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Arsenal have made a fantastic start to the season, but Manchester United are beginning to click into gear and they could have the edge in front of their own fans.
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Whisper it, but a sense of optimism is starting to return to Old Trafford. To be clear, no Manchester United fan will be getting carried away after three consecutive wins; there have been far too many false dawns in the post-Alex Ferguson era for that. But compared to the gloomy mood around the club after Erik ten Hag’s side suffered back-to-back defeats by Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford, there is now a feeling that United might be capable of a top-four challenge after all.
It is not that their recent performances have been perfect. In some ways the 2-1 triumph over Liverpool was a one-off, the type of display that cannot easily be replicated. For starters, United benefited from their arch-rivals having an off-night. And the energy and intensity with which they played simply cannot be reproduced twice per week. It is too demanding, in both a physical and mental sense, and is much harder to enact such a game plan away from home than it is in front of your own fans.
Ten Hag’s side have not had everything their own way in subsequent 1-0 wins against Southampton and Leicester City. United were on top in both matches in the first half, before their opponents came on strong after the break. Both the Saints and the Foxes went close to finding an equalizer, and United’s failure to kill either game off by scoring a second goal could easily have come back to bite them.
But Ten Hag deserves credit for his response to that pair of aforementioned losses to Brighton and Brentford. The Dutchman has made some huge selection decisions by benching Cristiano Ronaldo and Harry Maguire. That decisiveness has only strengthened his authority at the club. And with Casemiro and Antony yet to break into the starting XI, this is a United team that now looks considerably stronger on paper than it did at the start of the summer.
The first five rounds of fixtures could hardly have gone any better for Arsenal, the only team in the Premier League with a 100 percent record. It is true that the fixture computer handed them a pretty comfortable start, with games against Crystal Palace, Leicester City, Bournemouth, Fulham and Aston Villa. But the performances have been just as impressive as the results, with Mikel Arteta’s side playing the type of fluid, progressive soccer that once set Arsenal apart in the Premier League.
No one should get carried away. The Gunners will not win the title this term. But any worries that a poor end to last season would bleed into the 2022/23 campaign have been cast aside. Smart summer signings, most notably those of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko (plus William Saliba, who is now an Arsenal first-teamer after several loan spells elsewhere), have helped to lift the mood. But Arteta deserves the bulk of the credit for turning a talented but youthful group of players into a fine team.
The games will gradually get more difficult from here on in. Arsenal begin this month against Manchester United; they will start October by facing Tottenham in the north London derby. Before the 2022 World Cup starts, they will take on both Manchester City and Chelsea. Arsenal still need to prove themselves in that type of fixture, starting with Sunday’s showdown.
Old Trafford has not been a particularly happy hunting ground for Arsenal throughout the Premier League era. The Gunners have won at United’s home just four times since the launch of the rebranded top flight in 1992. Their latest success came in 2020, but that is the only time they have won a league match away to the Red Devils since 2006. United have had relatively little to cheer about over the last decade, but they have generally managed to avoid defeat by Arsenal on home turf.
Sunday’s match is therefore a stern test of the visitors’ credentials. If Arsenal can assert themselves on the game, they may well be the real deal. But history suggests they will struggle to do so, while the absence through injury of Martin Odegaard, Thomas Partey and Oleksandr Zinchenko makes their task even more difficult.
This is United’s first home game since the Liverpool win, and the fans will be ready to play their part again. The probable inclusion of Casemiro in their starting XI will give United a better chance of winning the midfield battle, while the speed of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga will pose questions of an Arsenal backline that has been largely comfortable up to now.
Arsenal are a much better side now than they were 12 months ago, but we reckon they will once again come unstuck at Old Trafford.
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|Manchester United vs Arsenal
|Old Trafford, Manchester, England
|Sunday, 4 September 2022, 11.30 AM EST
|How to watch
|USA Network, fuboTV
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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