Van Gaal’s Men Travel to the Emirates
It’s a rare occasion in recent Premier League history when Arsene Wenger’s side faces a side even more ravaged by injuries than they–but that’s what we’ll have this weekend as Van Gaal brings his United side to north London. Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria, David De Gea, Michael Carrick, and Jonny Evans will be game-time decisions for United while Daley Blind, Marcus Rojo, Rafael, Ashley Young, Phil Jones, and Radamel Falcao are already ruled out. So pretty much the only things we can say for sure are that Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, and Robin Van Persie all figure to start for Van Gaal. What we may see is a 4-4-2 diamond with Fletcher or Fellaini holding, Herrera and Fletcher or Fellaini as runners, with Mata playing in the number 10 role behind Rooney and Van Persie. That said, there isn’t an obvious holder in the team without Blind, so Van Gaal may opt for some sort of 4-2-3-1 with Herrera and Fellaini in midfield behind a front four of Van Persie, Rooney, Mata, and Januzaj.
Arsenal, meanwhile, are doing great in comparison. Mesut Oezil and Mathieu Debuchy are out for the Gunners, as is Laurent Koscielny. So the fullback crisis story is still very much a concern–which means we may see the ill-fated pairing of Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal at the heart of the Arsenal defense again. The only alternative would seem to be for Wenger to play either Monreal or Kieran Gibbs at right back with Calum Chambers shifting to center back alongside the German giant.
The good news for the Gunners is that they should have no problem scoring. United’s defense is completely out of joint due to the recent injures and the likely absence of De Gea will only make that problem worse. So Arsenal will be able to unleash Alexis, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the fit-again Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott on the United defense. How Wenger will line his side up is a bit of a question but he has enough depth in midfield and in those advanced attacking roles that he has several good options. The most interesting possibility might be to play Welbeck up top (with Giroud available on the bench) with Wilshere in the number 10 role flanked by Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis. But Wenger could also push Welbeck out to the left in favor of Giroud or Walcott or he could experiment with playing Walcott down the left wing and Alexis on the right.
Betting on Arsenal in these crunch fixtures against top four rivals is usually tricky. It’s been a long time since Wenger’s side was able to convincingly dominate a top-level rival. But the stars seem to have aligned well for them as we approach this fixture. Their defensive questions are a concern, but United’s injury problems are far worse and Arsenal should be able to take full advantage. My guess is we see a Gunners win and maybe a two or three goal victory at that.
How Low can Liverpool and Spurs sink?
Liverpool appears to be doing their best to make sure everyone forgets about Spurs’ woeful campaign last year as they attempted to replace a talisman who had departed for a Spanish giant. So far Adam Lallana is filling the role of Erik Lamela in this story quite admirably and Mario Balotelli is doing a similar job playing the part of Roberto Soldado. That said, this weekend should see Liverpool begin to return to form as they face Crystal Palace. While it’s true that the match is at Selhurst Park (a place Liverpool fans will not remember fondly after their last trip there), that shouldn’t matter too much as this Reds team is far superior to Neil Warnock’s Eagles. But then again Liverpool is also more talented than West Ham and they were beaten soundly by Sam Allardyce’s men. The absence of Daniel Sturridge will continue to hurt the Reds, but they figure to have plenty of possession this weekend, which will give their skill players chances to shine. Whether they can break down Warnock’s men remains to be seen, of course.
Meanwhile Spurs travel to Hull to face a side that succeeded at frustrating them last season, although Hull never actually managed to defeat Tottenham–losing one, drawing one, and then losing a League Cup match on penalties after a 108th minute Harry Kane goal drew Spurs level.
There seems to be a certain sense of resignation around Tottenham at the moment as fans are slowly accepting the fact that the team is in a massive rebuilding project that figures to take multiple seasons. The club recouped ~£150m from the sales of Rafael van der Vaart, Luka Modric, and Gareth Bale and at this point it would seem the only signing made with that money to be an unambiguous success is Christian Eriksen. All the other signings are either still to prove themselves (Lamela, Chadli, Capoue) or are clearly going to be flops who will be unloaded as soon as January (Soldado, Paulinho, Chiriches). Because of this resignation, it’s likely that Liverpool supporters will respond far more negatively to a bad result than Tottenham fans. On Merseyside they are still entertaining hopes of a top four finish, while those dreams have been basically abandoned already at White Hart Lane. If Tottenham can play a game in which the players actually appear to have some idea of what they’re supposed to be doing on the field, that will be a sign of progress for a side that has looked completely hopeless since the departure of Bale last summer.
My guess is we’ll see Liverpool exercise some demons at Selhurst Park, though fail to be totally convincing, probably picking up a tight 2-1 win over Crystal Palace. Spurs should have enough to defeat Hull, a side that spent massively in the summer but has yet to find a way of bringing their new signings into the team. Mohamed Diame likes to score against Spurs, but it’s hard to see anyone else for the Tigers giving them much trouble. So I’m guessing we’ll see Spurs also win by a 2-1 scoreline–a result which will only strengthen the “Spurs can’t win at White Hart Lane” story, no doubt.
Allardyce’s men travel to Goodison Park.
Before the season began if you told a neutral that Spurs, Liverpool, and United would all look fairly dreadful in the season’s first three months, they likely would have predicted that Roberto Martinez’s Everton would be the chief beneficiaries, taking up a top four position behind the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal. But as it’s happened Martinez’s side has also struggled, particularly in defense, while upstarts Southampton and West Ham have taken the Premier League by storm. Of the two, Southampton seem to have greater staying power at the top. They have more depth in midfield and appear to be better defensively as well. But West Ham has been a surprise side thanks to the brilliance of their two new strikers, Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho. The longer West Ham can hang around the top six, the better their chances of competing for a European spot will get. So keep a close eye on that match at Goodison Park. Everton’s poor defense combined with the sparkling form of Valencia and Sakho could lead to a rough day for the Toffees and another triumph over a Merseyside giant for Allardyce’s Hammers.