It barely seemed possible, but Manchester United’s injury problems got worse over the international break.
Let’s start with those we know are out: Marcos Rojo has a dislocated shoulder and won’t return for at least another two to three weeks, Ashley Young has a groin problem and Jesse Lingaard has a knee problem.
To them was added Daley Blind, who damaged knee ligaments playing for the Netherlands against Latvia on Sunday and will be unavailable for several weeks. David De Gea, it seems, could play despite dislocating a finger, while Angel Di Maria, Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick, Rafael, Phil Jones, Radamel Falcao and Jonny Evans are all doubts.
Arsenal, meanwhile, are with Mathieu Debuchy, Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil and David Ospina, while Danny Welbeck strained a hamstring in England duty and is a doubt.
It was away at United last season that Arsenal’s unbeaten run from the start of the season came to an end, Robin van Persie heading the only goal.
It was an ugly game more reminiscent of the clashes of a decade or so ago than more open recent encounters, and arguably David Moyes’s one real triumph.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it was a game in which United could play like Everton, allowing Arsenal possession (60% as it turned out) and frustrate them.
It was a similar story at the Emirates when Arsenal had 58% possession and 17 chances to United’s six, but could only draw 0-0.
It’s not in Louis van Gaal’s nature, though, to sit men behind the ball and look to grind out a result, and it’s certainly not the best way to play given the imbalance in his squad.
Van Gaal’s philosophy, as he keeps on telling us, may remain the same but the formation keeps on changing.
There was a 3-4-1-2 at the start of the season, followed by a back four with a midfield diamond and then, more recently a lop-sided 4-3-3. It may be that when Falcao is fully fit, the front two with a diamond behind them will return, and certainly it’s easy to see why that would appeal against Arsenal.
So obvious is Arsenal’s weakness at the back of midfield that Wojciech Szczesny admitted this week that when playing Fifa, he sold himself to buy Arsenal somebody to play in front of the back four.
Mikel Arteta, reliable passer though he is, simply doesn’t have the dynamism to play as a ball-winner, so it would be understandable if Van Gaal did what he could to get Wayne Rooney playing in that zone, trying to exploit Arsenal’s defensive shortcomings at the back of midfield.
The midfield isn’t Arsenal’s only defensive problem: there’s also the back four itself.
Without Koscielny, Arsenal have been left desperately short in central areas. Nacho Monreal has played at centre-back in the last four league games, but the way he was bullied by Anderlecht’s Aleksandar Mitrovic in the Champions League and then by Swansea’s Wilfried Bony laid bare his shortcomings in the role.
That leaves Arsene Wenger with a major decision: does he stick with Monreal, or does he move the seemingly more robust Calum Chambers from right-back into the centre, which would probably mean using the inexperienced but quick Hector Bellerin at full-back?
Rickety as Arsenal’s defence is, United’s is arguably worse. If Rafael is out, Antonio Valencia will probably have to play right-back again, with Paddy McNair a possibility to start alongside Chris Smalling at centre-back unless both Jones and Evans are fit.
If Shaw is out, then Tyler Blackett could end up being recalled at left-back. The one thing in United’s favour is that they do have three players available who can play in relatively defensive midfield roles in Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and Darren Fletcher.
The deployment of Fellaini will say much about how Van Gaal views the Belgian: he’s been involved recently to add muscle – something about which Van Gaal has been open.
It could be that he has a specific role in trying to shut off Alexis Sanchez, or it may be that Van Gaal decides he doesn’t really need muscle against Arsenal.
Arsenal remain unbeaten at home this season and are facing a United side with enormous issues of availability, but 2.10 on them to win still looks short.
It’s easy to imagine Rooney - in fine form after three goals in two games for England – rampaging through the back of the Arsenal midfield.
That may be enough to back United to win at 3.35 or, more cautiously, at 2.00 at +0.25 on the Asian line.
The goals market’s intriguing as well: both teams have defensive issues, but Van Gaal in particular has taken strides recently in trying to resolve them.
Given the defences are depleted, this is more likely to lead to caution. Therefore, over 2.5 goals at 1.68 looks a lot less tempting than under 2.5 at 2.15
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