Manchester United return to Premier League action on Sunday afternoon (4.30 pm kick-off) at home against Arsenal, having enjoyed a morale-boosting and assured 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley last Saturday in the F.A. Cup Semi-Final. This will be the last ever visit to Old Trafford by Arsene Wenger as manager of the Gunners.
United once again put their long-suffering fans through the emotional ‘wringer’ last weekend, falling behind to a goal by Dele Alli after only 11 minutes, a goal which was very poor indeed from a defensive viewpoint. Left-back Ashley Young was caught totally out of position by a simple long ball over the top from Davison Sanchez, which freed the dangerous Christian Eriksen to cross for Alli to slot into an empty net.
Indeed, Tottenham were much the better side for the following 10 minutes, and United were fortunate not to be 2-0 down when the otherwise excellent Eriksen screwed a very presentable chance wide, with David de Gea a mere spectator. Thankfully, though, that’s as good as it got for the ‘hosts’. Minutes later Paul Pogba sprung to life, easily stealing possession from Mousa Dembele on the left side before floating a sublime ball into the penalty area for the lurking Alexis Sanchez. The diminutive Chilean leapt salmon-like between two Tottenham centre-backs and hung in the air to meet the cross perfectly with his head and bring the Red Devils back to parity. Thereafter United took firm control on proceedings, and when Man-of-the-Match Ander Herrera met a Sanchez pull-back across the 18-yard line with a firm shot past Michel Vorm to give United a fully deserved 2-1 lead midway through the second half, the game was decided. It was, thereafter, a masterclass in shutting down the opposition and controlling the game with some comfort for the Red Devils.
As I write this (Thursday 26th April, pm) Arsenal will arrive at Old Trafford in reasonably good shape themselves. Their Europa League campaign has survived a few scares already, and they squandered the chance to build a commanding 1st leg lead over tournament favourites Atletico Madrid this evening with a 1-1 draw, despite having a man extra for all but the opening 13 minutes of the game. Wenger now knows his team will probably need to beat Diego Simeone’s side in Madrid next week to clinch a place in next month’s final- that’s a ‘big ask’. As with Jose Mourinho last season, Wenger knows he has to “place all his Champions League eggs in the Europa League basket” now if the Gunners are to feature in Europe’s elite competition next season. A top 4 Premier League finish is well beyond his team.
News of the legendary manager’s imminent departure from a position he has held for over 22 years was announced earlier in the week, and was followed yesterday morning by a revelation from the Frenchman that the ‘decision’ to leave Arsenal was not really his at all.
I expect this to be a game played with less of an ‘edge’ to it than previous encounters between the sides. The Arsenal players will know the historical significance of playing for Wenger for one last time at our ground, and I’m sure they will be keen to avoid a defeat, but Arsenal have a more important game this Thursday evening. I understand that Henrikh Mkhitaryan has picked up an injury and may not feature against his former team-mates.
With that in mind, here is my team selection for this game: (fluid 4-2-3-1)
GK: David de Gea – David wasn’t as busy as many probably imagined he would be last Saturday, the men in front of him providing a secure shield. As ever, the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will find our Spanish stopper to be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
RB: Antonio Valencia – Tony did well against Spurs, helping to keep the likes of Heung-min Son quiet; he will have another busy evening looking after Mesut Ozil.
LB: Ashley Young – Clearly at fault for the Tottenham goal, but Young recovered well to have an otherwise solid, if unspectacular outing. I’d still much rather see Luke Shaw in this shirt, but I’ve given up hope of that ever happening under Jose Mourinho, as I suspect Luke has by now too….
CBs: Chris Smalling & Phil Jones – No-one would have believed you if you’d told them back in 2012 that Smalling and Jones would still be regular starters at centre-half for United over 6 years later, but here we are. In my opinion Phil Jones is a very decent centre-back indeed and I never have any concerns when I see his name on the team sheet. The same cannot be said of Smalling, who sometimes resembles a ‘rabbit in headlights’ to me, but to be fair to the lad his performances over the last 5-6 weeks have largely been excellent, and he deserves to retain his place on merit. Both lads will have their hands full keeping tabs on Aubameyang and Danny Welbeck. Eric Bailly has recovered from a slight knock, so I would have him or Victor Lindelöf on the bench.
DMs: Nemanja Matic & Ander Herrera – These two have finally looked like forming the robust two-man midfield defensive shield we all assumed they would do when Matic first arrived back in August. They were simply majestic against the combative Dembele and Eric Dier last weekend, continually snuffing out any danger posed by the usually very enterprising Tottenham engine-room. I would expect them to have a similar battle for supremacy with the likes of Jack Wilshere and Granit Xhaka on Sunday. Young Scott McTominay is available from the bench if required later in the game.
AMs: Jesse Lingard (RM), Paul Pogba (CM) & Alexis Sanchez (LM) – When they play well together, as they (eventually) did against Mauricio Pochettino’s men last weekend, these three make an irresistible attacking force. It’s just a shame that, for various reasons, they have failed to shine more often in the last few months. You know what you’re going to get from Jesse: he’ll run all day long, making intelligent movements and thereby ‘creating space’ from which others often profit. I’d have Juan Mata on the bench if we needed a change later. Alexis has taken time to adjust to life in Manchester, but the visit of his former colleagues (along with the expected abuse from the visiting fans) will leave him needing little extra motivation for this game! Paul has, predictably, reveled in the new-found freedom that having Matic AND Herrera behind him allows- he is pivotal to our game-plans. I’d bring young Angel Gomes onto the bench, both for the experience and as a potential option for something ‘different’ as the game progresses.
CF: Romelu Lukaku – The big man has scored goals ‘for fun’ for most of this, his debut season, in a United shirt and surely his many “doubters” have now been silenced for good? Yet again he put in a mountain of work to keep the Spurs defenders occupied on Saturday, proving his worth for more than simply scoring goals… Arsenal certainly won’t enjoy the “Rom Experience”! Marcus Rashford, on the bench, could come on and add another body up there if desired.
BENCH: Joel Pereira, Bailly, Martial, McTominay, Mata, Gomes, Rashford.
With the F.A. Cup now ‘put to bed’ until we meet Chelsea in next month’s Final, it is time for Manchester United to ensure we finish with as many Premier League points as possible and in so doing securing runners-up spot. Whilst that in itself won’t be of much solace as Vincent Kompany lifts the league trophy for City, it will hopefully instill an enduring winning mentality within this group of players, as thoughts inevitably turn towards the World Cup in the summer and the season beyond that.
We need to push on as hard as we can, beginning with a win at home to an old enemy. Arsenal may not be the team they were (quite) a few years ago but they still pose plenty of danger and have match-winners in abundance throughout their side, as proved again by the number of chances they created against a top side like Atletico Madrid. That said, their defence is not particularly reliable, and we need to make our possession of the football count as much as possible by creating and finishing chances. There is also a strong possibility that Wenger will name an “under-strength” side with Atletico Madrid in mind.
As a long-time admirer of Arsene Wenger and all he has achieved during his many years in North London, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to voice my appreciation for the man and the numerous top quality Arsenal sides that he has fielded during his long tenure with the Gunners, albeit most of those sides were in existence during the first 10-12 years of his career at Highbury.
Quite simply, were it not for Arsene’s steely determination to overthrow our domestic domination, Manchester United would probably have won at least two more Premier League titles than we actually did win under Sir Alex Ferguson in the late 1990s and early part of this century. Wenger brought some fresh ideas into English football in the late 1990s and helped to enhance the careers of some all-time great players like Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp; his legacy at Arsenal is second to none. He has been a special manager and a great football man for all that length of time and he will be missed. Bienvenue, Monsieur Wenger, and AFTER Sunday, bon chance!