As neutrals, let's be grateful that Manchester United and Arsenal face each other at Old Trafford on Saturday, and not at the Emirates Stadium. It adds to this contest a significant level of intrigue and unpredictability that would've certainly been missing had the fixture been held in in London at this point in the season.
Had Arsenal been the hosts, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho would have had an easier way out. It would have played into his comfort zone, and he would have, ironically, felt more at home at the Emirates. He could have played his favourite banks of four — or even six — as seen earlier in the season in a goalless draw at Liverpool.
He would've felt a sense of freedom too. Nobody would've questioned his approach away from home — it has, after all, been his signature tactic in marquee fixtures over the last decade or so.
There's a sense that the Portuguese manager, who arrived at the club in the summer, doesn’t have a free hand yet at the Theatre of Dreams. At least, nowhere near the same way in which he commanded authority at Chelsea, which grew significantly in stature with Mourinho at the helm as its messiah.
At Chelsea, the solid, boring one-nils — take the lead, shut up shop, go home with three points — were revered by fans, as they witnessed the club's first title triumph in 50 years. Such results were cherished at the London club, the manner in which they were achieved mattered little at the time. It's not that Mourinho's Chelsea did not attack. In fact, they often demolished opponents. But a hefty dose of pragmatism was accepted at Stamford Bridge, without a single moan.
It was a different time, however. For starters, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, which ushered in a whole new era of attacking football and altered the consumption demands of fans and owners, did not exist.
At United, though, fans famously chant and proudly demand "attack, attack, attack", no matter what the score. It even puzzled ex-manager Louis van Gaal. But it has been the club's philosophy, a remarkably successful one, for two decades, and it's not going to change.
This is where Old Trafford will be a tough balancing act for Mourinho on Saturday. United supporters are an intelligent bunch, and they understand the state of affairs at the club, but even, then it's likely that Mourinho will have little choice but to show ambition on the pitch against an in-form Arsenal team. Which is great for the neutrals, since opposition manager Arsene Wenger doesn't have much expertise in setting up to play for a draw (Arsenal would have had at least a couple of more league titles had he done so).
United's official voice certainly isn't holding back, viewing the match as "a chance to make a statement" and send out a "strong message to the rest of the division". It isn't clear, however, where this confidence is coming from. United sit sixth in the league, a massive eight points behind leaders and bitter rivals Liverpool after just 11 Premier League rounds. They're also six points behind their Saturday opponents.
Defeat would virtually signal the end of their title ambitions and potentially place them nine points from fourth spot. A draw would keep things alive, at least for another week, while a win would be a massive shot in the arm for a team that's still struggling to find its feet.
Of the league's current top five, only city rivals Manchester City, managed by Guardiola, have visited Old Trafford this season. And done so twice, once in the league and then later in the League Cup.
United were outclassed in the league fixture, which served as a rude awakening for Mourinho's men following three wins in three matches, while the latter clash saw a second-string City go down fighting to a near full-strength United, Mourinho's team selection already showing signs of desperation.
Performance levels in both games, however, were significantly below par, whereas tactically, neither of the games were much of an indicator of what could follow at Manchester United in the future. The league fixture against City came too early in the season, while drawing conclusions from a scrappy, disjoint EFL Cup match wouldn't be of much help.
How Mourinho approaches a marquee fixture against top opponents at Old Trafford is a question that is yet to be genuinely answered. Saturday's clash will be a great time to find out, especially with the paradoxical nature of the contest.
Arsenal are the form team (unbeaten in 16 matches since the opening day of the season) but have a terrible record at Old Trafford, where they're winless in nine matches including seven defeats. Their manager Arsene Wenger has never beaten his nemesis Jose Mourinho in a competitive fixture in 14 attempts (all of them were matches against Chelsea).
With Wenger's team consistent in its positive approach, Mourinho's mindset will control the dynamics of this fixture. And he should know that a cautious step at Old Trafford wouldn't be received too well.
Akarsh Sharma is a New Delhi-based writer. He tweets at @Akarsh_Official
First Published On : Nov 19, 2016 12:05 IST