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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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