“If it wasn’t for bad luck,” penned Stax singer William Bell, “I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” It is, surely, a sentiment that resonates with Louis van Gaal. His squad has been decimated by injuries for much of the season, and yet the recent international break has brought little but further cause for concern. It is an annoyance that has become the story of a campaign. Yet, Manchester United’s opponents this season can point to a similar narrative – one that boasts attacking riches, including former Red Danny Welbeck, striving to find the right balance amid defensive chaos.
Van Gaal’s side travels to north London this weekend having lost Daley Blind during the break, while Michael Carrick, Luke Shaw, David de Gea and Angel di Maria must overcome relatively minor injuries to feature at the Emirates. Planning? Van Gaal can do little at all. Not least with much of the Dutchman’s first choice defence on the sidelines again this weekend. Neither Phil Jones, Rafael da Silva nor Jonny Evans are ready for first team action.
Meanwhile, striker Radamel Falcao will only resume full training on Sunday, with United admitting this week that the Columbian had not yet fully recovered from a calf injury.
“It’s difficult to say if anyone is back because we have to wait for tomorrow’s training session to decide if players are coming back,” admitted van Gaal.
“But the players are not coming back in the squad – that’s a different thing. My philosophy is that you have to train at least one week with the squad, but better two. But if you see our circumstances, we maybe have to bring players back to the squad early.
“Di Maria has trained today normally, but Shaw is a question mark. David De Gea is good, no problem. I think Michael Carrick I have to wait for the reactions tomorrow in the training session, but I expect also that he’s ready to play. Blind is not ready to play. He has now a brace on his knee, 10 days’ rest, then we have to make another scan and we can say more about his injury.”
Still, with United having regularly changed up not only personnel this season, but tactics, it is little wonder the side lacks consistency above all. There is talent in abundance, but the application seemingly changes from week to week. With United far from boasting a full complement of players Van Gaal may find little in the way of consistency this side of Christmas.
That the Reds remain in the hunt for Champions League qualification next season owes much to the volatility of others, not least Arséne Wenger’s side. The Gunners spent heavily once again in the summer, signing Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona and United’s own Welbeck. Yet, the Frenchman’s blindspot in defensive midfield and central defence seemingly continues; an achilles heal that has already eliminated Arsenal from the title race.
In defence Wenger has been without Laurent Koschielny for much of the campaign, leaving Per Mertesacker too frequently exposed alongside teenager Callum Chambers or left-back turned stopper Nacho Monreal. Little wonder the north Londoners have conceded winning positions to the tune of nine points this season.
In better news for the hosts, the French coach welcomes back countryman Olivier Giroud, who has recovered from a broken leg, while Mikel Arteta has also overcome a hamstring problem. However with Theo Walcott and Mezut Özil still out, Wenger is left to rue absences at both ends of the field.
Despite Giroud’s return former Red Welbeck will start unless a minor hamstring problem picked up on international duty intervenes. Welbeck has scored five times for the Gunners this season, while earning praise from his new manager for the progression made over the past five months. Welbeck appeared 142 times for United, although only 90 from the start, and far fewer in a central striking role.
Indeed, the move south, says Wenger, is the opportunity the 23-year-old needed in a career that has often stalled. It says something that United has missed the Longsight-born player with Robin Van Persie out-of-form, Falcao injured and Wayne Rooney yet to replicate international form for his club.
“I always respected Danny and I always felt that he had a great future” said Wenger this week.
“What he has achieved in the last few months has certainly allowed him to gain more respect, especially for the English national team as well – he’s now one of the main players in the national team.
“You can take every challenge in a positive way and that’s what Danny did. Louis van Gaal had not had Welbeck under his command for a long time, and it’s always very difficult to know the players well when you see them for three or four weeks. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have an exceptional goalscoring record – he had two quality players in front of him. What he needed was a chance.”
Welbeck remains a player to divide United’s support though, generating fierce loyalty from those who respect the talent and local-hero status, and criticism for a record that did not proffer enough goals from a striker of international standing.
“He is a Manchester lad so it is weird seeing him but that’s football and players move on,” Rooney told MUTV.
“I think, for Danny, and for his own personal career, it was probably the best move for him. He’s done great and scored a few goals and is playing well. Danny gives you what he always gives you – a good shift. He works hard for the team. At times, as I said to him, he works a bit too hard but he’s scoring goals and he’s doing well.”
It is a workrate that will certainly test United’s make-shift defence; one in which Chris Smalling and Tyler Blackett will likely be paired in the centre. If Shaw fails to make the starting team, Van Gaal may be forced to field Antonio Valencia and Reece James as emergency full-backs. It is a scenario that may just require a turn in luck if the Reds are to secure any points by Saturday night.
Then again, United has lost just one of the last 14 matches against Arsenal in all competitions. While Van Gaal was quick to praise “the way they play,” United’s coach will not have forgotten the robust approach Sir Alex Ferguson took to these fixtures. In contrast to Van Gaal it is, perhaps, not luck but a bad sign that Wenger must curse.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Szczesny; Chambers, Mertesacker, Monreal, Gibbs; Flamini; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Sanchez, Carzorla; Welbeck
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Valencia, Smalling, Blackett, Shaw; Herrera, Fellaini; Januzaj, Rooney, Di Maria; Van Persie
Arsenal: Martínez, Bellerín, Arteta, Rosicky, Ramsey, Podolski, Campbell, Akpom, Sanogo, Giroud
United: Lindegaard, McNair, James, Janko,Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson, Mata, Wilson
Arsenal 78 – Draw 48 – United 92
Referee: Mike Dean
Assistants: J Collin, D England
Fourth Official: M Jones
Arsenal 1-1 United
£1 bet club
Danny Welbeck to score the first goal @ 9/2
Running total: £(-)11