One of the most highly anticipated matches of the season is already here, and it should be as entertaining as ever. Manchester United and Arsenal square off at Old Trafford for another volume in their intense rivalry, and as always, everything is at stake.
Rather than summing up the key battles for this match, I decided to do something different. Player by player, I'll be comparing the two squads and assessing which club has the better player for each position.
Because Manchester United and Arsenal play different formations, there may be a few exceptions and oddities with some comparisons. And as always, if you think I made a wrong call, let me know in the comments.
Without further ado, let's get started with comparing the current starting eleven's of the two most elite clubs in the Premier League era...
Wojciech Szczesny is the answer to Arsenal's goalkeeper crisis, and has been absolutely brilliant for the Gunners since he made his debut in the same place as Sunday's match and has cemented himself as Arsenal's No. 1 goalkeeper.
He can stop just about any shot, and his strong presence in the box is much better than one would expect from a 21 year old. He's level-headed, and even proved to be good under pressure as he saved Di Natale's penalty against Udinese on Wednesday night.
On the other hand, David De Gea has fell short of any expectations United fans had. He's made errors in every single match that he's played so far for United, and is starting to be a liability that the Manchester outfit only makes up for with their strength in other positions. Premier League oppositions are starting to realize that the Spaniard has trouble with long shots and they're taking advantage of it, taking shots from farther out hoping the keeper will slip up.
Because of his modest build, De Gea is a weak presence in the box, and will take a while to adjust to the physical English game. If De Gea continues his consistency in errors, then Arsenal could get lucky for once this weekend, turning the tables in a match where the Gunners are clear underdogs.
Winner: Wojciech Szczesny
Although Bacary Sagna has been playing left back in the past few matches because of injuries to Kieran Gibbs and Armand Traore, I'm going to take a wild guess and say that he'll be starting at right back on Sunday. It may be a bold prediction, but Arsenal's injuries have been unclear and there's a chance that Kieran Gibbs, Armand Traore and even Carl Jenkinson could play at left back this weekend.
So now it's Sagna against Smalling, which is one of the most straightforward match ups on this list. Sure, Smalling is a very promising prospect for United and England and has been superb in matches against Manchester City and Tottenham, but he's not quite at Sagna's level yet.
The Frenchman has been in the PFA Team of the year twice in the past four seasons and is one of the best right backs in the world. He's one of the few reliable defenders in the Arsenal back line, and has actually been a key part in several Arsenal's attacks.
Smalling has tons of potential, but Sagna is at the peak of his game.
Winner: Bacary Sagna
Youngsters Johnny Evans and Phil Jones have impressed since the injuries of Vidic and Ferdinand, but with Ferdinand set to return against Arsenal, Jones should get the nod over Evans to start beside him.
So with Phil Jones against Laurent Koscielny, we actually get quite a close match up. At age 19, Jones is arguably the best young defender in the Premier League and has been outstanding in the matches he's played so far for United. Not only does he have brilliant individual performances, but when he comes on the pitch he influences the defensive line to push up, and Jones himself is effective when attacking.
On the other hand, Laurent Koscielny didn't enjoy immediate success after moving to the Emirates last summer. He was viewed as a failed signing by Wenger, and after his defensive error with Wojciech Szczesny in the Carling Cup final, many fans doubted Koscielny would ever be successful at Arsenal.
But the Frenchman gradually turned his game around, and towards the end of the season put in some superb performances. His best match was actually against United at the Emirates, where he was crucial to Arsenal keeping their 1-0 lead. In preseason Koscielny was consistently solid, and against Boca Juniors he stopped a number of Juan Riquelme's tricky through balls, proving that the former Lorient defender can be a master of anticipation.
This is a very close one, and it's tough to decide as these two defenders have very different playing styles.
Winner: Phil Jones
This match up is intense, as these two defenders could not be more even. Sure, in a year or two Vermaelen will be way better than the aging Ferdinand, but at the moment they're neck and neck.
If Ferdinand starts on Sunday (and I'm crossing my fingers that he doesn't), he'll be coming off of a minor injury having sat out in United's stellar performance against Tottenham. On the other hand, Vermaelen will be starting on Sunday coming off of a stellar run of form and a confidence boost from the Gunners' midweek victory over Udinese.
In every match so far this season, Vermaelen has been the heart of Arsenal's defense. He did a superb job against Liverpool by keeping Andy Carroll quiet, as well as holding together a back line consisting of himself, Sagna, an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old. When there's an aerial threat, "the Verminator" is there to clear it out of harm's way, and is surely one of the best "no nonsense" defenders around.
But Rio Ferdinand happens to be a solid defender as well, and no one's going to seriously doubt a defense that this man is in. He's strong, he's reliable, and he's a born leader. But at age 32, his spot in United's starting eleven will surely be threatened by Johnny Evans and Phil Jones, and this season could possibly be Ferdinand's last one with consistent playing time.
This is a very close call, but the superior of the two is the one who's enjoying better form and will play more of a key role for his club this season.
Winner: Thomas Vermaelen
This one is a complete no-brainer.
Patrice Evra is one of the best left backs in the world, and plays his position extremely well, moving up with the attack but always keeping mind of his defensive duties.
And on the other side of the pitch, there's Armand Traore, the inexperienced left back forced to play this match due to Kieran Gibbs' injury. Traore was decent in preseason, but didn't show that he has the potential to ever be half as good as Evra is.
Not much more needs to be said.
Winner: Patrice Evra
Both Emmanuel Frimpong and Alex Song are suspended for the match against United, and that's really unfortunate because in my book, either of those players would have won this match up against Anderson. But that's not the case, and Arsene Wenger is now faced with a dilemma which means only Henri Lansbury can start as defensive midfielder.
While Lansbury did impress on loan at Norwich last season, he's yet to break into the first team, and has only made appearances in Carling Cup matches or as a late sub. At age 20, he's a great prospect for the future of Arsenal, but currently he's not at the calibre of a player who should be starting against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
And then there's Anderson. The young Brazilian's performances have been on and off, and he struggles to keep consistency. If he's on his game on Sunday, Arsenal could have some trouble penetrating United's midfield, but if Anderson's not at his best it'll be a plus for the Gunners.
Either way, Anderson is currently a better and more qualified player than Henri Lansbury.
These two midfielders are very parallel to each other: both young, both talented, and both aiming to fill the boots of former midfield maestros for their club in Paul Scholes for United and Cesc Fabregas for Arsenal.
Tom Cleverley has been very promising for United with a solid performance in the FA Community Shield and a superb assist to Danny Welbeck against Tottenham. Although Darren Fletcher is back in the squad, I'm expecting Sir Alex Ferguson to give Cleverley the starting spot.
But Arsenal win this youth match up with Aaron Ramsey, the Welsh midfielder who's already been nominated as the captain for his side internationally. Ramsey happens to be two years younger than Cleverley, and Arsenal need the Welshman to perform well this season in order for the Gunners to succeed. Ramsey has an excellent vision of the pitch, and his terrific playmaking abilities are the reason why he's been touted as the successor to Cesc Fabregas.
This is a battle of two promising young British midfielders, Ramsey vs Cleverley, Arsenal vs United, Wales vs England. And for once, Wales will win something.
Winner: Aaron Ramsey
This is where things start to get tricky. Because Manchester United plays a 4-4-2, and Arsenal plays a 4-2-3-1, I'll be comparing players that don't necessarily play in the same position. That's starting now, with Tomas Rosicky, a central midfielder, up against Ashley Young, a left midfielder.
Never mind the logistics now, as this match up is pretty simple. Tomas Rosicky is aging, and isn't nearly the player he once was. Sure, he's got a bit left in his tank, but not nearly enough to be able to compete with Ashley Young.
Young is hitting the peak of his career, and after only a handful of matches with United it's easy to tell that he's going to be a star at Old Trafford. Sadly, Rosicky is far past his peak, and will struggle to muster up the midfield creativity that Arsenal need this season.
Winner: Ashley Young
The rest of the slideshow will be cases like this, where the formation doesn't work out and we have to compare players of slightly different positions. Let's just roll with it.
This battle is actually quite close, and it's a very tough one to choose. When both Arshavin and Nani are in their top form, they're the best players on the pitch for their clubs. But the thing is, these players are rarely on their best game, and are by far the two most inconsistent players on this list.
Nani was a star in the FA Community Shield, winning the Man of the Match award and scoring a brace to secure United's remarkable comeback. But his performances in the first two Premier League matches have been way below par, and he's seeming like a different guy than the one who showed up against Manchester City at Wembley.
Arshavin doesn't have exactly the same case as Nani, and is starting to improve his consistency. Last season many fans became fed up with the Russian dynamo's flop performances, and even questioned if he should stay at the club. But with those poor performances came brilliant ones as well, including the match where Arshavin scored the winning goal against Barcelona at the Emirates.
However, Arshavin's been showing up as the same player in every match recently. His excellent passing and dribbling are returning, and he's starting to get back to the playmaker he was a few seasons ago.
Arshavin just narrowly edges this one Nani, but only because of recent form and consistency.
Winner: Andrei Arshavin
Comparing a right winger to a striker isn't ideal, but if there's one player on Arsenal besides van Persie who plays most like a striker, it's Theo Walcott. He's actually begged Arsene Wenger to play as a center forward, but has only been granted his wish in preseason matches.
Nonetheless, Walcott has been excellent as a right winger, scoring two goals so far this season adding to his tally of thirteen in 2010-11. Because of his blistering pace, he can often beat the offsides trap to perfectly finish a through ball. A lot of the time he executes this with a clever one-two beforehand, which was exactly what he did with Bacary Sagna leading to his most recent goal against Udinese.
At the young age of 22, the former Southampton forward could have an even further breakout season in 2011-12, and is on the right path so far in this campaign.
And then there's Danny Welbeck. The Manchester United striker broke out onto the scene starting both matches this season and enjoying some stunning performances. His goal against Tottenham was terrific, and his assist later on in the match was extremely clever. Welbeck is only 20 years old and is already being viewed as the future of Manchester United. We've only seen him play a couple of matches for United, but most people are already convinced the the youngster is poised for a breakout season.
Both of these players are very promising young prospects, but Theo Walcott has already begun to prove himself and is close to cementing a regular starting spot. On the other hand, we've only seen Danny Welbeck play two Premier League matches, and he seems to be a player who thrives on confidence, however we still don't know every aspect of his game. So the winner goes to the one who seems more reliable for consistent performances.
Winner: Theo Walcott
Wayne Rooney is back.
After enduring a horrendous half-season both on and off the pitch, the England striker is back in top form and has his eyes set on the golden boot and Manchester United's twentieth Premier League crown. He's scored two goals in two Premier League matches, and will be looking to find the net for the full 90 minutes against Arsenal.
However, Robin van Persie's back as well, and started his string of goal-scoring last season while Rooney was still stuck in his ditch. Van Persie scored his first goal of the season against Udinese, and as the new Arsenal captain he'll give everything to make sure the Gunners emerge as victors at Old Trafford, despite their underdog status.
These are two of the best strikers in the world, and are arguably the two best in the Premiership. They're both very familiar with the back of the net, and are versatile in the ways that they put the ball there, scoring goals from set-pieces, volleys, and headers.
So which player is better?
If you ask me, I'd say they're even, but no one likes a draw. This is by far the biggest battle on this list, and each of these players clubs depend on their good performance to succeed. There is a winner, but he just barely edges it over his competitor.
Winner: Wayne Rooney
Who do you think wins each of these match-ups?
Feel free to let me know in the comments, as well as predictions for tomorrow's match at Old Trafford.
Enjoy the game!