Saturday, May 16, 2015

Match Preview, Manchester United v Arsenal: Minimal Mystery

Arsenal's visit to Old Trafford won't carry the drama that seemed likely when the fixture list was released. Originally the penultimate match of the league campaign, the contest could have decided the two sides' Champions League fates or one of their title aspirations.

Neither remains in the balance. Arsenal have already amassed enough points to secure a top-four league finish, while United would have to give up a plus-14 advantage in goal differential to lose its own Champions League spot. Meanwhile, Chelsea have won the title.

The two teams won't hold any major surprises for each other, either. They met two months ago in the FA Cup quarterfinal, a 2-1 Arsenal victory that signaled further improvement against top competition away from home.

Still, no Arsenal-Manchester United contest is devoid of drama, and this one will be interesting on several levels.

For one thing, the implications for the final league table remain important. Arsenal need a win to maintain any hope of finishing second, which was a realistic--and stated--objective prior to Monday's loss to Swansea. A victory would also guarantee the Gunners third place and a pass on next season's Champions League qualifying round.

A United victory keeps open the possibility of a third-place finish for Louis Van Gaal's team, while a draw would give Van Gaal the points for a fourth-place finish and Arsenal almost all it needs for third. It'd be out of character for both Van Gaal and Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger to play for that result, so their approaches will be interesting in light of their objectives for the season.

Second, this is the final opportunity for Arsenal to consolidate its away performances against top opposition. The victory at Manchester City, the FA Cup win at Old Trafford, and to some degree the loss at Chelsea have shown that Arsenal are no longer naive travelers.

Although Arsenal played energetically in all three matches, the manager and the team did not take a uniform approach. They placed priority on solid defending in their own half against City and Chelsea, while they pressed United's midfielders and defenders assertively.

Lacking Michael Carrick's ball retention and passing efficiency due to his injury, is United vulnerable to a similar pressing approach on Sunday? Or will Wenger see West Bromich Albion's and Chelsea's recent rear-guard victories over United and his side's result at Manchester City as suggesting a more defensive stature? Will Wayne Rooney's exclusion bear on the Arsenal manager's thinking at all?

All those questions lead to a third interesting point. Based on Wenger's priorities for this match and his judgment of how to realize those, which players does he select? The team looked less than energetic against Swansea, particularly in the first half, and there may be a temptation to bring some variety to the lineup. After all, it was the fifth consecutive appearance for the identical starting eleven, an unprecedented run in Wenger's tenure.

Midfielders Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky are the most likely candidates to join the starters. They'd each add verve to the Arsenal attack, though Wenger will weigh their energy going forward with defensive necessities. In particular, Arsenal's right-sided attacker will have to assist right back Hector Bellerin in marshaling United's Ashley Young, a primary agent of Van Gaal's directive to send crosses into the opposition's penalty area.

A healthy Danny Welbeck or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might have expected to join the Arsenal XI because they'd bring speed in attack and defensive tenacity, but neither is ready to return to the scene of his outstanding FA Cup performance.

Even without Welbeck's desire to show his old employers again what they've forsaken, and even without the high stakes these encounters have carried in the past, Arsenal-Manchester United will always have its intrigues. It's each club's most prominent fixture as the season draws to a close, so the result could shape the storylines and tone for several months. Worth the attention.

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