With thirty-two clubs still alive in the 2018/19 FA Cup, Manchester United face a difficult Fourth Round trip to the Emirates on Friday night. Last month, United and Arsenal played out an exciting 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, but much has changed since that day.
That draw extended Arsenal’s unbeaten run to twenty matches, inspiring an optimism around the club not seen for some years. Since then, though, the Gunners have lost four times and fallen into a fifth-place tie with United in the Premier League table. Arsenal’s tough stretch included derby losses to Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham and a 5-1 drubbing at Liverpool.
That optimism? Gone. Some even publicly wondered if Unai Emery’s honeymoon in London was over. But Arsenal pulled out of their tailspin last weekend, defeating Chelsea 2-0, behind goals from Alexandre Lacazette and Laurent Koscielny. Emery deployed a diamond midfield, playing Aaron Ramsey just behind Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up top. It caught Chelsea off guard and the Gunners ended their slump in impressive fashion.
Manchester United, on the other hand, have been the form team in the Premier League since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as caretaker manager before Christmas. The Reds continued their blistering start under Ole with a 2-1 win over Brighton last weekend, extending the interim boss’s winning streak to seven.
It won’t rank as the club’s strongest performance of the Solskjaer era, but United got the job done against Brighton and pulled level with Arsenal in fifth. Even better, the gap to Chelsea in fourth is now just three points. Goals from Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford proved the difference on Saturday, although United’s run of clean sheets ended at three.
Pogba and Rashford are becoming ever-presents on the scoresheet. In their last six matches, each has scored five goals. There was always the sense that Pogba would raise his game after a managerial change, but Rashford has been the real surprise package. The 21 year-old seized the center forward spot in Solskjaer’s first match and doesn’t look like giving it back any time soon.
On the injury front, Alexis Sánchez continues to slowly make his way back. Last weekend, he made the bench for the first time since January 2, but did not get on the pitch. “Alexis is not 100% match fit,” Solskjaer explained. “He’s been out quite a while, but he’ll probably be in the team for the FA Cup.”
The Chilean celebrated the one-year anniversary of his move from Arsenal to Manchester this week ... and it did not go over so well on social media. The much-hyped transfer has produced anemic results (just 4 goals?!?) and jeopardized other players’ contract extensions by throwing the club’s wage structure out of whack. If Solskjaer can get Alexis firing again, maybe he really does have the golden touch.
Reflecting on the Alexis Sánchez signing on its one year anniversary. https://t.co/G3jVJdfJHj— The Busby Babe (@TheBusbyBabe) January 22, 2019
In the last FA Cup match against Reading, United fielded a much-changed side — featuring little-used squad members like Sergio Romero, Matteo Darmian, Scott McTominay, Andreas Pereira, Fred, and Tahith Chong. One of Ole’s biggest accomplishments has been to quickly settle on his best eleven for Premier League matches, so it will be interesting to see if he again rotates for this cup tie or fields his strongest side from the off. Considering the obvious step-up in opposition between Championship strugglers and Arsenal, the smart money’s on a mostly full-strength side.
Unai Emery, long renowned/criticized as a cup manager for his success at Sevilla, makes Arsenal an especially dangerous opponent in this competition. And he recognizes how much United has changed in the last month. “It’s a different team,” Emery said. “It’s the same players, but they’re playing with a big performance now. I watched their last matches and each player has a lot of confidence.”
“We are looking forward to playing this match on Friday because it’s at our stadium in front of our supporters,” he continued. “We feel very well in front of them and we want to create a new atmosphere over 90 minutes on Friday, together with our supporters.”
Arsenal will be without Hector Bellerin, one of their best defenders. Bellerin, who recently returned from weeks out with a calf strain, suffered a nasty-looking knee injury last weekend. Non-contact knee injuries never seem to turn out well — and initial reports confirm that Bellerin ruptured his ACL and will miss the rest of the season. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is the likely fill-in at right back.
Manchester United vs. Arsenal ranks as the marquee matchup of this FA Cup weekend, but it’s also an especially fitting one. The Reds still stand second in England with 12 FA Cups, only one behind Arsenal’s record of 13. United fell just short of equaling that mark last season and, if they hope to draw level in 2019, must go through Arsenal on Friday to do it.