In the early 2000’s, Manchester United and Arsenal would often play title-deciding matches against each other. The Premier League heavyweights boasted of the brightest talents in the country, and shared trophies (albeit disdainfully) among themselves. The fixture has also provided entertainingly heated moments, like Roy Keane's tunnel meltdown, and Louis van Gaal's touchline flop.
While the emergence and prosperity of other clubs has inhibited the scale of the clash, the rivalry still persists. Here’s a look at the factors that could shape the outcome of Saturday's crucial encounter between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford.
Clash of egos
One can hardly deny that there is bad blood between Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger. Mourinho's mind-games began back in 2005, when he said "Wenger has a real problem with us and I think he is what you call in England a voyeur. He is someone who likes to watch other people." Their rivalry, unlike that of the teams they manage, has only grown in stature ever since. It all boiled over when Wenger resorted to physically tussling with Mourinho on the touchline during his team's 2-0 defeat to Chelsea.
The Frenchman has never registered a win over Mourinho in the Premier League, and will be itching to claim bragging rights this time. Whereas Jose Mourinho will be looking to add insult to injury by leading an under-performing Manchester United side to victory against the high-flying Gunners, after already having dubbed Wenger a ‘specialist in failure’ in the past and handing him a 6-0 defeat on the occasion of his 1000th game in charge of Arsenal. Needless to say, a war of words between the two experienced managers is probable, both before and after the game.
The result of the game could be determined by absentee players just as much as the ones on the pitch. Arsenal are missing Santi Cazorla and Hector Bellerin; players who offer immense solidity in both attack and defence to the Gunners. Alexis Sanchez was also doubtful for the clash after reportedly suffering an injury with Chile, but he dispelled any fears over his health with a match-winning performance against Uruguay in their World Cup qualifier. Arsenal will be hoping his form and fitness stay intact on Saturday. Manchester United have woes of their own, as top-scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic is suspended for the game, while disruptive midfielder Marouane Fellaini and defensive anchors Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly have been ruled out due to injury. United skipper Wayne Rooney, who is also the top-scorer in this fixture, missed England’s last game due to injury as well, making his participation in the clash doubtful. Thus, this game presents a terrific opportunity for ‘star’ players from both sides – Paul Pogba and Mesut Ozil – to shake off the big game jitters. Both Pogba and Ozil are often accused of performing "disappearing acts" during crucial matches, and there can be no better stage for them to assert their dominance and silence their critics.
Arsenal must choose between playing Alexis Sanchez upfront or opting for the more physical Olivier Giroud as the lone striker. Both approaches have their merits. Sanchez’ blistering pace could be lethal during counterattacks, whereas Giroud offers a threat from set-pieces and the ability to retain the ball with his back to goal.
Phil Jones may make an appearance in central defence for a depleted Manchester United side, and Arsenal’s pacey attacking trio would be relishing the prospect of exploiting his physical and defensive fragility.
Wenger’s insistence on sticking with fluid football will mean that for United, the instructions may very well be to stay resolute in defence and score on the counter. The inclusion of quick and skillful attackers like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial could be a huge boon to carry out these instructions, especially considering Arsenal are missing the pace that Hector Bellerin offers in defence. Rashford scored twice in his previous outing against the Gunners, 'killing' Arsenal's hopes of clawing back according to Arsene Wenger. While Mourinho may have attempted to field Fellaini with the intention to stifle play, the Belgian's calf injury could mean Ander Herrera and Ashley Young will be asked to hound the ball and frustrate the opponent by depriving them of possession.
Ultimately, while the match may not directly have a say in the title race this early in the season, it wouldn't be absurd to expect tensions to flare and cards to flow freely in this heated affair. Referee Andre Marriner and his assistants will consider himself lucky to not get involved in any post-match controversies.
Arsenal must see themselves as favourites, owing to their position on the league table and the attractive brand of football they’ve been playing. However, Arsene Wenger is well aware of Mourinho's propensity to have an ace up his sleeve. The result of this match may be determined by factors that aren't just apparent on paper.