Mason Mount? Out. Raphaël Varane? Out. New signing Rasmus Højlund? Out. Luke Shaw? Out. Add to this list another four prospects who’ve been ruled out, and it starts to feel like Ten Hag’s minions might be coming down with a collective case of the sniffles in order to avoid facing the Arsenal. I know that the injury list causes more than a few of us a bit of an 8-2 PTSD, but that was ages ago. They’re coming into the Emirates, and, even if we’ve both wobbled a little bit, we have to feel something resembling confidence going into this fixture.
While it would be easy and accurate to suggest that Man U could have lost all three of their matches thus far, and it would just as easy to suggest that all of those injuries leave them ripe for the culling, we all know that Man U have a habit of turning up when it’s us they’re facing. Even if we’re frustrated to have only taken seven points from our first three matches, having fizzled rather than dazzled, we have to know that we have to treat Sunday’s clash as a potentially season-defining one. Man City have already laid down a marker with their dramatic late winner at Sheffield United, and Liverpool went one better by going down a man at Newcastle only to score twice late on to seize all three.
Last season was a two-club race, and it’s one that we lost at the last gasp. This time through, we have more than a few others chomping at the bit, and we’ve lost the element of surprise along the way.
Man U seem more than a bit unsettled, especially in midfield, but that only raises the stakes. The prevailing narrative is that Ten Hag is struggling to get the best out of his squad despite having spent even more heavily than we have since his or Arteta’s arrival. Against that backdrop, we face a catch-22 of sorts. Win, and we will have merely capitalised on an out-of-sorts rival still sorting its identity. Draw—or worse, lose—and we somehow prove that we’re the out-of-sorts side and Man U have bravely overcome adversity, ennui, and existential angst.
Chief among Ten Hag’s problems is his midfield. Signing Mount was an odd one, as it didn’t really address his needs or wants. It might have been sharper to have signed more of a 6 or DM type, what with Casemiro looking, acting, and playing like someone whose pregame ritual consists of having a few burgers and maybe a pint or two as well. McTominay might add some steel to the midfield, but someone would have to make way. Eriksen and Fernandes are crafty creators, it’s true, but Casemiro at 31 may lack the drive or energy to marshal the midfield on his own. Without Shaw or Varane behind him, the Brazilian may find himself overrun.
That depends on Arteta, though. Should he continue to tinker with unorthodox lineups as he has in our first three matches, this match could become a crapshoot. He almost got away with playing Partey in that inverted fullback position against Fulham, but we’ll need his DM-dominance on Sunday. I pray that Arteta either restores Magalhães to the left CB or starts Kiwior there in order to play White at RB from which he links up so well with Saka. If Zinchenko is not quite ready to start, Arteta should play Tomiyasu at LB.
I’m all for a bit of experimentation…when it comes against opponents we really should batter. When it comes at a cost of a few points, as it did last week against Fulham, key questions bubble up. Even if Man U are still trying to get sorted, this is not a fixture in which Arteta should be experimenting. Please, Mikel, get back to a formation and to tactics that got us so agonisingly close to winning the Prem. Put square pegs in square holes. There will be time enough at some later date for you to prove your 4-D chess.
Rumour has it that our opponent a fortnight from now are already on the ropes. That’s a time to fiddle. For this fixture, we have to go with what works. Keep it simple, Spaniard.