In some alternate universe, Arsenal would have Lionel Messi, Yaya Toure and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in their squad to face Manchester United this weekend.
Unfortunately for Gunners fans, it seems we live in their "darkest timeline," where Messi, Toure and Ibrahimovic all slipped through Arsene Wenger's fingers (or were simply turned down by the Frenchman). Instead, Danny Welbeck is the man signed to help lift the club out of the veritable purgatory that is the constant, unchanging pursuit of fourth position.
"We wanted to take Fabregas, Messi and Pique," Wenger noted to reporters on Friday, per the BBC. "It worked only for Fabregas."
On reports that Messi eventually rejected a move because the club would not buy his family a flat, Wenger added: "I think in the end [Messi] was not so keen to move. It was not completely down to a flat in the end. It was down to the fact that Messi was comfortable at Barcelona."
It is intriguing to consider what Arsenal might have achieved had they signed Messi (let's be honest, they probably would have ended up selling him back to Barcelona, just as they did with Fabregas), but the fact they do not have the Argentinian should not stop them from being able to win against United on Saturday.
United have never had a problem attracting expensive and prodigiously talented individuals. But at this moment, they do have a big problem keeping those individuals fit.
After playing Daley Blind as a makeshift central defender in the club's last game against Crystal Palace, Van Gaal is now without the Dutchman—meaning he has to resort to the back-up to the back-up to the last resort plan as he attempts to put out a defence capable of fending off the Gunners. It will be a comprehensive test of his tactical acumen. On the other hand, it is a glorious chance for Wenger and his men to put United to the sword.
Talking about his injury issues, Van Gaal said, per Manchester United's official website:
[Angel] Di Maria has trained today normally so I don't think that is a question mark, but [Luke] Shaw is a question mark. David De Gea is good, no problem. I think Michael Carrick I have to wait for the reactions tomorrow in the training session, but I expect also that he's ready to play.
Blind is not ready to play. He has now a brace on his knee, 10 days' rest, then we have to make another scan and we can say more about his injury. It's not so bad as the doctors are thinking after the match, but it shall be a long story, I believe, but not six months or something.
That does not even touch on the attacking issues, as Wayne Rooney is (presumably) fully fit but Robin van Persie remains out of top form and Radamel Falcao's knee problem seems to only be getting worse. Van Gaal would never admit that it would be good to have Welbeck back in such circumstances, but that is probably the case.
As it is, Welbeck might not be able to face his former club anyway, with a late fitness test scheduled ahead of the game. He must surely be desperate to take part so he can show United the mistake they made in letting him go.
Still, even without Welbeck (and Messi), Wenger might feel he is in a stronger position than his opposite number. Laurent Koscielny is out, but Olivier Giroud is available (over a month ahead of schedule), meaning the Arsenal boss actually has a few options for this match.
With Jack Wilshere in good form, based on his England performance against Scotland, and Alexis Sanchez also really hitting his stride in English football, Wenger will be confident of a strong reaction after the disappointment of the away defeat to Swansea right before the international break.
"There is always a fight because there are a lot of offensive options," Wenger said, per Reuters. "But Danny Welbeck can play in different positions up front and there is, in some games, room for both of them, but of course, it is a fight."
It seems hard to believe either of these sides will be contending for the title at the end of the season, but one or both might be fighting to qualify for next season's Champions League. The consensus seems to be that United will get better as time goes on and the players adjust to all the recent upheaval; if Arsenal want to remain out in front, they need to make hay while the sun is still shining.
Saturday would seem to be a glorious opportunity to do just that.
Week 12 Fixtures
All games 3 p.m. BST (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated.
Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion
Everton vs. West Ham United
Leicester City vs. Sunderland
Manchester City vs. Swansea City
Newcastle United vs. Queens Park Rangers
Stoke City vs. Burnley
Arsenal vs. Manchester United (5:30 p.m.)
Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool (1:30 p.m.)
Hull City vs. Tottenham Hotspur (4 p.m.)
Aston Villa vs. Southampton (8 p.m.)
1. What to watch out for this week
Will Chelsea fans heed Mourinho's call?
Chelsea host West Bromwich Albion on Saturday, the first game at Stamford Bridge since Jose Mourinho made his comments about the subdued atmosphere at the Blues' home ground.
In the aftermath, there was a certain amount of anger at the comments—How could he criticise the fans like that?! But now, after a few weeks for things to settle down, it seems increasingly probable the Portuguese will get the result he desired: an increase in the noise and cheering at the Bridge.
That might not necessarily happen throughout the game against West Brom, but it may end up becoming more noticeable in the bigger games against the bigger clubs, especially in Europe.
Test for Southampton
Now that we are done with international matches until March of next year, Premier League clubs will move into a crucial phase of the season where their campaigns are relatively unaffected by other concerns. For those hoping to achieve great things after a positive start to the season, this is the stretch when those ambitions will really be put to the test.
For Southampton, just starting to think about a possible Champions League qualification push, that means they must win games like Monday's visit to Aston Villa, especially with a run of matches against the league's biggest sides on the horizon.
Saints manager Ronald Koeman will doubtless impress upon his side the need for focus.
Barkley will want to show his bite
On Saturday, Everton face West Ham United at Goodison Park in a contest which could well see Ross Barkley and Stewart Downing occupy their respective sides' No. 10 position behind the striker(s).
Barkley, in particular, may have an additional incentive to make a statement, having been left on the bench as Downing—returning to the international fray for the first time in four years—was selected ahead of him by England manager Roy Hodgson against Scotland on Tuesday.
Barkley has long been considered a future star for the Three Lions and has been involved with the senior squad for a considerable period now, which made Hodgson's snub in favour of the admittedly in-form Downing all the more puzzling. This game gives observers a convenient opportunity to try and see what Hodgson saw in both players.
The managerial merry-go-round
According to betting aggregators, Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino is the third most likely Premier League manager to be sacked next (per Oddschecker). His opposite number on Sunday, Hull City manager Steve Bruce, is hardly much better off—he is the sixth favourite to be the next manager given his marching orders.
With Hull at home on Sunday, the pressure will thus increase considerably on whichever manager does not come away with victory at the KC Stadium. Pochettino seems to have his chairman's backing for now, but with the axe falling with notorious regularity at White Hart Lane, it is difficult to believe he can survive too many more disappointing afternoons like the one against Stoke before the international break.
2. Video of the week
3. Player to watch
After a week—well, nearly two—of incessant evaluations and pontifications about his international legacy, Wayne Rooney may be a tad relieved to be getting back to business at club level. He should also return to Manchester United duty with confidence buoyed, having scored three goals in two games while away with the Three Lions.
If that indicates a return to goalscoring form, then it comes at a great time for United, who are in the midst of a quite remarkable injury crisis. Daley Blind was added to the treatment room this week, while Radamel Falcao is apparently still some way away from returning. Put together, it creates a number of selection headaches for Louis van Gaal, who faces going into Saturday's game with Arsenal with a ramshackle back four.
Rooney has a fine record against Arsenal, however, and he might be key to United's hopes of getting a positive result. The international break has cost United dearly, but with Rooney's form picking up, it might have come with at least one tangible benefit.
4. Game of the weekend
Crystal Palace vs. Liverpool
One of the most memorable games of last season gets a repeat, although this time it is both sides that are under pressure. Palace were already guaranteed Premier League survival when they came from 3-0 down to ravage Liverpool's title ambitions in a dramatic 3-3 draw back in May. This time, Palace have started the season ominously poorly, while Liverpool's squad is under pressure as it fails to impress in life after Luis Suarez.
Daniel Sturridge was supposed to be back to full fitness in time for this game, but another training setback means his return is once again delayed. That will be a boost to Palace, as they have not been the same obdurate defensive side they were last term.
With the trickery of Yannick Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha on the flanks, Palace manager Neil Warnock will be hoping his side can take advantage of what is sure to be a vociferous Selhurst Park crowd, but the leaky defence will remain a concern.
Indeed, Brendan Rodgers might be secretly confident that this is a game where his side can break out of their recent slump. Lowly Sunderland won in the last game at Selhurst Park, so why can't the Reds follow in their footsteps?
Last time around, this game stalled a title bid. The stakes are not quite so high this time, but the pressure on whoever loses will be magnified.