We host Manchester United today in a bid to secure a 13th consecutive league win at home – which will equal our all-time record. Suffice to say our chance to do so couldn’t have come against a nicer manager.
However poor Arsene’s overall record against Jose is, there are quite a few bits and bobs to take into account. Asterisks which make me positive today’s encounter won’t be another one of ‘these’ days.
First off, we have beaten United at the Emirates on their two previous league visits: a memorable 3-0 in 2015, when we tore the Devils a new one inside the first 20 minutes; and just this May, after quick-fire goals from Xhaka and Welbeck sinked Jose’s bus.
Secondly, Mourinho has failed to win on any of his previous 11 visits to other top 6 teams. We all know the kind of approach he deploys and there is no reason to think today will be any different.
Finally, the Gunners are pretty good not just at winning their home matches this season, but also at keeping clean sheets at the Emirates. We have only conceded 4 goals, 3 of them on the opening day to Leicester. That instills some confidence in our capacity to at least get a draw if we suddenly can’t find a breakthrough.
United have been, up this point, one of the best teams in the league when it comes to defending. They have conceded the fewest goals (8), kept the most clean sheets (9) and their goalkeeper is behind only Nick Pope in terms of save percentage (83%).
However this is where the good bits end for Jose’s team. It turns out United aren’t anything special when it comes to restricting the number of big chances. They are 5th in this regard with 21, behind Arsenal (19). They are also not good at limiting the number of shots in general – the Devils are 5th again, with 149 shots conceded, 16 more than Arsenal. The edge the Gunners in terms of shots inside the box by a solitary effort.
Their defenders aren’t top dogs in any of the metrics that matter too. Valencia is reasonably good when it comes to recoveries, but that’s it. Of course, United are dominating most games (unless it’s away to a top 6 side), so their defenders aren’t as overworked.
We will be without Alexandre Lacazette and that is a blow of course. There was a scare with Alexis Sanchez too – the Chilean was subbed off due to a hamstring complaint – but it appears he has fully recovered.
Such an (unusually) clean bill of health will give Arsene Wenger options to choose from. I think he will be particularly pleased with Giroud’s and Wilshere’s cameos on Wednesday. Both players showed they can be quite good when surrounded by a more experienced pick of the bunch. Same goes for Danny Welbeck, who will be chomping at the bit against his old club.
It is hard to see Wenger making many changes in terms of personnel – but then our manager is not easy to second-guess against the top sides this season. He shuffled his pack considerably for the City game, for instance.
It is entirely possible we will see the Frenchman make some unexpected changes today too. He has shown a penchant for starting Alex Iwobi away from home against the top 6, for example. We are obviously playing at home, plus Ozil is fit and firing, so fitting in Alex can prove tricky.
I’m also wondering just how happy our manager is with Granit Xhaka. The Swiss has shown some sloppiness again against Huddersfield, and I won’t be surprised to see Jose target Granit specifically. Throwing a spanner in the works by starting Jack Wilshere, for example, can be just what we need.
Finally, we have a gaping hole up top, and it’s this dilemma which has probably kept Arsene up at night today. I have expressed some of my thoughts on the matter post-Huddersfield, however since then I’ve started wondering whether Arsene has a third option to Giroud and Welbeck.
This third option is quite obvious: Alexis Sanchez. The Chilean seems to be gathering momentum, scoring in each of his last three games. Sticking Sanchez up top will have an element of surprise to it. I think Jose is expecting Welbeck or Giroud, and that alone should be giving him a headache, as those two are completely different players.
Fielding Sanchez will have the added benefit of squeezing in another 10, be it Alex Iwobi or Jack Wilshere. Wenger might even try something completely off the beaten track by playing Wilshere and Ramsey at the base, with Iwobi and Ozil as tens and Alexis up top. We are veering into realms of high improbability here, but who knows? Maybe the best thing the Frenchman can do is completely defy expectations.
However I expect Giroud or Welbeck to be given the nod, and it’s a tough choice. I’d go with Ollie, since he always comes on for Lacazette, indicating he is the firm second choice, plus he has just bagged a brace. The Frenchman also looks much more likely to tuck away a chance than Danny Welbeck.
But Welbeck might be the more logical solution. Danny is closer to Lacazette than Giroud in terms of playstyle and he’s got it in against his former club. Welbeck scored regularly against the Devils, backing him to do it again is not irrational. In the end, there’s a coin toss to separate the two.
Predicted line-up: Cech – Koscielny – Mustafi – Monreal – Bellerin – Xhaka – Ramsey – Ozil – Alexis – Welbeck
Last season’s win was of utmost importance to the side. I think it broke the psychological barrier for our players, in that it’s hard to beat a Jose Mourinho team. It is still hard, but it’s not impossible, and this year has shown he is nothing special.
United will come into the game with worse injury problems than we have too. Sure, losing Lacazette is highly unpleasant, but we have good options to replace the Frenchman with. United, meanwhile, likely to shut up shop, are missing Jones, Bailly, Fellaini, Carrick and most likely Matic too. Their defensive foundations are not as strong as they could have been.
It is something which we should exploit to the best of our abilities. It is something Jose is well aware of also, so he might even try, out of limited options, to try and attack us, arguing his defense is not strong enough to withstand a 90-minute siege from the likes of Ozil, Sanchez and Ramsey. In which case I hope we’ll have a plan B how to pick them off.
Above all though, I have never come into a game against a Jose Mourinho team with fewer jitters, and I think the players understand they have nothing to fear too. They have done it once, they can do it again. It’s as simple as that.
So come on you Gunners.
Tear them a new one.