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Defensive frailty against Arsenal could be make or break this season…

Jose Mourinho

Manchester United face Arsenal in the Premier League at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon, the first match back after the last international break of 2016. Back in September, United faced Manchester City straight after the international break, losing 2-1. In October, United face Liverpool at Anfield straight after the international break, although the match was played on the Monday night, drawing 0-0. Now United face another big match of the season straight after an international break, which needs to see Jose Mourinho’s side running into the busy festive period, which is coming around quickly. United play 12 matches from Saturday until the 2nd January 2017, which will see the club play nine Premier League matches (Arsenal, West Ham United, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and West Ham United again), one EFL Cup match (at least, against West Ham United) and two more UEFA Europa League matches (against Feyenoord and Zorya Luhansk).

At this moment in time, Mourinho has a bit of a selection head ache, especially in defence with Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly on the sidelines and with Luke Shaw seemingly out of sorts at this stage of the season. It leaves United with Matteo Darmian, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind available in defence, with possible options in the U23’s and U18’s with Axel Tuanzebe, Regan Poole and even RoShaun Williams available to boost Mourinho’s side, should any be allowed to be promoted to cover this period where United have seen their defensive strength shrunk due to injuries and inconsistent performances. Jones, who returned against Swansea City nearly a fortnight ago has a good game, despite not playing for much of 2016, and that could see him start against Arsenal, which could put him into a period where he puts his injury nightmares behind him.

This is not the first time United have to put a team together from the fringes of the first team due to injury, and it will not be the last either. Playing a back four of Darmian, Jones, Rojo and Blind may not be the best, but it could well be an effective back four. Having Smalling or Shaw available will give United some depth and other options, but with view to the Europa League clash with Feyenoord at Old Trafford in a weeks time, it would be better to ensure players are fit for that encounter as United need to ensure qualification into the knockout stages of that competition in order to keep their chances of UEFA Champions League football next season, as their current position in the league does not suggest they will qualify for the elite European competition easily being that many teams above them are in good form, which will make it harder for Mourinho’s side.

United will need to keep their heads against Arsenal, whether injuries are over by the time Saturday arrives, or whether the likes of Valencia, Smalling and Shaw remain sidelined for the match, the players on the pitch will need to ensure they put in the effort to take all three points against this resurgent Arsenal side, who have injuries of their own with Hector Bellerin sidelined for four weeks with Alexis Sanchez to be assessed ahead of the visit to Old Trafford on Saturday. Reports earlier in the week suggested that Antonio Valencia could recover from his latest injury setback in time for Saturday’s lunchtime kick off, but that is not something that has either been confirmed or denied by the club, meaning that we shall have to wait until Jose Mourinho’s press conference on Friday afternoon to see if injuries have ceased and player will be returning for this important match. Three points for United would be a great thing for United, who will start the weekend in sixth place, just eight points behind league leaders Liverpool, which is not a lot of distance at this stage of the season.

United will need to start grinding the results out, ensuring that they create chances and ensure they score goals and keep their heads against their opposition. That goes without saying in football, but recently, United have seemed lackadaisical on the pitch, especially against Burnley with 37 shots on goal, not one being scored. Arsenal will probably arrive at Old Trafford full of confidence after the international break, but recent matches in the Premier League at Old Trafford have gone in United’s favour most of the time with Arsenal having to look back to the 17th September 2006 for their last victory at the Theatre of Dreams. Last season, United were victorious in a 3-2 victory which saw Marcus Rashford score a brace and Ander Herrera complete the scoring with Danny Welbeck and Mesut Özil both scoring for the visitors.

United have beaten Arsenal 15 times in the Premier League at Old Trafford, drawing six times and losing just three times in 24 matches so far in the Premier League era. United will be looking to maintain that record, as will Jose Mourinho with his latest unbeaten run against Arsenal. Mourinho has met Arsene Wenger 15 times in all competitions with Wenger winning just one match, the FA Community Shield at the start of last season; six matches being drawn and Mourinho reigning supreme on eight occasions – a record Mourinho will want to extend over his Arsenal counterpart this weekend.

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