Go back 15 years in time and a clash between Arsenal and Manchester United as Christmas time neared would often mean a potential title-decider with the two sides already well clear of the chasing bunch. This year it is not quite the same story. More than anything the two sides will clash at the Emirates attempting to kick-start their seasons and convince not only the media but also themselves that a top four finish is a viable option.
Just a point separates the two sides heading in to Saturday’s clash but what is most telling is the fact that Chelsea have already built what is looking like an unassailable lead over the pair. Whilst title aspirations have seemed to dwindle away for the two sides that were tipped to make a go at a challenge before the season started, a failure to win on Saturday would surely mark the end and leave the remaining six months of the season looking very bleak, something that makes the matchup even more exciting. For the neutral anyway, fans of the two sides may disagree…
What is perhaps most interesting is how the key weakness of both sides is their defence, or maybe more aptly the lack of it. Manchester United have alternated between three at the back and four at the back with equally miserable results, playing defenders that last season could only have dreamed of being granted a first team berth. They boast an immense amount of attacking quality with the likes of Falcao, van Persie, Rooney and of course Di María but until they can shore up their defensive weaknesses, it is tough seeing them make any sort of progress this season. On the other hand, Arsenal have suffered their annual injury crisis earlier than usual with Mathieu Debuchy and Laurent Koscielny both having missed long periods of the season, leaving Nacho Monreal to deputise in the unfamiliar centre back position. The results of the defensive juggling have been equally poor for both sides, and this sets up an enticing and potentially frightening prospect for this weekend’s game. In the past, matches between these sides have been decided by moments of individual attacking brilliance whether it be from Thierry Henry or Ryan Giggs, but it is tough to argue that the telling contribution this weekend won’t be from some form of defensive error. Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville will be having a field day.
A common theme from the campaigns of the two seasons so far has been a few shining lights hidden behind what has mostly been a cloud of darkness and that is none truer for Arsenal than in the case of Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean has been the one exceptional performer for the Gunners this season, chipping in with 8 league goals and 2 assists in his 10 starts, and Arsenal’s success on the day could depend on if Alexis can outshine another player who was part of a big money transfer in the summer, Ángel Di María. Whilst the Argentinian has not excelled to the same level as Arsenal’s forward, he has adapted well to life in the Premier League and with the current well-publicised defensive frailties belonging to Arsenal, his influence could be important. Di Maria is expected to start on Saturday despite a knock picked up over the international break. Both him and Sanchez will be vital for their respective sides in putting pressure on out of sorts defences, and if the game turns into a shootout which it well could do, expect these two men to be a part of that.
One thing that is never missing from these encounters is interesting side-plots and we have one of the most fascinating ones for a while as we approach Saturday’s game. Not only is the ex-Arsenal captain returning to the Emirates, a site where he will most likely not receive the warmest of welcomes, but Danny Welbeck will square up against his boyhood side for the first time since his deadline day move to North London this summer. Danny’s admiration and love for the Manchester has been well documented and many United fans were disappointed to see him leave in the summer, with part of the club’s identity in raising players through their academy effectively being replaced through big money signings. Despite his Manchester allegiances, Welbeck has settled in well in the red and white of Arsenal, already securing his first club hattrick, and he will be expected to contribute if Arsenal are to secure all three points against his old side. He may not be as fashionable a name as the forwards boasted by Manchester United, but his hard work and desire have already endeared him to the Arsenal faithful, and fresh off a successful international break with England, he could be fired up for the clash.
It’s worth noting that even when Manchester United suffered their worst season since time began last year, Arsenal could still only muster a point from their two encounters. A loss away at Old Trafford and a feebly fought draw at home was all the Gunners could take from a disoriented United side and you have to wonder if that will be playing on the minds of the Arsenal players considering United are, at least partly, improved this season. To find the last time the Gunners were able to secure maximum points against the Red Devils, you have to go back to 2011 when Aaron Ramsey scored the only goal in what was more or less a dead rubber game for the Gunners. Arsenal fans will be hoping the Welshman, who has struggled to replicate his terrific form of last season, can do something similar this Saturday.
A word to sum up the seasons of both these teams up until now would be disjointed. Perhaps a few years ago it would have been a dream for Arsenal fans to be told their season was very similar to that of United’s. Although that is the case this year, it is for all the wrong reasons. Both sides have struggled to find any real form with a few sporadic good results being nestled between surprise losses and disappointing draws. This again highlights the importance of this upcoming game, with a victory potentially serving as a springboard in the right direction for whoever can come away victorious.