Youngsters Phil Jones (left) and Chris Smalling (right) helped Manchester United keep a clean sheet versus Tottenham Hotspur last week.
Old title-contending rivals Manchester United and Arsenal FC will clash on Sunday at Old Trafford for an English Premier League tie. In the past campaign, the two sides squared off three times. During the two league ties, each won their respective matches 1-0 at home while United eliminated Arsenal in the FA Cup during a 2-0 quarter-final victory at Old Trafford - a match where a depleted Reds side used seven defenders in their starting lineup. In recent seasons, United have gotten the better of this match-up as their North London foes have only managed to win twice in the past ten encounters.
The English champions are off to a flying start to the new campaign after having picked up the full six points in their initial two matches. Last week versus Tottenham Hotspur, when United failed to inspire inside the first hour, youngster Danny Welbeck finally opened up the scoring in the 61st when he rose in the air to guide home a delicious cross from Tom Cleverley. Soon after, the floodgates opened as Welbeck later played a cheeky backheel to Anderson for a 2nd goal and Wayne Rooney added a third goal in the dying moments of the match. It was an impressive display from a youthful side side that averaged only 23 years in age. United made Old Trafford a fortress once again last season after having only dropped two points during entire league campaign. Come Sunday, they will be looking for a second North London scalp in a week's time at their home ground.
Captain Nemanja Vidic remains out with a calf injury and his center-back partner Rio Ferdinand is doubtful as well with a hamstring injury. Rafael continues to recover after having surgery for a separated shoulder. Antonio Valencia is still not ready for a return as he recovers from an ankle injury - expect him to feature in a Reserves match prior to returning to first-team duty. Darren Fletcher appears fit after his long battle with a mysterious virus - manager Sir Alex Ferguson has indicated that the Scot is available for selection on Sunday.
It is a tumultuous time right now at Arsenal as the club has seen the departures of arguably their two best players, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, during the current summer transfer window. In addition, patience has grown thin amongst some of the supporters after the club's failing to win a major trophy during the past six seasons. Their shaky start to the current campaign and their failure to bring in many influential players through recent transfer windows has many placing the blame on the once blameless manager Arsene Wenger.
Ahead of Sunday's tie, the Gunners face many selection problems due to the mentioned departed players and also due to injury and suspension. Jack Wilshere has been ruled out with an ankle injury and there is also doubt over the health of Laurent Koscielny, Sebastian Squilacci, and Kieran Gibbs. Alex Song, Gervinho, and Emmanuel Frimpong are all unavailable due to suspension.
With Sir Alex Ferguson, projecting lineups and tactics is often an arduous task and it is even more so when he has the available squad depth that he currently has. In defense though, the lineup appears to be set. In goal, David de Gea will feature while the likely center-back pairing is Jonny Evans and Phil Jones. Patrice Evra will play in his usual left-back role while Chris Smalling is the expected right-back. The one possible wrinkle would be the inclusion of Fabio at right-back with Smalling sliding into the center. In the central midfield, Cleverley and Anderson have been the starting duo during the past few weeks and there are no indications that Ferguson will try anything different. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs, who were the first-choice duo in the center of the park for last season's run-in, are also possibilities. Out wide, Nani likely is deployed on the right flank while Ashley Young likely features on the left flank. Park Ji-sung, who has regularly featured in the past versus Arsenal, is a strong possibility to start as well on either flank. Up top, Wayne Rooney is a certainty to start while his likely partner is Welbeck after the youngster's impressive performance last weekend versus Spurs. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez is now available for selection and he will certainly push Welbeck in the coming weeks for the right to partner Rooney.
For the Gunners, Wojciech Szczesny has established himself as the clear No. 1. Thomas Vermaelen will start at center-back and if Koscielny is able to play, he likely starts there as well. If Koscielny cannot play, expect Johan Djourou to deputise. If Gibbs in unavailable, expect to see Bacary Sagna switch over to left-back while the youngster Carl Jenkinson would cover at right-back. With Song and Frimpong unavailable, the holding midfield role is a challenge to project. Djourou is a strong possibility here while either Jenkinson or Henri Lansbury could be asked to play an unfamiliar role as well. Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky are certainties to start in the center. Theo Walcott will feature as the wide right player while Andrei Arshavin will be the likely wide left player. Robin Van Persie is the lone man up top.
* Attack with width: Whichever side that Sagna defends on, United should perhaps focus their attack on the opposite side. If Gibbs plays at left-back, United should look to swing the ball wide and let Nani have a go at the promising, but unproven young defender. This is the same flank that Nani terrorized Gael Clichy the past few seasons. If Jenkinson starts and on the right, then it could be Young that might have a mismatch on the left flank. The England international already has a good understanding with Rooney and their quick one-twos could split open the Arsenal defense in the channel between the full-back and center-back. In addition, both Walcott and Arshavin can be lax in tracking back and both Evra and Smalling should look to get forward to exploit available space.
* Between the lines: During the run-in, and what usually is the case when a side attempts to defend with two flat banks of four defenders, United can be vulnerable to sides that play between the lines and pass in tight triangles. A more specific example, one that gave the Reds great trouble in the Champions League final versus FC Barcelona, is when a side deploys a false nine along with three central players already in the center of the park. Arsenal does this well. If United play in a 4-4-2, their positioning, communication, and the defender's awareness to pass off attackers when they interchange will be key to defending against Arsenal - a side that plays with four bands in either a 4-1-2-3 or 4-2-3-1 shape.
* Fast and Fluid 4-4-2: With the likelihood that Arsenal deploy inexperienced defenders, and with the further possibility of players playing out of their natural positions, United's recent fast and fluid attack may prove too much for the Gunners to defend. Arsenal's best defender, Vermaelen, is even prone to being dragged out of position at times. With the fluid and interchangeable movement of Rooney, Welbeck, Young, and Nani in attack, space may open up in dangerous areas behind Arsenal's defense for the Reds to exploit. If Rooney and Welbeck are able to drag a defender out when they come deep for the ball, United should look to exploit that space with midfield runners. In addition, with Arsenal's holding player likely to be playing in a role that is unfamiliar - Cleverley and Anderson may be able to use selective and delayed runs to join the attack by exploiting unoccupied space just outside the box.
Odds: Manchester United 2/5, Draw 7/2, Arsenal 6/1
Prediction: Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal
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