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Thursday 8:15pm – Man United v Arsenal
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Arsenal were pointless, bottom of the league, and seven points behind Manchester United three games into the Premier League season, so to now be five points clear of the Red Devils just 10 games later is a remarkable achievement.
It also speaks volumes about how bad United have been in the intervening 10 games. They have lost 50% of Premier League matches since Cristiano Ronaldo re-signed for the club, winning just three against an abject Newcastle, an awful Spurs, and a West Ham side that missed a last-minute penalty to level it.
It is staggering that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was allowed to stay on at the helm until just 10 days ago, but United already appear to have steadied the ship. Michael Carrick has gone for a safety-first approach against both Villarreal and Chelsea and it has proved modestly successful, securing United top spot in Group F of the Champions League and an unlikely draw at Stamford Bridge.
It is unlikely to be much different against Arsenal on Thursday, with Ralf Rangnick’s visa issues preventing him from taking charge of training in the meantime. Arsenal, on the other hand, have picked up 23 points from their last 30, but have still looked unconvincing in a number of games. They have generally struggled to score goals against defensive teams and could struggle against a pragmatic United outfit.
United’s newfound defensive pragmatism has resulted in two forgettable games since Solskjaer’s departure. They managed just three shots at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, with two of those efforts coming as a result of Chelsea errors – while they only found their groove in Spain last week after Carrick emptied his bench.
Both games have unsurprisingly seen fewer than three goals. The Gunners, meanwhile, do not score a lot of goals. Mikel Arteta’s side have drawn a blank on five occasions in their opening 13 games and have failed to score against any of the top four.
They have only managed to score more than two goals on a couple of occasions and have won 1-0 or 2-0 five times in the league this term. Arsenal have conceded 11 goals against Liverpool, Manchester City, and Chelsea, suggesting a defensive vulnerability against the best teams. However, Manchester United are not a good outfit at present and will display none of the attacking verve that their superior rivals displayed against the Gunners.
Ronaldo’s return has very much been a case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with his goals in the Champions League helping United to top spot in Group F and his lacklustre performances in the league contributing to a shocking run of form since his arrival. Ronaldo has been anonymous in each of United’s five league defeats and has not scored a league goal at Old Trafford since his debut against Newcastle in September.
He has been left on the bench twice since signing for United and on both occasions has come off it with United a goal to the good, but they have gone on to draw both games. His omission from the starting XI should give him the motivation to prove himself against Arsenal on Thursday and he can hurt an opposition defence that still looks fragile at times.
Michael Carrick is likely to flood the midfield again against Arsenal on Thursday and will trust the untrustworthy partnership of Scott McTominay and Fred to act as enforcers and break up Arsenal attacks.
The midfield pair have symbolised United’s regression in recent months and are extremely limited with the ball at their feet, but they can be effective defensively in a certain system. Those defensive duties bring with them a certain risk of committing fouls, especially for Fred, who often runs around the pitch like a headless chicken trying to win the ball back.
He has committed 13 fouls in 10 league appearances this season, picking up four yellow cards. A fifth yellow card against a rapid Gunners attack would not be surprising and would result in a one-game suspension for the Brazilian – with a large section of United fans hoping that it comes to pass.
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