Manchester United travel to London to face Arsenal in the Premier League at the Emirates on Saturday. Arsenal are enjoying a purple patch of form – four wins in their last five – but sit 10 points adrift of United now in the same half of the table.
United, meanwhile, dropped the ball in midweek against bottom of the pile Sheffield United, ending an impressive run of results in the league. Whether United’s blip remains just that will be revealed. But it’s typical for United that they meet Arsenal with the jitters while Arsenal are riding somewhat high. Always the way, seemingly, in recent years.
The last team to defeat United in the league before this week? Correct – Arsenal, just short of three months ago. Having only dropped points against Liverpool, Leicester City and Manchester City in between, it’s a remarkable commitment from United to helping out the Gunners.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær has made things rather difficult for himself, and unnecessarily so.
The prevailing wisdom on social media after the defeat to Sheffield United was that the manager should pick his strongest side – for momentum – and, instead, take key players off once a lead has been established. Aside from the fact that United rarely control games, with so many rescued points this season, United did send out just about their best available eleven.
Granted, there were six changes from the FA Cup win versus Liverpool, but only Luke Shaw, Victor Lindelöf, and Scott McTominay/Fred were rested on the bench to host the Blades. Solskjær and his staff will obviously have more insight into where his players are at in terms of fitness for making these decisions. However, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford played virtually the whole match against Liverpool and both were selected again three days later. Bruno Fernandes, too, will need more than an hour off in the current schedule even with his work ethic and ability to recover.
United fielded their best front five in a game where a limited, struggling side desperate for points were going to sit back at Old Trafford and frustrate the forwards. A match made for, say, Juan Mata. If not now, when? Daniel James? Give Donny van de Beek a shot of confidence by starting him again after a poor outing.
It’s impossible to know, but Rashford and Martial both look burnt out mentally. Pogba and Fernandes aren’t far behind. They’ve played a lot of games recently and something will have to give.
First goal? "Foul."— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) January 27, 2021
At the other end? "No foul."
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was not happy with two key decisions but admitted Man Utd were lacking the magic to get a result against Sheffield United.
In a post-match interview, Solskjær’s mask slipped as he suggested, then cited, that the pandemic was causing fatigue and to blame for the drop in performance. “We’ve been the most consistent team the last few months and it just hit us today,” offered the United manager.
Sheffield United at home, then, was a missed opportunity with added collateral damage. So to Arsenal, where United need to field their best players again and now without momentum to grease the wheels.
Solskjær has doubtless pressed upon his players before the importance of a good reaction after a defeat, straight out of the Fergie playbook. Solskjær has suffered poor runs of results in the past as well as good. United, though, are still well-positioned in the league and have plenty to fight for – for now. Returning to Manchester with the points this weekend would calm everyone down and send out a big statement.
McFred has done Solskjær a solid on a few big occasions away from home, with Pogba off the bench to change the game. More recently, Pogba running the show in midfield with a plus one of either McTominay, Fred, or Nemanja Matić – each used in the last three games – has got the best out of the Frenchman. Starting Pogba out wide accommodating McTominay and Fred in matches against City and Liverpool has plainly not worked.
Unfairly hooked after an hour on Wednesday, almost muscle memory from Solskjær, and with Martial still on the pitch going through the motions. Greenwood scuffed a good chance before coming off but he’s certainly worth persisting with and needed at the moment.
Pogba can do the Milly Rock, right? Would look great in the zebra kit. RIP, Jesse, u will live on forever. @