Manchester United vs Arsenal: Time to make a statement
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
It has been a rather topsy-turvy season for Arsenal, hasn't it? The Gunners began their season on the ultimate losing slide, with three back-to-back demolitions throwing the club into a morass of turmoil and argument. Cooler heads prevailed, though, and the Gunners set the longest unbeaten streak in the league this season immediately following their tumble to the bottom of the table, which they then lost to Liverpool in another absolute trouncing. A second resurgence of some beautiful football against a rather dire Newcastle side. But, the question remains. Where do we go from here?
Our first challenge of the feared Christmas period is a midweek match in Manchester, where the once-towering titans of Old Trafford look to rebound from their season-long rut. Though interim manager and future Director of Football Ralf Rangnick will not be running proceedings from the touchline, the Red Devils will still be hoping for some sort of new manager bounce—with one win under their belt since mid-September, they need to turn things around. And given that win came against a small club from North London that has recently been rebranded as NS Mura's B*tch, it's not much to write home about.
And though in past seasons, Arsenal would have been a perfect team to reignite fortunes against, due to their spineless midfield and error-prone backline, not to mention the terrible tendency to capitulate when the going got tough. However any team looking to use the Gunners as a springboard in this day and age may find themselves faced with some steely-eyed resolve.
Young, hungry, and full of drive, this Arsenal squad has just begun to dip their toes in the proverbial Premier League pond, but it won't be too long before we start making real waves. In order to do so, though, we must challenge ourselves. In a sponsored livestream on Black Friday, Aaron Ramsdale, who has begun to epitomize the spirit of this team, spoke on the challenge of facing Manchester United at the Theatre of Dreams, and on his own goals concerning one Cristiano Ronaldo.
As weird as it sounds... I really hope he [Ronaldo] is on it. Because that gives me a chance to really test myself."
"As much as you sometimes want to go to places like that for a quiet game, there’s no better feeling than if you got on top of someone and you can say, I had a full-on battle with Ronaldo."
"That might mean I concede three, but why do you want things easy. If it was easy we would’ve won the league."
It's the type of thing you'd expect from a press conference. Either Ramsdale is a perfectly-drilled media-machine, or (and I think this is more likely) this Arsenal team are champing at the bit to make a statement against Manchester United. Despite their abysmal run of form lately, leaving Old Trafford with a result is always an achievement. Like Anfield, it's a perfect place to test the mettle of the squad. Unlike Anfield, there's serious hope for a result. Assuming we don't actually concede three goals.
They may not be the titans of the Sir Alex Ferguson era, this Manchester United squad could prove a tough nut to crack, especially given they're a bit of a wounded bear, liable to lash out in retaliation. Arsenal must be careful at Old Trafford, especially in their game-management, which has been among their weaker skills this season. Winning there would put out squad in perspective, not to mention aiding in our fight for top four.
Much of the potential within a statement win has to do with the qualities of this Manchester United squad. Even with the continued absences of Edinson Cavani, Luke Shaw, Rafael Varane, and Paul Pogba, they have some serious talent, outside of Ronaldo and "Bruno Fernanj." Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial must be regarded as a threat, and Jadon Sancho looks to be finding his feet after a long adjustment period. Mason Greenwood will look to return to the side after a bout of COVID-19, and any defense featuring a combination of Victor Lindelöf, Eric Bailly, and the recently-returned Harry Maguire has the potential to cause problems.
Against Chelsea in particular, United parked the bus and hit the Blues on the counter-attack, an approach to which Arsenal are still susceptible. With Bukayo Saka still awaiting a scan to determine his readiness to play on Thursday, Arsenal could struggle to break down low blocks. Though Arteta has communicated that Saka is mentally ready and willing to start the fixture—who would've guessed it—but in this congested Christmas timeline, ensuring our Starboy's health is of paramount importance. We may have to make do without.
Above all, we must take the game to United. The lackadaisical passing we saw in the first half against Newcastle is unacceptable. If we maintain the high press and force turnovers in the opposition half as we know is possible, this could swing in our favor, as United's midfield is the weakest portion of their team. However, overconfidence is a curse as well. Above all, we must avoid mistakes in key areas.
All eyes to Old Trafford at 8:15 tomorrow night (3:15 for all of my East-Coast brethren). It's going to be an absolute corker. A win here for Arsenal will place them a comfortable fourth, and only 6 points off of City in second, assuming the Citizens and Reds of Liverpool both triumph this evening. If Brighton fail to trump West Ham at home, David Moyes' side will pip us to that spot, but they also have some tough fixtures on the horizon. It feels odd to say, but there is hope.