Whatever else has happened at Old Trafford this season, whatever blame can be attached to Louis van Gaal and Ed Woodward, it is true that they have suffered dreadfully from injuries. Perhaps the training regimen is partly to blame, but United, as Van Gaal observed, have suffered from the “Law of Murphy”.
The biggest problems are at the back. Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young are all out, while Chris Smalling is a doubt with a shoulder problem, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is a doubt with a knock and Phil Jones is still short of match fitness as he recovers from injury. That’s why Michael Carrick partnered Daley Blind at the heart of the United defence against Midtjylland on Thursday and it’s not impossible they will be paired on Sunday.
There are also huge problems at the front of the team with the 18-year-old Marcus Rashford, who scored twice on his debut on Thursday, likely to start in the absence of Wayne Rooney with Anthony Martial and Adnan Januzaj both major doubts. Bastian Schweinsteiger is also out with Marouane Fellaini and Will Keane doubtful, but Van Gaal seemed fairly confident that De Gea should be fit to return in goal and Marcos Rojo managed 11 minutes off the bench against Midtjylland.
Although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain damaged his ankle and knee against Barcelona on Tuesday, Arsenal’s injury problems are easing with just Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky and Santi Cazorla also missing.
This was a vital week for United’s season. The suspicion was that an FA Cup exit at Shrewsbury or a Europa League exit against Midtjylland would have brought an immediate end for Van Gaal, but they won comfortably enough at the New Meadow and then, despite falling behind and missing a penalty, eventually overwhelmed Midtjylland. Both Shrewsbury and Midtjylland are limited opposition, though, and United’s recent league form is poor with just three wins in their last eight games. Although Arsene Wenger was irritated by the naivety of the opening goal Arsenal conceded, there were positives in Tuesday’s 2-0 defeat to Barcelona and there has been a recent return to form in the league, including the 2-1 win over Leicester last time out that lifted them to within two points of the top of the league.
Van Gaal has stressed all season that only one side has beaten United by more than a single goal, which is Arsenal. They blew United away with three goals inside 20 minutes at the Emirates in October, the ferocity of their pressing making United look sluggish.
DEPAY AGAINST BELLERIN
Memphis Depay was excellent against Midtjylland on Thursday producing the sort of performance he hasn’t since the win over Club Brugge.
Which might perhaps suggest the problem: what if his level is destroying Belgian or Danish sides? Injuries have given him a run in the side, though, and his role will be crucial on Sunday against arguably the best right-back in the league this season. It’s not just about whether he can create chance but about whether he has the discipline to stop Bellerin’s forward surges.
WALCOTT AGAINST RILEY
What makes Depay’s role all the important is what happens behind him.
With Oxlade-Chamberlain injured, the likelihood is that Theo Walcott will come in on the right, exposing an inexperienced left-back to his pace. Van Gaal seemed doubtful Rojo would be fit enough to start, which probably means Joe Riley, who made his debut on Thursday, starting his first Premier League game. He looked comfortable enough on the ball against Midtjylland but wasn’t really tested defensively and Arsenal must see that as a potential vulnerability.
TO PRESS OR NOT TO PRESS?
The first half of that game at the Emirates in October were revelatory as United were barely able to get out of their half. Wenger must be tempted to try something similar on Sunday, particularly given the youth and inexperience of the United line-up; the suspicion must be that they can be rattled. On the other hand, his side has proved over the past couple of years that it is capable of absorbing pressure and it may be that he decides to unleash the pace of Walcott and Alexis Sanchez on the break against two inexperienced full-backs.
There’s something startling about seeing United as long as 3.30 to win a home game but even at that sort of price, it’s hard to make a case to back them. It’s one thing for a side of so little experience to beat Shrewsbury and Midtjylland, quite another to do it against Arsenal. Some of Wenger’s most chastening moments have come at Old Trafford; this should be a chance for revenge. Back Arsenal to win at 2.35.