Manchester United host Arsenal at Old Trafford on Monday, as both teams attempt to spark some life into their lackluster Premier League seasons. Arsenal enter the match on the back of two straight wins, while United’s form has hit a new low after losing to West Ham last weekend and needing penalties to squeeze past Rochdale mid-week. To preview the match, and discuss summer signings and season expectations, we sat down with our colleague Nathan Reynolds from Arsenal blog The Short Fuse.
The Busby Babe: This year’s Premier League seems to be settling into a similar pattern to last season. Of the so-called Big Six, Liverpool and City are in a class of their own (god I hated typing that), and the rest of us are trying to figure it out. What are your expectations for Arsenal this year?
The Short Fuse: Arsenal have the squad to once again challenge for a return into the top four. Barring another late-season collapse, I think they are able to accomplish that this year, finishing third. Once Pepe gets up and running, Lacazette returns, and the backline consists of a fit and in-form Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin, and Kieran Tierney, Arsenal should be able to start racking up points. I expect another deep run in the Europa League again and that Emery will try to push as far as he can in both cup competitions. He needs a positive year, and maybe a trophy, to still be the manager by the start of next season
TBB: When the transfer window first closed, there seemed to be a lot more enthusiasm about your summer transfer business summer than usual. How would you rate your new signings so far?
TSF: Gabriel Martinelli was the first signing, and based on this week’s Carabao Cup match (plus preseason) looks like a great prospect to fill the space behind Aubameyang and Lacazette, along with Eddie Nketiah. William Saliba was next, but we won’t see him in London until next year. But the idea of him and Holding as a CB pairing is exciting. Nicolas Pépé was the big-money move. He’s had a slow start to life in the Premier League, but that isn’t surprising. The talent is there and I fully expect him to get at least 10 goals this year. Kieran Tierney is hopefully the left-back for the next 5+ years but just debuted this week in the Cup. And then there is David Luiz, the man Arsenal are paying a hefty sum each week to give up PKs. He has spirit, solid long-range passing, and a great free-kick, but has been a walking liability during the start of the season.
TBB: Speaking of signings, can we now agree that the Alexis Sánchez/Henrik Mkhitaryan swap was the worst deal in history? There have been bigger busts on both sides, sure. But that deal is especially bad for being a miserable experience for all parties involved, and just a giant waste of everyone’s time.
TSF: Indeed, Arsenal would have been better off just finishing the year with Alexis and letting him walk away on a free - knowing what we know now. Mkhitaryan never quite fit in at Arsenal and with all the other wage concerns, he was just another anchor on moving the team forward. I’m happy he was able to get a loan deal for Roma and hope that he is able to find success there.
TBB: We’re all excited about the potential of Mason Greenwood over here. As is tradition, we’re heaping an unreasonable amount of pressure on a young player’s shoulders, before we inevitably turn on him in 2 years. Who is Arsenal’s next great hope?
TSF: Last year we saw a great run from Rob Holding, and having watched a circus show of CB outings since his injury has lifted Holding to ‘future-captain’ and a sure thing status during his rehab. Bukayo Saka has pushed himself into the hype-train category after a great performance in the Europa League. But at the moment there seems to be a solid core of young players that fans feel positive about - Holding, Saka, Tierney, Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, Willock, Guendouzi, Mavropanos, Smith Rowe, Martinelli, Folarin Balogun, Tyreece John-Jules, and Robbie Burton - are all 22 or younger.
TBB: You’re in Year 2 of the rebuild under Unai Emery, and some Arsenal fans are questioning whether he is the right man for the job (United fans can relate on this point). Is he? What is the minimum he needs to achieve this year to be sure of his future? What kind of season outcome would see him out of a job?
TSF: At this point, you can’t say that he is the right man for a rebuilding phase. He seems more like a manager helping Arsenal transition into the post-Wenger era. On the field, there have not been dramatic shifts in the style of play or formation as you might expect with a new manager. But behind the scenes, the club has gone through a lot of positive change. If Arsenal finish top four and they go far in the Europa League again, possibly win a Cup, he stays for another year. If Arsenal is well off the pace for fourth come January and look lost, then Freddie Ljungberg steps in as interim manager and the club re-evaluates in the summer.
TBB: Based on our teams’ respective performances so far, where do you think the match will be won on Monday? Do you expect any tactical wrinkles from Emery?
TSF: If there is a tactical wrinkle by Emery, we will all be shocked. The match will be decided based on how Arsenal’s defensive midfielders perform and what level of mistake the centerbacks come up with on Monday. Now all of that is assuming that Emery continues to stick with Luiz and Sokratis in the back, with Xhaka as one of the CMs. None of those three deserve to start at the moment, but he kept them out of the Carabao Cup squad and continues to go back to experience over form quite often. If instead, Holding starts, Chambers is in there, perhaps Ceballos with Guendouzi or Torreira and Ozil somehow plays two matches in a row then my confidence goes way up.
TBB: What’s your predicted starting XI? Is it different from your preferred starting XI?
TSF: Lacazette is out and we don’t know the fitness status for Maitland-Niles, plus the returning defenders. My predicted XI would be: Leno - Kolašinac - Sokratis - Holding - Chambers - Xhaka - Guendouzi - Saka - Ozil - Pepe - Aubameyang. My preferred lineup would be: Leno - Tierney - Holding - Chambers - Bellerin - Torreira - Ceballos - Saka - Ozil - Pepe - Aubameyang. Then I’d have Guendouzi, Willock, and Nelson as my subs.
TBB: And finally, what’s your prediction for the final score?
TSF: Arsenal 2-1.
Thanks for stopping by, Nathan! You can check out my Q&A over at The Short Fuse here.