Manchester United have the chance to flex their muscle against weakened Arsenal

Manchester United face Arsenal tomorrow in a fixture that has long been one of the glamor matchups in the Premier League, especially at the business end of the season. Though the lack of a title race and Arsenal languishing in sixth place takes some gloss off of things, this weekend’s matchup is still an opportunity for United to lay down yet another marker as they look to end the season on a high.

United have had a solid season up to this point. It has not always been smooth sailing, but a strong record in head-to-head matchups against their top domestic rivals has lent credence to the notion that under Jose Mourinho the club are close to kicking on and can reach an even higher level next year.

The Red Devils have been especially formidable at Old Trafford this season. Their only two losses have been to Manchester City back in December and a shocking result earlier this month against West Bromwich Albion. Aside from that their form has been imperious including victories over Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, and Chelsea. Wins away from home this season at the Etihad and Emirates have also proven United’s mettle.

United’s imperious “big match” form can be chalked up to their ruthlessness with the limited chances they have carved out. With Arsene Wenger likely to field a much-weakened lineup as the Gunners prioritize their second leg tie against Atletico Madrid in midweek, United have a chance to be more than functional and clinical in their performance.

Mourinho’s approach in these big matches can often be labeled as pragmatic, cautious or negative depending upon your point of view. Against a second string Arsenal side with the home support behind the team, he must take the opportunity to allow United to showcase their quality and strength rather than restrain them in a tactically disciplined performance.

This isn’t to suggest that United should throw caution to the wind, but sometimes attack can be the best form of defense. Against a weakened side without any particular motivation to put in a performance as their manager has made it clear Europa League is the priority, this is particularly true.

United shouldn’t lack for motivation either. For months Mourinho and his players have endlessly discussed the importance of and desire to finish 2nd in the league. While City have run away at the top, it would represent a positive step in the evolution of the club to end up as the best of the rest.

Then there’s the simple fact that the chance to utterly dominate a top team — albeit one whose standards have dropped from the heights of yesteryear — don’t present themselves all too often. Perhaps the last time United truly outclassed this level of opponent with an attacking display of quality was in a 4-2 victory in 2015, under Louis van Gaal surprisingly enough, in the Manchester derby against a then-struggling City side.

On that day United fell behind to an early goal but stormed back with four straight of their own. A rapidly aging Wayne Rooney led the line, Ashley Young played on the left wing and Michael Carrick anchored the midfield. On Sunday the lineup will look much different, but the chance for a similarly dominant performance is there for the taking.

Among others, players like Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, and Romelu Lukaku have come in for significant criticism at various points this season, both deserved and otherwise. An Arsenal defense which, even at full strength, is often vulnerable will be there for the taking. What better way for them to silence their highly vocal critics, then to put an understrength side to the sword. Sanchez, a player for whom effort is never an issue, should especially not be lacking for any motivation as he faces his former club after choosing to change residence from North London for the red half of Manchester in January.

In the reverse fixture back in November, United got off to an explosive start, hitting Arsenal on the counter for 2 early goals in the matches opening stages. From that point on, however, it was the Gunners who dominated proceedings. They battered David De Gea’s goal with only the Spaniard’s now legendary display keeping United in front.

A third goal from Jesse Lingard in the second half killed off the match, but the lack of control and defensive discipline after grabbing a comfortable early lead was uncharacteristic of a Mourinho team. Away from home, against a full-strength Arsenal side, taking your foot off the peddle is understandable.

Against a weakened opponent on Sunday, with the home supporters in high spirits, United must show they can do more than be clinical in small moments. It is an opportunity to put in a dominant 90-minute performance and pay notice to their rivals and the Premier League as a whole that Manchester United are back and are a force to be reckoned with.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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