Sunday is a must-win game.
After a routine Europa League victory against Dundalk, Arsenal will face a much sterner test on Sunday as they take on Manchester United at Old Trafford.
The Gunners’ league season is threatening to derail after back-to-back 1-0 defeats in recent weeks to Manchester City and Leicester City respectively. Meanwhile, United tails will be up after another impressive European win, this time against RB Leipzig in midweek.
Here is my predicted lineup for Sunday’s mouth-watering fixture.
Goalkeeper & Defenders
Despite not being tested all that much, Alex Runarsson impressed on his Arsenal debut with his confident claims from corners and his eagerness to instigate attacks from deep. Nevertheless, Bernd Leno will return between the sticks this weekend and remind us once again why he is number one.
Mikel Arteta opted for an unusual defensive set-up on Thursday night, with Shkodran Mustafi and Sead Kolasinac teaming up on paper and Granit Xhaka effectively playing as a centre-back during the game.
While a similar lineup on Sunday would trigger panic attacks across north London, our many injury issues at the back may pave the way for William Saliba to make his debut. I’ve been calling for the Frenchman to feature for a few weeks now and he seems to be training regularly with the first-team having played exclusively for the under-23 side since his arrival.
In the absence of the injured David Luiz, Saliba’s ball-playing ability could be crucial to our build-up play. However, it would be a huge ask for him to make his competitive debut in a fixture of this magnitude, so the German is likely to get the nod. Alongside him, I expect Gabriel Magalhaes to continue his good form.
Goalkeeper & Defenders: Leno; Bellerin, Mustafi, Gabriel, Tierney
Will Arteta change anything in the middle after last week? While the latest triumvirate of Dani Ceballos, Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka seemingly incorporates the boss’s three favourite players, each of them are predominantly deep-lying midfielders. As a result, we were painfully lacking a creative presence in advanced areas last week and were regularly forced out wide or backwards.
I hope we learn from this and select Bukayo Saka ahead of the Swiss in Manchester. Although Xhaka’s omission does not appear forthcoming, I don’t know what he does that Partey doesn’t, and the Ghanaian has far more athleticism and better defensive instincts.
With Mesut Ozil’s Arsenal career fizzling out, Saka’s direct style and ability to operate in tight spaces makes him our best candidate to find pockets and link the midfield and attack, areas that have been far too isolated in recent outings.
Midfielders: Ceballos, Partey, Saka
This is where things get particularly interesting! Many fans have been calling for Reiss Nelson to be afforded more first-team opportunities lately and the Hale End graduate gave Arteta plenty to think about with an excellent display against Dundalk.
However, as Nelson played the entire 90 minutes in the Europa League, I expect Willian to get the nod on Sunday. We’ve all had a moan about the Brazilian’s poor performances since the opening weekend but he was very impressive following his introduction against The Lilywhites (admittedly weaker opposition) and has the energy and experience to really trouble the United backline.
On the opposite flank, Nicolas Pepe will be hoping to receive just his second start of the league campaign. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more frustrating player than the Ivorian, which is compounded by the fact that we all know he has the ability. He notched a fantastic goal on Thursday night to add to his assist from matchday one, and so should be chomping at the bit to establish himself in the league side.
In a press conference earlier this week, Arteta stated that it is “very possible” Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang could be deployed down the middle of the attacking three, saying it would be “depend on the games”. The Gabonese is an incredibly tricky customer with his blistering pace and incredible off-the-ball movement and I could only imagine that he would be Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof’s worst nightmare.
Having him out wide makes us too predictable as we constantly progress our play down his side to bring him into the game. If Saka can carry the ball into advanced positions, the captain could cause huge problems.
Forwards: Pepe, Aubameyang, Willian
We were already outsiders for a top four finish this season and, after three wins and three defeats, we cannot afford to fall much further behind. The passivity in our play worries me heading into this one, but records are there to be broken and a league win at Old Trafford is long overdue.
Arsenal Predicted Lineup: Leno; Bellerin, Mustafi, Gabriel, Tierney; Ceballos, Partey, Saka; Pepe, Aubameyang, Willian