As far as international breaks go the series of games this week could not have been timed any worse for Manchester United. Fresh from victory against struggling Swansea City, the Reds desperately need a run of positive results to build momentum in a stop-start season. Instead, José Mourinho’s players return from activity on three continents ahead of a must-win fixture against one of the club’s oldest enemies.
Mourinho’s side is at a crossroads. His team is through to the quarter finals of the League Cup, within touching distance of qualification to the knock out stages of the Europa League, and still in the race for the top four. Yet, inconsistencies ensure that a promising start to the season has come to nothing – at least in title challenging terms. Mourinho’s outfit is now six points behind fourth placed Arsenal. The year has not turned, but the best chance of success this season might be Champions League qualification paired with a decent cup run.
Disappointing? Perhaps, but empires aren’t built, or destroyed in a day. Supporters expecting Mourinho to wave the magic magic wand have suffered a rude wake up call. The Portuguese coach is entitled to some time to air out the stink from previous regimes and patience is key.
Should United take all three points against Arsenal on Saturday a marker will be laid that could shape the rest of the campaign. Not least because United now embarks on a run of four home games in a row. No better chance to build momentum than with victory over Arsenal, Feyenoord and West Ham United, twice, across three competitions.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]My record against any other manager is not important. Saturday is a match between two managers with the best record in the Premier League. I have three titles, he has three. Wenger has respect from you all, I don’t think I have, especially because my last Premier League title was 18 months ago, not 18 years ago.[/blockquote]
Still, Saturday’s game takes priority for now, and while Mourinho’s team is in desperate need of a win, Arsenal might claim a similar desire. The Gunners have endured a miserable record at Old Trafford in recent years, having won just once in the previous 10 visits to the Theatre of Dreams.
Wenger’s side is within touching distance of top, but must surely win if the club is to be taken as serious title contenders this time around.
The fixture’s narrative has even more spice given that Mourinho represents Arsene Wenger’s oldest nemesis. The Portuguese coach has never lost a competitive fixture to the Frenchman, despite the pair facing one another 14 times over the years. The personal rivalry has been well documented, with Mourinho once labelling his counterpart a “specialist in failure” among other insults.
Despite Mourinho’s supreme record over Wenger, the United manager once again adopted a siege mentality this week. It seems there is a thin skin when comparisons are made between the two managers.
“My record against any other manager is not important. What you get, you do it as a team,” Mourinho was quick to point out on Friday.
”Saturday is a match between two managers with the best record in the Premier League. Sir Alex Ferguson isn’t here anymore, I have three titles, he has three. Does that mean we should be respected, even in periods where our results are not the best? I think Mr Wenger has that respect from you all, I don’t think I have, especially because my last Premier League title was 18 months ago, not 18 years ago.”
The ‘us against the world’ line has worked for Mourinho in the past. Sir Alex Ferguson too, especially when he first arrived in Manchester. Yet, it will take more than motivation to beat an in-form Arsenal side at Old Trafford on Saturday. Not for first time, Mourinho must tactically outwit Wenger if his side is serious about reclaiming a seat at Europe’s top table.
Mourinho must be worried about United’s inconsistency, yet Arsenal still represents an opportunity to record a much needed win against top opposition. Victory would leave the gap to the Gunners at just three points heading into a hectic winter schedule. Defeat, by contrast, might leave United with the very real prospect of spending a third season outside Europe’s premier competition, even if it is only mid November.
It is not what Adidas executives were promised when putting pen to paper on those lucrative sponsorship deals. Nor the fans.
United subs from: Romero, Rojo, Fosu-Mensah, Schneiderlin, Mkhitaryan, Memphis, Rooney
Arsenal subs from: Ospina, Gibbs, Gabriel, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Elneny, Giroud
Antonio Valencia’s injury means Matteo Darmian continues at right-back, while Chris Smalling remains a doubt and Eric Bailly is still injured. Mourinho refused to comment on the Englishman’s status, although the manager’s very public criticism of the defender means that Smalling might only make the bench even if he returns from injury. Phil Jones could retain his place in Smalling’s absence after a decent performance at the Liberty Stadium. Daley Blind is likely to partner Jones, with Luke Shaw at left-back.
Michael Carrick is due to start in midfield after again demonstrating his under-appreciated qualities against Swansea. The England midfielder controlled the game and, even at 35 years of age, remains vital to United’s cause. He is likely to be partnered by the in-form Ander Herrera, who won his first Spain cap against England this week. Indeed, the pair brings out the best in Paul Pogba, who continued his goal scoring form for France during the international break. Pogba was also excellent against Swansea.
Further forward, Zlatan Ibrahimović has picked up a suspension at the worst possible time after ending his goal drought in Wales. The Swede could be replaced by Marcus Rashford, a player who ran riot in this fixture last season. However, Mourinho has not used Rashford well this season, with the academy graduate being shunted to either flank to accommodate Ibrahimovic.
The older man is suspended for Saturday’s game though, enabling Rashford to test his pace against the relatively flat-footed centre back pairing of Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi.
Anthony Martial could be restored to the left flank after Wayne Rooney’s extra-curricular activities this week – allegedly – irritated his manager. Martial’s partnership with Rashford towards the end of last season proved deadly and it is, perhaps, a portent of the Frenchman rediscovering his form.
Elsewhere, Juan Mata starts on the right as United seeks the win required to retain any hope of achieving the club’s domestic goals. Christmas may not yet be upon us, but defeat would leave the Reds nine points behind Arsenal. It is hard to see how United can recover from that.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistants: S Beck, A Garratt
Fourth Official: M Oliver
United 2-1 Arsenal