Manchester United and Arsenal face off at Old Trafford on Monday night in completely contrasting moods.
Jose Mourinho’s men enter the game off the back of two disappointing draws – at home to Crystal Palace and away to Southampton – sitting seventh in the table and already eight points outside the top four.
The Gunners, unbeaten since August under new boss Unai Emery, are on a high after thumping rivals Tottenham Hotspur 4-2 in last Sunday’s north London derby. They currently occupy the final Champions League qualification spot and appear to be building a bright future following Arsene Wenger’s retirement.
As two of the most successful teams of the Premier League era, battles between United and Arsenal have settled titles numerous times in the past. While that is extremely unlikely to be the case this season, meetings between these two giants of the English game are rarely dull.
Enduring their worst start to a league campaign for more than two decades, United’s hopes of a top-four finish are fading fast.
After a mini-revival, which saw them beat Newcastle United, Everton and Bournemouth and draw away to Chelsea, the Red Devils have dropped points in their last two league outings in games a side with ambitions of contendership would expect to easily win, and were thumped 3-1 by rivals Manchester City before that.
Injuries meant Mourinho had to field midfielders Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay as part of a makeshift back three in the draw with Southampton. The Portuguese will need to find a better solution if United intend to keep the rampant Gunners at bay.
The post-Wenger era looked like getting off to a rocky start when Arsenal begun the season with defeats to City and Chelsea in the first two games of the campaign, but they have not lost since, winning nine and drawing three.
The 4-2 victory over Spurs has given the Emery era a statement win, backing up the sound work the Spanish tactician has done since arriving in the Premier League with a resounding success in a key fixture.
Mourinho has preferred a 4-3-3 set-up this season, with Matic anchoring midfield and Pogba in his favoured role on the left of the central trio.
This shape could be compromised once again by injuries against Arsenal, though, with Mourinho perhaps opting to field an extra man at the back to compensate for the lack of available natural defenders.
Emery has stuck with the 4-2-3-1 formation favoured by Wenger, but has made key additions and tweaks to make the Gunners a more effective unit.
The introduction of Lucas Torreira in one of the deep midfield roles has added bite and technical quality, while also helping the much-maligned Granit Xhaka raise his game.
Further forward, the masterstroke of getting both Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into the team by fielding the latter from the left has paid dividends.
Aubameyang is currently the Premier League’s top scorer and netted a brace against Spurs at the weekend.
Paul Pogba, Manchester United – Reportedly labelled a “virus” by Mourinho after his poor performance at St. Mary’s last weekend, Pogba needs to show up against Arsenal.
Comfortably United’s most talented outfield player, the Red Devils only seem to click when Pogba is on top of his game.
He has the creativity and technical skills to wreak havoc from central midfield and is a frightening prospect for opposing teams when in form. But United need more from their record signing and a stellar display against the Gunners would be a big step in the right direction.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal – The Gabonese stariker’s north London derby brace took his Premier League goals tally for the season so far to ten, making him the first player to hit double figures in 2018/19.
Whether deployed centrally or on the left, Aubameyang is proving adept at seeking and dispatching high-quality scoring chances. The former Borussia Dortmund man has the pace and savvy movement to trouble any defence and is the division’s hottest finisher – United, beware.
*Odds subject to change
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