Injuries have plagued Manchester United this season and they continue to do so. Angel Di Maria, Michael Carrick and Rafael are all definitely out of Sunday’s game, while Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Robin van Persie and Marcos Rojo are all rated as doubtful. Arsenal, for once, have a relatively clean bill of heath. Mathieu Debuchy is recovering fitness but Sunday’s game will probably come too soon for him, while Danny Welbeck, Mikel Arteta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could all return.
Arsenal were unbeaten in 10 games in the league – and, if Theo Walcott is to be believed, playing the best football in Europe - before Monday’s defeat to Swansea City. There was, perhaps, a sense that they’d been a little unfortunate in that game, but at the same time there was a lethargy about Arsenal, a return of the all-too-familiar habit of taking too many touches and getting frustrated at a side that packed men behind the ball. Laurent Koscielny’s efforts to beat Bafetimbi Gomis in the air for the goal, meanwhile, were less than assertive.
After their bright period, United have returned to the inconsistency that was characteristic of the first half of their season and although a victory over Crystal Palace last week ended a run of three straight defeats and all but secured their place in the top four, it was achieved largely thanks to the excellence in goal of David De Gea. United won the league meeting at the Emirates, picking off Arsenal on the break by using Di Maria as a second striker alongside Van Persie. In the FA Cup tie at Old Trafford, though, Arsenal produced a far more canny display to win 2-1, Welbeck getting the winner.
THE CARRICK FACTOR
It’s become a regular feature but it remains no less true: United are much better when Michael Carrick plays. This season they’ve picked up 2.44 points per game when he’s started and 1.45 when he hasn’t. His absence on Sunday is a major blow. Daley Blind operated at the back of midfield against both Everton – a 3-0 defeat – and in the win over Palace, and will presumably do so again, provided Shaw is fit enough to play at left-back.
Until this season, Arsenal’s tendency was to play in roughly the same way whoever the opposition, relying on the quality of their passing to carry them through. The result, in recent seasons at least, was a team that beat the mid- and low-ranking teams easily but struggled against the best sides in the division.
Arsene Wenger this season has been far more prepared to modify his approach, and a resolute defensive display away at Manchester City brought a surprising 2-0 win. Against United in the Cup, Arsenal played largely on the break and it seems probable they will do the same again in the league, although if Welbeck is injured the absence of his pace will be felt. It may be, in the absence of Carrick, that Wenger decides there is a vulnerability about United’s centre and that he can exploit that with a more proactive approach.
COPING WITH FELLAINI
For a long time this season, Marouane Fellaini was, if not United’s secret weapon, then at least their unexpected weapon, clanking forward from the left side of central midfield to offer the equivalent threat of a target-man but coming from a different position. Since Chelsea showed how to deal with him by use of Kurt Zouma in midfield, supported by Branislav Ivanivic at right-back, Fellaini has been less effective, and it’s a test of how far Wenger’s new-found willingness to adapt to the opposition goes whether he will make special plans for the Belgian.
If he doesn’t, the aerial battle between Fellaini and Mertesacker should be fascinating, although Fellaini by coming from deeper - and so having the momentum in any challenge - may have the advantage.
United have won 14 of 18 home Premier League games this season and are the second-top home scorers in the division. The absence of Carrick and the sense of authority he brings is a huge loss for them, but Arsenal’s insipid display against Swansea suggested that, whatever their manager may say, the battle for second isn’t really inspiring them.
All the is left to play for among the top four is to avoid fourth and the necessity of a Champions league play-off but Arsenal, you suspect, are more concerned by the FA Cup final than that. United at 2.42 to win looks generous.
Read more from tactics expert Jonathan Wilson