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Preview: Arsenal vs. Manchester United

Mourinho and Wenger renew their rivalry as United travel to the Emirates hoping to keep pace with City in the league.

Arsenal v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Not too long ago, Arsenal v. Manchester United stood out as a showdown between the English Premier League’s best. Now, though, it’s more about two giants with a lot to prove. In recent years, the Gunners have traded title contention for fourth-place scraps, with Arsene Wenger’s once-reliable touch deteriorating into a stale malaise. José Mourinho and Manchester United are doing all they can to avoid a similar fate.

While both clubs are still some ways off their former glory, they each enter Saturday’s contest fresh off impressive midweek victories. Arsenal dismantled Huddersfield Town 5-0, racking up more than 70% possession and peppering the Terriers goal with 7 shots on target. Manchester United beat Watford by a more modest scoreline (4-2), but nevertheless departed Vicarage Road with a well-earned three points against an up-and-coming side.

Arsenal’s Wednesday night win continues a nice run of form for the London outfit. The club rebounded from a sputtering start, including a humiliating loss at Anfield, to quiet the “Wenger Out” brigade — at least for the moment. This reprieve began in earnest with the derby victory over Tottenham Hotspur a fortnight ago, granting some much-needed hope to beleaguered supporters that the corner may finally have been turned.

Equally impressive was the last-gasp 1-0 win over Burnley. Little Burnley have proven to be this season’s Premier League surprise package, already taking points off Chelsea, Liverpool, and Spurs. It took a 92nd minute Alexis Sanchez penalty to decide it, but three points gained at Turf Moor is nothing to sneer at.

Arsenal’s revival starts up front — with the developing cohesion of Alexander Lacazette, Alexis Sanchez, and Mesut Ozil. Star-man Sanchez shrugged off his unpleasant summer transfer saga to already tally four goals and three assists after a slow reintegration to Wenger’s squad. Ozil — reportedly a Mourinho target — continues to orchestrate everything from the wings. Regarding Lacazette, United look to have caught a big break with the news that Arsenal’s main forward will miss this weekend’s match with a groin injury. Even with Olivier Giroud deputizing up front, though, the Gunners front line can ask questions of even the best defenses.

And Manchester United already have enough of those.

Will José Mourinho again opt for a three-man backline to counter Arsenal’s attacking troika? Can he trust Victor Lindelöf in an important game, now that the center-back looks more assured and confident? Are Phil Jones and Eric Bailly finally ready to return from their respective injuries? And can Marcos Rojo hold up for another 90 minutes after logging a full match midweek? Trying to predict anything about United’s defensive setup for Saturday seems a fool’s errand.

On the Lindelöf front, though, Mourinho’s post-Watford comments might shed some light on his plans. When asked about his £35 million summer signing’s play at Vicarage Road, the manager enthused, “Victor is very fast and he’s adapted to play centrally, but also to go to the sides because he’s got the agility that many of the central defenders don’t have. I think it was another very positive performance by Victor.”

Most of the pre-match discussion will inevitably focus on José Mourinho’s recent struggles in big matches (particularly away ones) and just how pragmatic his setup will be at the Emirates. Unless he has drastically changed his tactical philosophy, expect him to counter Arsenal’s technical flair with a heavy dose of physicality. The wrench in that plan, though, is the uncertain status of Nemanja Matić. The Serbian stalwart limped off after just 54 minutes at Watford, casting his availability for the weekend into doubt. Although somewhat off the brilliant heights of his first few matches in a red shirt, Matić remains an integral part of United’s improvement this season. He would be a huge loss for such an important game — especially one that suits his particular skill-set.

Most importantly, the Watford win keeps United’s spirits high ahead of a difficult stretch. Although the Hornets staged a late comeback to briefly pull the score back to 3-2, this was a strong performance that will boost confidence (at least for those not named Romelu Lukaku).

Everyone knows that there’s little love lost between José Mourinho and Arsene Wenger, so these encounters always pick up a chippy edge. The entire United squad — including the manager on the touchline — must keep its composure and avoid unnecessary yellow card accumulation. With Arsenal now back in the top four and looking to rise higher, a United win at the Emirates would put some distance between the two rivals. Not to mention, building even more momentum before next weekend’s Manchester derby with undefeated City.