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Preview: Manchester United vs. Arsenal

Injury-plagued United face a tough test

Arsenal FC v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Manchester United host surging Arsenal on Wednesday night, kicking off a new era in one of the Premier League’s best rivalries. The Gunners come to Old Trafford unbeaten in 19 matches and fresh off a thrilling comeback victory over Tottenham Hotspur in the North London derby.

For the home side, manager José Mourinho will struggle just to name a healthy starting eleven. Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelöf, Antonio Valencia, and Matteo Darmian all missed the weekend draw at Southampton — forcing Nemanja Matić and Scott McTominay to deputize as nominal defenders alongside Phil Jones.

This makeshift backline did not work. United’s nascent clean sheet streak ended after 13 minutes and the Saints doubled their advantage moments later. The Reds drew level by halftime, but this defensive injury crisis might wreak havoc for quite some time.

None of Saturday’s absentees are tipped for an immediate return, although Smalling or Bailly could defy the odds and suit up for Arsenal’s visit. To make matters even worse, Phil Jones and Luke Shaw picked up knocks at Southampton too.

Oh, and Ashley Young is out with a one-match suspension for yellow card accumulation.

Diogo Dalot made his Premier League debut as a substitute on Saturday and will likely be drafted back into action against Arsenal. Marcos Rojo remains a slight possibility, but supporters better prepare themselves for the nightmare scenario of either Matić or McTominay at center back again.

Unfortunately, the club’s injury woes extend past the defense. Last Thursday, Alexis Sánchez suffered a hamstring injury in training which will keep him sidelined for at least a few weeks.

Romelu Lukaku seemingly injured his knee late in Saturday’s match after a wayward touch on the ball left the forward crumpled on the pitch. Earlier, Lukaku opened the scoring for United, finally snapping out of his goalless spell at 981 minutes. If healthy — and that’s a big if — everyone hopes that goal signals a turnaround in form for Big Rom.

It doesn’t end there. Marcus Rashford also left the St. Mary’s pitch early, although it was hard to tell whether due to injury or sheer exhaustion from a hard shift up top. “I would say Marcus Rashford was a mad dog,” Mourinho exclaimed to MUTV after the match. “I am pretty sure he will be fine for the next one.”

Looking back on the 2-2 draw as a whole, the manager lamented his side’s inability to keep it simple. “What we did so well in the last 15-20 minutes of the first half was that we chose to connect with the attacking players by transporting the ball, leaving the ball in the right moment, the right choice of pass, playing simple, accelerating the game,” Mourinho explained.

“In the second half, we went back again to that dynamic where we lose too many balls in midfield. The players, they don’t understand that simplicity is genius, especially in some parts of the pitch.”

That seems a thinly-veiled shot at Paul Pogba, who had one of his worst games in a red shirt. His failure to track back particularly incensed the manager. Unsurprisingly, the tension reportedly spilled over into the dressing room. After the match, Mourinho supposedly compared Pogba’s attitude to a virus that’s infecting the entire United squad.

Arsenal, on the other hand, are in rude health. The London club continues to shake off the stagnation of Arsene Wenger’s latter years, with new manager Unai Emery proving an inspired choice as the Frenchman’s replacement. Arsenal dropped their first two matches of the season — to Manchester City and Chelsea — but haven't lost since.

Much like Manchester United, these Gunners start slowly. Arsenal actually have a -4 GD in the first half of league matches this season, but rally to an incredible +18 mark after the break.

On Sunday, Arsenal played to form by falling behind Spurs before a second-half flurry of goals delivered a memorable derby win. Three goals reversed a 2-1 halftime deficit, moving the Gunners above their cross-town rivals up to fourth in the table.

Despite United’s recent downturn in form, Emery expects his first visit to Old Trafford to be a tough one. “We know it’s very difficult in Manchester, in history and in the present,” he said. “We want to prepare in the best possible way to have the best performance. This is a big challenge for us and we want to have challenges like Wednesday.”

Whatever defense Mourinho manages to stitch together better keep a close eye on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The 29-year-old forward leads the Premier League with 10 goals and mixes well with Alexandre Lacazette in attack. Lacazette just returned from a groin injury, but hit the ground running with a derby day goal. Rising star Lucas Torreira is another one to watch.

Interestingly, Emery dropped Mesut Özil for the recent match against Bournemouth, citing the expected intensity for his decision. After the Spurs win, the Arsenal manager revealed that Özil had a back ache as well. Mourinho will certainly seek to bully Arsenal’s technical players, so don’t expect an appearance from the star midfielder on Wednesday.

Manchester United enjoyed the upper hand in this rivalry for many years, as Arsenal sank deeper and deeper into a malaise under Wenger. But, with Unai Emery at the helm, this looks like an entirely different team. Time will tell if the red-hot visitors can earn their first Premier League victory at Old Trafford since 2006.