Injury-hit Manchester United are in desperate need of a morale-booster against a typically mercurial Arsenal at Old Trafford on Monday night.
With the second international break looming, defeat would leave United mired in the bottom half of the Premier League table through seven games – while the Gunners could catapult themselves into the top four.
Here are our key talking points …
United underwent a gruelling fitness regime in the summer, a fact their PR team was only too eager to communicate to the press. Club sources told various outlets that there was a ‘greater emphasis on running during training games and tactical drills’, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer sought to avoid the end-of-season malaise that his off-the-ball demands had apparently caused.
Well, that methodology may have improved his players’ cardio, but what’s the point if they’re just sucking up oxygen in the physio room? A ridiculous eight players – including the doubtful Paul Pogba – are set to miss the game at Old Trafford on Monday night. That’s one footballer for each game played so far this season.
Bad luck or not, poor planning or not, it’s widely accepted that fast, explosive players such as Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are at greater risk of muscular injuries. Even if the thought of keeping Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez around was simply untenable, squad depth outside of a 17-year-old Mason Greenwood was a clear need.
Hindsight lords over foresight at Old Trafford nowadays.
Roy Keane. Tony Adams. Patrick Vieira. Gary Neville. Now, Granit Xhaka is tasked with applying needle to what was once the greatest rivalry in English football.
Having been named Arsenal captain in an open vote, the Swiss – love him or loathe him – possesses the respect of his team-mates, which, even in the absence of vast football ability, is the one attribute no skipper can live without.
There is an argument that Xhaka should not be anywhere near Unai Emery’s first XI ,with Lucas Torreira the better choice in a modern game based on pace and quick transitions.
Conversely, if Xhaka’s passing radar is off, there’s not much else he has to offer, a sometimes ponderous performer who couldn’t tackle a kids’ crossword.
But his colleagues don’t view his deficiencies as a deal-breaker for the armband. If he can inspire, rally, offer support whether on or off the pitch, those are the only boxes he needs to tick. Naming a skipper based on how good they are with a ball at their feet – see Lionel Messi – is a pointless gesture.
Xhaka, and indeed Manchester United’s Ashley Young, may well be terrific captains behind the scenes. That guaranteed first-teamers are not the leaders of both clubs speaks for the character of their team-mates instead.
Expect the unexpected
Not everyone subscribes to analytics and new-age data is frankly useless if not applied in an intelligent way. Yet, in the world of expected goals and points, both Manchester United and Arsenal jump off the page in this season’s early going.
Given the quality of chances, United should have scored two more goals, conceded three fewer and garnered at least five more points in the Premier League this season. In the re-imagined table, this would place them third.
Applying the same logic, Arsenal should really have scored two fewer goals, conceded one more, and be nearly four points worse off. That would place them an unthinkable 16th.
What can we glean from this? United have indeed been the victim of some unfortunate goals – Ruben Neves’ breathtaking strike ensured a point for Wolves, while David De Gea really should have saved Patrick van Aanholt’s winner for Crystal Palace. On the other end of the spectrum, that they’ve left goals on the pitch points to a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal.
There’s no such lack at Arsenal. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is up to six in the Premier League this season, and every strike has directly led to points. Consolations don’t exist in his world.
What these stats show is that Arsenal would be in dire straits without their superstar marksman. Unfortunately for United, he’ll be fit and probably firing on Monday night.