.
I’ll go for a 2-1 win as long as we don’t match their 4-2-3-1 formation by playing Pogba in the double pivot.
Jack: I think I predicted a cagey draw in the thrashing by Chelsea a few weeks ago, so maybe I’ll go for a 4-1 Arsenal win in the hope of some triumphant reverse psychology. I’m actually reasonably optimistic we’ll nick it, but we need to be much better without the ball than we have been of late. Arsenal’s attackers have a very dangerous blend of attributes, and can be a nightmare to defend against; but, if we can get our positional discipline right, we’re going to have a good chance.