The race for Premier League silverware might be over, but Manchester United’s season is not, and the Red Devils will look to further assert their reputation as England’s finest with a trip to the Emirates Stadium this weekend.
Just as Bayern Munich currently are in the Bundesliga, United’s campaign won’t end after clinching the title, and considering Premier League competition is all they’ve got left to worry about, the club can continue to pledge resources toward its cause.
As a result, the remaining fixtures—Sunday’s included—are bound to take on a blend of high-priority, business-as-usual lineups, as well as a splash of experimentation.
Names who one might not normally see among a Red Devils starting XI could now get their bite at the cherry, desperate to prove themselves in a lower-risk atmosphere prior to the summer transfer window.
The Starting XI
As has become the go-to formation this season, not just for Manchester United but for a lot of English clubs, the visitors will take on a 4-2-3-1 tactic, with Robin van Persie set to lead the assault on return to his former stomping grounds.
The question remains as to what sort of atmosphere will welcome the Dutch maestro when he steps back into this North London territory; admiration for the magnificent work he put in during his eight-year stay at the club, or resentment for ever leaving them.
Regardless, the Premier League winner is likely to have the same support directly behind him as he did in the win over Aston Villa.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s bigger conundrums come in defence, where his mind will be torn between central defensive options and whether to opt for blooding some youth or fielding a more experienced back line.
After being sent off for a brash tackle against Fulham last week, Olivier’s Giroud’s failure to win an appeal against his suspension (via BBC Sport) will have come as sweeter news to nobody more than the Manchester United defence.
Reducing their attacking options by one, it’s likely that Lukas Podolski will get his shot as Arsenal’s leading attacker, calling for a different game plan to that which Giroud might have required.
A much more mobile forward, Podolski requires a marker quick enough to keep up while strong enough to overcome the former Cologne man’s hefty presence. As such it’s likely that Nemanja Vidic will be recalled to the fray to divert any aerial efforts Arsenal may have, while Phil Jones will retain his place as understudy after a brilliant performance against Aston Villa earlier in the week.
Another option Sir Alex Ferguson might take is to field Alexander Buttner on the left side of defence. So far, the Dutchman has started only three Premier League games since arriving from Vitesse Arnhem last summer, with two of those appearances coming in the last six weeks.
In that time, Buttner has also managed to make the United bench on three occasions, and although Patrice Evra might have an edge in experience, the Frenchman has started 39 games this season and could do with the rest.
Having only played against Sunderland, Reading, Wigan Athletic and in a number of Champions League games, this could be the ideal opportunity for Buttner to get some “big game” experience on the clock, and what better test than to pit the 24-year-old against Theo Walcott?
Although inexperienced, Buttner has already shown himself to be a valued asset in attack, scoring and grabbing an assist on his debut in the English top flight, but has the almost rare advantage of being an assured defensive full-back, also.
Elsewhere, Rafael will continue to dominate the position of right-back and has a very full day on his hands with the threat of Santi Cazorla and Nacho Monreal bombing down Arsenal’s left flank likely to take its toll.
David de Gea’s vast improvements this season are something to be amazed at and, as such, are something that this weekend’s visitors aren’t going to want to halt anytime soon. The Spaniard is pretty much certain to continue his development between the sticks against Arsenal this weekend.
Ferguson’s midfield is another area ready for an injection of change in the Red Devils’ starting XI, but perhaps not as much as defence.
If rumours are to be believed (via The Telegraph), Anderson could be on his way out of Old Trafford this summer, and Sunday could be one of only a handful of matches the Brazilian will get to prove just why he deserves to stay.
In recent weeks, Tomas Rosicky has been in fine form and, alongside Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla, will run the Gunners’ creative intentions. Anderson is probably the closest thing Ferguson has to a natural defensive midfielder right now, and such a presence might be required in order to quell that particular aspect of Arsenal’s attack.
Michael Carrick, recently nominated for PFA Player of the Year, will step in once more to balance the weight in Ferguson’s engine room, injecting his usually catalytic fluidity into matters.
Manchester United's equivalent of what Mikel Arteta gives to Arsenal, it's Carrick's job to ensure that his more imposing teammates get as much opportunity on the ball as possible, a job he's accomplished with great confidence as much this season as in any other.
Although the Japanese international has proved time and again that he’s more comfortable in the centre, Shinji Kagawa should again line up on United’s left side, leaving Wayne Rooney to fill that provisional role behind the sole striker.
Rooney will have a better understanding of how the likes of Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta operate having spent time with the former at international level.
Just as he has in recent weeks and showed once again how good he is in the role, Rooney’s main responsibility will be ammunition, far more subdued than the fiery finisher seen at Manchester United and Everton from years gone by.
Instead, Rooney’s work rate will look to outlast both of Arsenal’s holding midfielders on the day while feeding good passes to his wingers: Kagawa and Antonio Valencia.
Valencia’s season hasn’t been one he’ll want to remember for too long, but after starting three of United’s last four games in the absence of the injured Ashley Young, the Ecuadorian has shown glimpses of his former best.
A defensive winger by nature, Valencia will be vital in tampering in the affairs of Santi Cazorla and Monreal and will need to offer Rafael all the support he can give in defence.
Manchester United’s marauding marvel and arguably the sole reason behind their rampant success this season, Robin van Persie, should be handed the brunt of attacking duties at the Emirates, just as he has for the large majority of the season so far.
With a hat-trick under his belt from the 3-0 triumph over Villa earlier in the week, RVP leapt over Luis Suarez in the Premier League’s highest scorer rankings and, with the Uruguayan likely to be suspended over the biting incident with Branislav Ivanovic (via BBC Sport), now looks a shoo-in to win the Golden Boot award.
Not a bad record to have heading into the final four games of the season, eh?
While Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck are both viable options for Ferguson, and ones who need the confidence boost, Van Persie will be champing at the bit to start against his former side, just as any professional usually is.
For his last few seasons at Arsenal, one could argue it was the Dutchman’s goals that kept the Gunners in Champions League contention as long as they were, but now, those goals could come back to be their demise.
With four goals in his last two games and a hop in his step thanks to his first Premier League crown, Arsene Wenger might once again see the best of Robin van Persie this weekend, but he certainly won’t be happy about it.