Manchester United had considerable worries in terms of their defence ahead of Wednesday’s Premier League home clash with Arsenal, with it possible they could have seven back-line options unavailable.
United boss Jose Mourinho said on Tuesday that Phil Jones, Chris Smalling (foot), Eric Bailly and Antonio Valencia were not looking ready to play.
Ashley Young (suspension) and Victor Lindelof (muscular injury) are definitely ruled out, and while Matteo Darmian is fit to return, Luke Shaw is a doubt after coming off with a knock in Saturday’s 2-2 draw at Southampton.
Smalling, Bailly, Valencia and Darmian were all missing from the matchday squad at St Mary’s, where Mourinho opted to put midfielders Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay in defence alongside Jones, who played the full duration. Marcos Rojo was back on the bench after injury but left as an unused substitute.
Mourinho said on Tuesday morning: “Look, against Southampton, three hours before the game, I don’t know the team that is going to play.
“Nobody knew it – the team, and ourselves, we didn’t know yet.
“We were waiting and waiting and waiting to see who could, who couldn’t, and I think we are going to be in a very similar situation this time.
“If you ask me, if the game is now, at 11 o’clock, I would say Smalling is not playing, Bailly is not playing, Jones is not playing.
“Of course Lindelof is out of the question. But we have to wait.”
He added: “Valencia is not playing, Shaw is a doubt, Darmian is back. But I have to wait.
“I have to select probably everybody again and I have to take everybody and maybe tomorrow we have to decide like in the last match with a couple of hours before the game.”
Two others taken off in the Southampton match were forwards Romelu Lukaku (knock) and Marcus Rashford, and there is a question mark over the former.
Rashford was backed after the game by Mourinho to be fit for this contest, while Alexis Sanchez (hamstring) remains sidelined.
The Gunners are firing on all cylinders at the moment, riding a 19-game unbeaten run and coming off the back of a stunning 4-2 win in Sunday’s North London derby against Tottenham.
But while Arsenal’s players are riding high on confidence, United’s are struggling, which will make life difficult for the home side in this encounter.
Here’s a look at the key player battles ahead of Wednesday’s game.
Romelu Lukaku vs Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
Romelu Lukaku finally ended his goal drought on Saturday. By the end of the game, however, the defining memory of the striker was how he nearly injured himself with a poor first touch. Coming as it did after strong words from the Belgian about how the criticism of his first touch was unfair, and how he was constantly trying to improve in that regard, the moment went down in instant Twitter infamy.
He’s scored only three goals in 14 appearances against Arsenal, though he did have a good performance against them in United’s 3-1 away win last season, despite not scoring.
Not scoring is not a problem Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has to deal with at the moment. He leads the league’s scoring charts as the only player in double figures at the moment, and given United’s defensive frailties, he’ll be relishing the chance to add to his tally.
The Gabon striker’s finishing is deadly, but what’s just as lethal is his movement. His ability to drag defenders out of position, and peel off to find the inches of space he needs to strike, make him a fearsome proposition for any defender. United’s back line will need a big improvement to contain Arsenal’s danger man.
Ander Herrera vs Lucas Torreira
It’s not quite certain who will start in midfield for United at the moment. Fred is out of favour and Paul Pogba may be heading the same way, after the reported dressing-down he received from Mourinho on Saturday. But Ander Herrera should get the start, having scored a wonderful equaliser against Southampton.
His positional play will help United break up Arsenal’s attacks, and he’ll be a help to his defence in dealing with the visitors’ pressing game as well. Plus, he embodies the “mad dog” spirit Mourinho is looking for from his players, probably more than anyone else United have.
And speaking of players with “mad dog” spirit, Lucas Torreira is Arsenal’s very own example. The Uruguayan is coming off of a man-of-the-match display in Sunday’s derby, in which he nullified Tottenham’s attacking play – proving a nuisance for Dele Alli in particular – and capped off a superlative performance with the clinching goal, his first in England.
Torreira is looking like the answer to Arsenal’s long-unsolved search for a defensive midfielder. He’s very much in the Herrera mould, which would make for a fascinating duel, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the youngster comes out on top.
💪🏾 Lucas Torreira 💪🏾— ARSENAL (@tomgunner14) December 4, 2018
His impact on the side has been extraordinary.
In the 965 minutes he has played, Arsenal have scored 28 and conceded 11. In the 295 he has not, they have scored four and conceded nine.
Arsenal are yet to lose a game Torreira has started. 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/6JOrmpOXmH
David De Gea vs Bernd Leno
David De Gea’s performance against Arsenal away last season is one of the best displays by a goalkeeper, ever. The United stopper set a new record for saves in a Premier League match with 14, and it’s quite possible that he’ll have to do something similar to keep the Gunners at bay on Wednesday.
He hasn’t quite hit the same form this season, though he’s still produced some astonishing saves. United’s defensive shakiness hasn’t helped, as De Gea is left exposed too often. But he’ll be desperate to make a mark in a game this big. Don’t bet against it happening.
Bernd Leno was a relieved man on Sunday. His shocking error for Tottenham’s first goal allowed them to mount a comeback, and it was only thanks to second-half improvement from the rest of the team that the German wasn’t the centre of attention at full-time.
Though a highly regarded keeper, Leno is prone to the occasional howler, and a gifted goal would be a huge boost to United’s confidence given how toothless their attack can be. With Lukaku back among the goals and Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial in good nick, any slip-ups from Leno would make a United return to form far more likely.
Manchester United’s players and manager face the firing line again on Wednesday as the Gunners come to Old Trafford in confident mood.
Arsenal’s barnstorming win in the north London derby against Tottenham on Sunday kept their superb unbeaten run going, and was also a first major victory for new coach Unai Emery. A day earlier, United were getting that sinking feeling against Saints as they could only manage a 2-2 come-from-behind draw at struggling Southampton.
Here, we look at three talking points ahead of the game:
EXPECT ANOTHER JEKYLL AND HYDE UNITED PERFORMANCE
They’re in the midst of their worst start to a season in 28 years and there has been an increasingly poisonous atmosphere hanging over Old Trafford – so it’s easy to forget United have, at times this term, been pretty impressive.
A gritty 2-1 taming of Juventus in Turin, a swashbuckling swathe of attacking football that rescued a 3-2 win against Newcastle after going 2-0 behind and a 2-2 draw at Chelsea that really should have yielded three points.
Of course, these have tended to go hand-in-hand with results that reduce United fans to the face palm emoji – defeat to Derby in the League Cup, being picked apart like a cast-off chip packet by a Seagull on the pier at Brighton and the gutless 3-1 hammering at West Ham.
There was both much to admire and despise in the 2-2 draw at Southampton on Saturday. A stirring fightback from 2-0 down was tempered by the fact they had pulled it back to 2-2 by half-time, yet could not and never looked like finding a winner in the second half.
They were also playing a home side without a genuine victory in three months (October’s League Cup triumph against Everton was on penalties after the game ended 1-1).
What type of performance are fans in store for on Wednesday? They probably shudder to think about which version of their side is going to show up.
EMERY ON A ROLL WITH FIRST BIG WIN
His side are on a scintillating 19-game unbeaten run so it’s hard to find fault with either Emery or his Arsenal side – but up until the weekend their impressive start to life under the Spaniard had failed to yield a win over a big team.
The superb run has been collated since back-to-back defeats to open the Premier League season against champions Manchester City and then at Chelsea. A 1-1 draw was earned at Anfield – where the visitors dominated for spells – but a major scalp has eluded them.
And scalps don’t come more coveted than a victory over despised rivals, especially having trailed 2-1, with victory seeing the Gunners go above Spurs at the weekend.
So the already rolling Emery bandwagon now has its first major win, with United next in the firing line. It’s almost a little flattering to give United big team billing these days, such is the malaise setting in under Jose Mourinho.
But they do remain dangerous on their day, with a star-studded line-up to boast of, at least on paper.
And whether they’re in poor form or not, victory at Old Trafford would provide another fillip to Arsenal’s top-four, or even title, ambitions, while fans would take delight in Mourinho potentially being edged close towards the Old Trafford exit door.
TOP FOUR FAR AWAY?
Sir Alex Ferguson oversaw plenty of abject starts to Premier League seasons during his time as United manager. He inevitably knew the silverware was handed out at the end of the season, not the start, with the stoic Scot banking on his side inevitably coming good when the business end of the season began in the New Year.
With that in mind, an eight-point gap to the top four doesn’t immediately seem hazardous to United. What is, however, is the fact this is not a United side cast in the mould of Ferguson’s hands.
United have not been that gritty and glorious version of themselves for quite a number of years. This version is brittle and boring, and an eight-point gap – which could become 11 should Arsenal win on Wednesday – already seems insurmountable.
Mourinho was bizarrely forced to address comments made to Brazilian TV following the Southampton draw that he believed his side would need a “miracle” to earn a spot in the top four come the end of the season in his pre-match press conference.
“I don’t know if I said (that) or if I didn’t. But if I used that word (miracle), it is not what I feel at all,” the beleaguered Red Devils boss said on Tuesday.
Whether he was backtracking or not, the form of the six sides above his should worry the manager.