The Importance of the Midfield Against Manchester United
By Mac Johnson
I’m honestly more frightened of United at the Emirates than at Old Trafford. United have not lost an away game in the league in a year, and will look to defend that streak tomorrow against a resurgent Gunners side spearheaded by youthful vibrance. Our 1-0 victory earlier this season, courtesy of a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang penalty, was a masterclass by Mikel Arteta, but this match will be even more telling. That match was our last win before a seven-game losing slide. A win in London will be necessary to continue our momentum. With Frank Lampard sacked, the race for “club-legend-come-manager” is down to its final two horses: Arteta and Ole Gunnar Solskjær. And if Arsenal can do the double over a title-challenging United this season, his place at the top of the leaderboard will gain serious traction. But, in order to complete that double, Mikel Arteta will have to fall back on the same crutch he used to elevate himself above the Red Devils in their last meeting. He must win the battle of the midfields. And it’s no easy task. United’s midfield has rediscovered its groove of late, with Bruno Fernandes not slowing down, Paul Pogba in the form of his life, and a bit-part rotation of Scott McTominay, Fred, Nemanja Matic and Donny Van De Beek plastering over the gaps. Their centre-backs have also taken to pressing higher, making challenges closer to the base of the midfield, and allowing United to sustain continuous pressure high up the pitch. And who can forget about their attack. The pace of Marcus Rashford MBE, Anthony Martial, and often Mason Greenwood, not to mention the predatory finishing of Edinson Cavani, is enough to put any back line off their stride. And because of that speed, there’s a chance our defenders will sit those five yards deeper, putting a still greater onus on the midfield. Now that Thomas Partey has been all but confirmed to be fit for this particular clash, he is a must-start, no questions asked. He brings everything we need to face this challenge: speed, size, tenacity, skill in possession, and defensive nous. But it’s the question of his partner that remains. Granit Xhaka will provide more stability going forward, and will be especially apt at pressing Pogba high, but with his lack of athleticism, the Frenchman has the tools to make him look a right fool if Xhaka loses his cool, as he is apt to do, especially in losing situations. His skill in possession, and ability to pass through the notoriously immobile centre-back duo of Manchester United could be helpful indeed. The other option, in my mind, is Partey’s partner from November, Mohamed Elneny. The Egyptian is notoriously limited in possession, but his presence in the team can release Partey to play higher, which is never a bad idea. His defensive acumen could be useful against the mercurial Bruno Fernandes especially, who tends to struggle if man-marked under constant pressure. Just make sure to mark him at the edge of the box on corners too. We don’t want him becoming the next Stuart Armstrong. Ahead of them, Emile Smith-Rowe and Bukayo Saka must start. Their free-flowing interplay is our best opportunity to break the United pressing scheme, and to destroy any low-lying block they may try to implement. But the left-wing is the one position I question. I would be happy for Nicolas Pepe to start, but can he deal with the tireless and physical threat of Aaron Wan-Bissaka? Martinelli is bright, but if Tierney is absent, and Cedric starts in his stead—an already frightening prospect against this United attack—nothing will serve us worse than their one-dimensional attacking outlook, with both trying to cut inside. I don’t have all the answers, but one thing is certain: Arsenal will win or lose this match in the midfield. Our midfield has been our strongest asset of late, but it cannot shy away from this astronomical challenge. And just to slip in a bit of my personal agenda, Martin Ødegaard cannot start. Hard stop. A substitute appearance, especially for Emile Smith-Rowe, who took a knock against Southampton, would be welcome, especially so we don’t have to see more of Willian. That really would be a losing strategy.