When we looked at Google Analytics and sobbed, when we tried to eke out another England angle despite general apathy, when we watched every other website tell us about the 25/50/100 best/worst this or that, we held onto one thought: Manchester United v Arsenal.
This is Premier League football back with the kind of bang that fells trees.
The table tells us that Arsenal are the better side. The stats tell us that Arsenal are a better side. Our eyes tell us that Arsenal are the better side. And yet…Arsenal have not won in the Premier League at Old Trafford in ten years, Arsene Wenger has not beaten Jose Mourinho in 13 competitive attempts and it’s less than nine months since a pretty much full-strength Arsenal side lost to a flawed Manchester United featuring Michael Carrick at centre-half and an attacking trio of Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Memphis Depay. They say form goes out the window in derbies; for this non-geographical grudge match, form goes out of the window, over the bypass to the train station and off into the distance on a choo-choo train.
‘Arsenal looked anything but a team going for the title – unless that title is for the world choking championship,’ wrote Amy Lawrence after that 3-2 defeat, and it was a nagglingly familiar tale. Back in 2013, Wenger reacted to another defeat – this time against David Moyes’ United – by talking trepidation: “Why were we nervous? Maybe because we haven’t won here for a long time.” Three years later, Arsenal haven’t won there for an even longer time.
“Lads, it’s Arsenal,” could be the team talk in the United dressing-room on Saturday. United’s best hope of beating Arsenal is that Arsenal will do it themselves by nervously failing to get a grip on the game, nervously allowing Manchester United to gain a foothold and then nervously making a defensive cock-up to allow United to win 1-0.
Without the history between these two teams and between these two managers, we would be talking about an Arsenal side unbeaten since the opening day of the season. But that now feels irrelevant, as does injury news, talk of tactics or pre-match bluster. Recent history casts a thrilling shadow over this fixture more than any other. We’re excited; can you tell?
Player to watch – Marcus Rashford
If we were talking about any other Manchester United player potentially playing against Arsenal at Old Trafford, we would be highlighting a lack of goals since September, a lack of Premier League assists all season, increasingly tired-looking performances and his eventual and inarguable fall-guy status when Jose Mourinho belatedly decided he needed to give Paul Pogba help in midfield.
But this is Marcus Rashford, still only 19 and still carrying that air of magic that transcends statistics. He is a boy who thrives on debut and this would almost feel like another maiden bow – his first Premier League start as a striker for Mourinho. That it comes against the side left flabbergasted by his three-minute brace in February is just delicious.
“Let’s not forget that last year, the guy who killed us was Rashford,” said Wenger earlier this week. He won’t take comfort from the kind of patchy form you would expect from any young player; it just means that Rashford has a substantial point to prove. His aim at the end of 90 minutes is to leave Mourinho with no option but to drop the undroppable Swede.
Team to watch – Liverpool
You will have to wait for the highlights (there’s no other way to watch this game, surely?) but with an average goal haul of close to three per game, there should be plenty of those to enjoy. At the moment they’re the Match of the Day scheduler’s dream – stick Liverpool on for the third or fourth game and even the neutral will stick around to see Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Sadio Mane do their fluid thing.
The added fascination with this game – away at Southampton – is that Liverpool are expected to be missing Adam Lallana. The Dread Monday 0-0 offering showed us what can happen when Liverpool are missing Lallana and it’s not pretty, so it’s up to Klopp to find another solution. Will that involve Daniel Sturridge? That absolutely didn’t work against United. The more obvious – but more stodgy – stopgap is to bring Georginio Wijnaldum into the midfield and leave Coutinho close to Firmino and Mane where he can wreak the most devastation. The bad news? Coutinho might also be sidelined.
This incarnation of Liverpool is simply lovely to watch when in full flow and your team is not on the receiving end; it’s when dynamic teams like this emerge – without the Luis Suarez caveat – that I can truly be thankful that I support a Championship side.
Manager to watch – Jose Mourinho
Looking at a Premier League table of games played against top-half sides, Manchester United are in tenth with five points from six games – way below their supposed title rivals and even below Burnley and Bournemouth. They were schooled by Manchester City, played the plucky underdog in a 0-0 at Liverpool and were then destroyed by Chelsea. They were forgiven the dour, defensive tactics that brought the last two results because the fixtures were away from home, but that simply will not wash at home to Arsenal.
The Gunners exude nervousness when they come to Old Trafford so it’s up to United to exploit that weakness; if they try to contain and control, they will be playing right into Arsenal’s hands by giving them time and space to settle those nerves, and a lack of ambition will not be welcomed in the stands at Old Trafford. Can Mourinho still be proactive? Does he still have the swagger? Can he persuade himself, the players and the fans that this United side can go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the country?
There are those who say that his record leaves him exempt from all the question marks that surround every other stuttering Premier League manager but right now, Mourinho is rightlfully being judged on his last 18 floundering months in Premier League football. On that recent evidence, he looks way short of what United should expect from a manager who has been given a blankety-blank chequebook and pen.
Are we going to see the strut or the shrug on Saturday? Come on Jose, entertain us.