Pressure on Unai Emery's Arsenal in battle for fourth against visiting Manchester United
Spaniard preparing side looking for answers to some age-old problems with resurgent United at their doorstep
There was something of a consolation prize this week when Manchester United announced their ticketing prices for next season. Entry for continental games will be 25 per cent cheaper if United are playing in the Europa League.
It had started to feel a hypothetical scenario even before United’s improbable triumph over Paris Saint-Germain raised the possibility that they will qualify for the Uefa Champions League as holders. They have two paths to the top table; there seemed none when Jose Mourinho was dismissed.
Then they were 11 points behind the top four, eight adrift of Arsenal, who had just lost for the first time in 23 games. Now, if routes are opening up for United, they threaten to shut for the Gunners. Unai Emery may be the triple Europa League winner but Thursday’s 3-1 defeat to Rennes renders a fourth success less likely.
Should United record a second victory of 2019 at the Emirates Stadium, they will be four points ahead of Arsenal.
So the burden of proof rests with the hosts. United arrive in London with 14 wins out of 17 under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a club record nine away victories in a row and a fourth triumph against elite opponents in the caretaker’s brief reign.
While only Manchester City have taken more points on home turf than Arsenal, they only have two major major wins – Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea – under Emery. They came close to a third last week, and Hugo Lloris’ 89th-minute penalty save from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has the potential to be a season-defining moment for both North London neighbours.
But for the final minutes at Wembley, Arsenal may have looked in better shape than United. Instead, Aubameyang’s miss was compounded by Lucas Torreira’s subsequent sending-off and suspension.
United’s makeshift midfield emerged as an area of strength, not weakness, in Paris, with rookies showing their mettle. Then Solskjaer reported that Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera, along with Anthony Martial, could be fit to stage comebacks on Sunday.
Paul Pogba is available again after a European ban. What looked a depleted team may only be missing one first choice, even if Jesse Lingard is a regular scourge of Arsenal and was arguably the key player tactically in January’s FA Cup win.
Romelu Lukaku set up two goals then. He has scored two in each of his last three games – a feat no United player since Cristiano Ronaldo had mustered – and Solskjaer enjoyed his combination with Marcus Rashford in Paris.
“They might form a very nice partnership together,” he said. “I wouldn’t like to be a defender having them two running at me.”
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If Solskjaer’s United offered reminders of Alex Ferguson’s team in the January meeting, Emery’s Arsenal provided unwanted echoes of Arsene Wenger’s side, having the majority of possession but being caught on the counter-attack. A team who looked naive then are in search of answers.
“We need to do something different tactically and individually and find better efficiency against them,” the Spaniard said.
Solskjaer’s formula for defining away games in England has been to use wider strikers ahead of a diamond midfield. His United have only been outflanked once, at home against PSG. While Emery, too, has profited from playing two strikers, in Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, he may require more width now.
It may be a task for the in-form Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a talented player who felt a failure of Mourinho’s management and left too soon to be rehabilitated under Solskjaer.
After Rennes’ third goal, Emery needs to ensure his side are not picked off on the break; Matteo Guendouzi, who was notably slow getting back then and who will assume a particular responsibility in the absence of Torreira, needs to show the effort Aaron Ramsey did, albeit in vain.
As Emery has accepted, Arsenal need to do things differently to achieve a different outcome.
Updated: March 10, 2019 03:36 PM