Louis van Gaal’s reshaped side is ahead of schedule, topping the table domestically and having secured the first Champions League win of the campaign, but few inside the camp will be carried away at this stage. After all, the Dutchman’s Manchester United side faces six tough games before October is out; four away from Old Trafford’s comforts. It is a period that will not decide the success or failure of the campaign ahead, but will certainly shape it.
United’s visit to Arsenal this Sunday is followed by a trip to Everton after the international break, CSKA Moscow away, and then the derby with Manchester City at home. The squad completes a challenging month with games against Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup and then an away trip to Crystal Palace. The solution, says Van Gaal is “recovery, recovery, recovery.”
Van Gaal’s squad enjoyed a hard-earned win over Wolfsburg in the Champions League on Wednesday, leaving his squad with 24 hours less recovery than Arsenal. The Gunners lost in morale-sapping style to Olympiakos at the Emirates on Tuesday night. Still, the first points of the European campaign add to a growing sense of momentum at Old Trafford – victories and goals have been flowing of late, with Antony Martial’s integration into the side adding a genuine catalyst to United’s attacking play.
The Frenchman failed to score against Wolfsburg, but put in another convincing display at number nine, leading the Reds’ attacking line and stretching play in a fashion that Wayne Rooney has failed to do this season. The United captain was poor against the German side; one more underwhelming display in a pattern this season. Yet, while Van Gaal may well refresh a tired side, Rooney is certain to start at the Emirates.
Rooney at least has a good record against Arsenal. He scored his first Premier League goal in October 2002, his first league goal for United two years later, and his 100th Premier League goal in January 2010 – all against Arsenal.
Rooney played the full 90 against Wolfsburg, at match in which Van Gaal’s side was forced to hang on for much of the final quarter of the game. The Dutchman blamed it on tiredness, although a rash of substitutions seemed to inhibit United’s outlook.
“The solution is recovery, recovery, recovery,” said Van Gaal on Friday. “That is why it’s so difficult to prepare for the match against Arsenal. As a manager, you want to prepare on the pitch and you cannot do it because you need freshness of the players, so then there’s also another solution – to change your squad.
“So we have to see how the evaluation is from my fatigue specialist. I cannot tell that because the press conference is one day after the match. Tomorrow, they have a day off because they’ve already had two weeks with no day off. We have to wait and see for Saturday and then I can make decisions.”
“Arsenal have one day more recovery but it’s also about the shape on the day because we are human beings and are not always at the highest level so that’s also important.”
Meanwhile, Arsenal must recover from a 3-2 defeat at home in the Champions League this week, which puts the Gunners chances of progress in real jeopardy. Arsene Wenger’s side also lost to Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia on matchday one and face Bayern Munich twice in a double-header over the next month. In the league, Wenger’s team has been similarly inconsistent, having lost twice in the opening seven games of the campaign.
Still, Van Gaal makes no secret of his admiration for Arsenal’s style of play, if not the club’s relative lack of silverware over the past decade.
“I think Arsenal are one of the best teams in the league, in a technical and tactical sense – maybe the best. I like the way they play,” Van Gaal told MUTV. “Nevertheless, they haven’t won so much so you have to look for that improvement with their team.
“We played a very lucky game at the Emirates last season. I believe Arsenal were better, but we were better in the game in the FA Cup and we lost. That’s football. You can lose even when you are the better team. We also drew at home so that shows that we are equal more or less. Arsenal is a very good team with individual players from a high level, I think.”
Luck or otherwise, United remains unbeaten in the past four away matches against Arsenal, although the club has never gone five without a loss away to the Gunners in the Premier League. Still, this is a fixture the Reds enjoy: Arsenal’s win rate of 24 per cent against United in the Premier League is the club’s lowest versus any team in the competition. And Van Gaal has lost just one of his five meetings with Arsene Wenger – in the FA Cup last season.
It all points to a positive United performance on Sunday.
“I think the balance in our selection is much better than last year,” adds Van Gaal. “But the most important thing is not only that I believe, but that the players are believing in that. When we win at Arsenal the belief will rise a lot.”
Team news and line-ups
Both sides are missing defenders for this fixture. United will be without Luke Shaw for the next six months, while Marcos Rojo is also out. Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny is missing with a hamstring injury, leaving Per Mertesacker to start alongside the youthful Gabriel Paulista. It is a weakness that Martial, in particular, will look to exploit.
The home side welcomes back Olivier Giroud following a Champions League suspension, but Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta are both out with injury. For United, Michael Carrick is fit again, but Ander Herrera in unlikely to feature. Carrick could come back into the side for Morgan Schneiderlin, while Ashley Young is putting pressure on the largely ineffective Memphis Depay, with the Dutchman having taken some time to settle at the club. Memphis’ place in the side may only be saved if Young is brought into the back-four.
Arsenal subs from: Ospina, Chambers, Debuchy, Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Campbell, Giroud.
United subs from: Romero, McNair, Pereira, Fellaini, Schneiderlin, Valencia, Wilson
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Assistants: J Brooks, L Betts
Fourth Official: R East
Arsenal 1-2 United
£1 bet club
Martial to score twice @ 15/1
Match graphic by @cole007