The pressure will be on, partly because a quirk of the fixture list means Manchester City could be just two points behind by the time Arsenal kick off at the Emirates Stadium — albeit with the Gunners holding an extra two games in hand.
How big a boost is the absence of Casemiro? Where will the game be won and lost? Can Arsenal avenge their only league defeat of the season? The Athletic‘s Arsenal correspondents Art de Roche and James McNicholas are joined by Manchester United writer Carl Anka to discuss those issues and more.
It’s another big game for Arsenal. But just how big is it?
James McNicholas: This is a massive game in the context of both clubs’ seasons. United may have dropped points against Crystal Palacebut nevertheless, I can’t remember the last time these two teams came into this fixture in such good form. This might be the highest-quality Arsenal v United game for some time — it’s almost a throwback.
Arteta said so himself at his Friday press conference: “Personally, every time I play against United it feels like one of the biggest clubs in the world and the tradition they have in English football, so it’s always very special to play against them.”
Type of Roche: It’s not just this weekend that’s massive — it’s the whole month, from an Arsenal perspective. It’s a big block they’ve had to get through in terms of newcastle, Tottenham and Manchester United, and then when you add Manchester City’s fixtures on top of that, it just magnifies the importance. Going into the weekend, it’s all about making sure the hard work from the first two league games of the month isn’t undone.
No one will be surprised about how intense this game is going to be. We saw Pep Guardiola talking this week about the Etihad Stadium being a little quiet because they’re not particularly fired up, but I don’t think we’ll get that at the Emirates Stadium. That importance is going to feed into everyone at the ground.
Just quickly: did you expect any favors from Tottenham against Manchester City?
McNicholas: I certainly thought there was a chance of them getting a result, especially at 2-0 up! More fool me: never rely on Spurs. I think City coming away with six points from fixtures against ChelseaUnited and Tottenham this month is an impressive return and increases the pressure on Arsenal to keep up the pace.
DeRoche: I think everyone Arsenal-related would’ve wanted Spurs to win, just for a night! Obviously, everyone knows City can string a run of 10 wins together, so the glimpse of them losing two successive games would have been tantalising.
What key lessons can Arsenal learn from their 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford in September?
McNicholas: Although Arsenal lost this game, I think their overall performance was pretty good. They just allowed themselves to get caught on the counter — and that remains one of United’s biggest threats.
I think it’s encouraging that Arsenal went to Tottenham, a strong counter-attacking team, and controlled long periods of the game without allowing them to break. That bit of conservatism — keeping the full-backs tucked in and not going gung-ho — could offer them the necessary protection on Sunday.
DeRoche: It’s true that Arsenal didn’t play too badly at Old Trafford. The one thing that sticks out to me is that in the first half, they didn’t play as themselves. They started to impose themselves a lot more at the start of the second half — that’s where a lot of the encouragement came from.
In the first half, Xhaka granite was actually a lot deeper than he has been this season. As soon as the second half started, he was higher again. The one lesson — which I feel like they’ve already taken on board — is not to compromise themselves for another team. If they play how they have been, with constant movement across the pitch from the likes of Oleksandr Zinchenko, Ben White, Martin Odegaard and Xhaka, it’s going to be hard for United — especially without Casemiro. That’s my main lesson: be yourself for 90 minutes, not 45.
What did you celebrate more on Wednesday night: Michael Olise‘s stoppage-time equalizer for Crystal Palace or Casemiro’s booking?
McNicholas: I certainly celebrated Casemiro’s booking more than Olise celebrated his goal! For the neutral, I’m sure it’s a shame — Casemiro, Thomas Partey other Rodri have been the outstanding defensive midfielders this season’s premier league and it would have been intriguing to see two of them go head to head.
Oh well, poor neutrals — for Arsenal, this is great news. Casemiro has been key to United’s turnaround in form and would have been the man shutting down another of the league’s most in-form players: Martin Odegaard.
DeRoche: I was actually more pleased with the equalizer — not just because it was a great goal, but the big thing for Arsenal is separation from anyone who can get close to them. After United beat City, if they had beaten Palace, they would have brought a lot of momentum into this game. I think it gives Arsenal a little bit of an advantage mentally that United stumbled in midweek, while Arsenal have had a full seven days to prepare.
Let’s bring in our Manchester United writer, Carl Anka: how big a loss is Casemiro and how will United rejig things without him?
Carl Anka: Steve McLaren slumped into his chair in the Crystal Palace dugout when Casemiro was booked for a cynical lung on Wilfred Zaha. Erik ten Hag attempted to strike a confident tone, pointing out that United have beaten Arsenal without the Brazilian before, but that came with the asterisk that Arsenal were also without Thomas Partey.
Casemiro’s absence means United have no out-and-out ‘No 6-style’ defensive midfielder for Sunday. Scott McTominay‘s weaknesses when receiving the pass and passing when pressed means he is best thought of as an attacking box-to-box player and fred‘s technical and physical shortcomings make him more of a ball-winning midfielder.
Ten Hag may attempt a repeat of the Manchester Derby shape, playing McFred as his midfield pivot with Christian Ericsen as the 10 (to compensate for the weaker passing of the men behind him) and Bruno Fernandes on the right.
Arsenal managed to get the Leandro Trossard deal wrapped up in time for him to be registered for the game. Do you think he’ll play any part?
DeRoche: I’d expect maybe 20 minutes off the bench, at most. Obviously, he’s been left out of a couple of matchday squads for Brighton, but there are no big fitness concerns. It will depend on if the game circumstances are right. Three years into the Arteta reign, we’ve all become accustomed to him being very frugal with his substitutions. The big thing is he gives Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and maybe even Eddie Nketiah the chance to have a little rest. We all saw they needed that at the end of the Tottenham game, so hopefully we see him from the bench — along with Emile Smith Rowe.
McNicholas: I agree Arsenal looked a bit leggy in the latter stages of the derby. This signing immediately improves Arsenal’s depth in attack. There are various scenarios in which I can see him coming on — hopefully, it’s because Arsenal are in a comfortable lead and he can enjoy a nice relaxing debut!
Manchester United’s January signing, striker Wout Weghorst, made his debut against Crystal Palace. How did he get on at Selhurst Park and can we expect him to lead the line again against Arsenal?
Anna: “Quite good” was Ten Hag’s assessment of Weghorst, who had a few neat touches and held the ball up well against Crystal Palace, but looked a few shades off Premier League pace.
The Dutchman’s continued selection up front has more to do with Anthony Martial‘s injury status than his own form. Martial has a to be confirmed medical status due to an issue affecting his leg and looked uncomfortable when running against Manchester City last week. Ten Hag ideally wants a forward who can press, hold the ball up for others, run in behind defenses to stretch play and finish chances himself. Weghorst can do all of those things in theory and on the data sheets. But he does not look to be the quickest runner.
(Top photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)