The Premier League is back after yet another international break, but Saturday presents three intriguing viewing options to make up for the league’s absence. Here’s our EPL Weekender.
Arsenal v. Manchester United (Saturday, November 22 – 12:30 PM ET, NBC)
There was a time when Manchester United and Arsenal absolutely dominated the Premier League. Indeed, either club won the league for nine straight seasons, beginning with Manchester United’s title in the 1995-96 campaign and ending with Arsenal’s victory in the 2003-04 season. Remarkably, in only four of those nine seasons did a club other than the Gunners or the Red Devils finish runner-up. Not only was the Premier League a two-horse race for nearly a decade – it was a very, very contentious one at that.
Much has changed since Arsenal’s last league title ten years ago. The Gunners’ decline has been subtle yet well-documented; one can simply point to the two meager pieces of silverware earned since that last league title ten years ago: the 2004-2005 and last year’s FA Cups.
Manchester United’s decline has been much steeper. They’re still recovering from a calamitous 2013-2014 season under David Moyes, when they finished 7th in the standings, one year after lifting the trophy at the end of the 2012-13 campaign. Seventh place, coincidentally, where the current iteration of the Red Devils sit in the Premier League table. And while it’s almost an automatic reflex to look for Arsenal in their customary fourth place, they lie a little bit further south: only one point – and one position – ahead of their once bitter rivals.
Mired in relative mediocrity, there are other issues plaguing the fallen aristocrats. For starters, both teams have a seemingly endless supply of injured players to populate their luxury boxes. The rivals that once fought to the death for Premier League supremacy now duke it out to see who has the most players out of commission.
Both clubs have been berated by fans and press alike for failing to reinforce their creaky defenses in the summer. Both teams are far from the elite in terms of scoring (Arsenal have scored 9 fewer goals than Chelsea, and that’s still two more than Manchester United have tallied), or defending (United have allowed 9 more goals than Southampton’s league-leading group, while the Gunners have leaked only one fewer than the Red Devils).
What should we expect on Saturday? If anything, there has to be huge anticipation to see those starting lineups. The international break left United with a few additions to their absurd injury list, with Daley Blind suffering a serious – how serious? No one knows for sure – knee injury, while Ángel Di María suffered a knock and David de Gea seemed to dislocate a finger. But there’s more! Luke Shaw might have a hamstring issue, and Michael Carrick withdrew from the England team with a groin problem. Those are five starters from the last time Manchester United played, and while Blind is the only one who is definitely out, that still leaves van Gaal with yet another complicated juggling act to maintain. Oh, and Radamel Falcao, who has already missed the last three games, apparently has a “new” injury.
Will van Gaal stick to his recent 4-2-3-1 formation? It hasn’t been nearly as explosive as the 4-1-2-1-2 diamond, but it also hasn’t seen the team collapse in the last half hour of matches. You could argue that Ander Herrera (who has been recovering from a cracked rib) can fill in for Blind, while Di María, Rooney and Januzaj can form a wide line of three behind ex-Gunner Robin van Persie. However, it’s this lineup that morphed into a strange (and not quite effective) 4-1-4-1, with Fellaini abandoning his central midfield partner in search for glory up front. This could prove dangerous if Wenger lines up with a similar 4-2-3-1 designed to outnumber United’s makeshift central midfield and defense with Sánchez and former Red Devil Danny Welbeck’s pace.
It will be interesting to see what Wenger does now that his previously indispensable striker Olivier Giroud is available for selection after a lengthy absence. Welbeck has done very well since his move from Old Trafford, and Sánchez has been spectacular. Will the wily Frenchman go with two strikers? Will he deploy Sánchez and Welbeck on the wings, with Giroud up the middle and Jack Wilshere just behind? Arsenal will surely feel the pressure of getting a positive result to make up for a shambolic come-from-ahead loss to Swansea before the international break.
Speaking of that match; van Gaal surely had to notice how Swans winger Jefferson Montero ran circles around poor Calum Chambers, who was doing his best to cover the right fullback slot. It was the diminutive Ecuadorian who, after leaving Chambers in the dust for the umpteenth time, delivered the cross that ended up sealing Arsenal’s fate.
If Ángel Di María is indeed fit, you can bet on him delighting at the thought of torturing the ex-Southampton teenager.
While neither the Gunners nor the Red Devils are serious title contenders this year, there is ample pressure on them to do better than they have so far this season. Perhaps that added bit of tension will bring back the good old edgy days of this fading rivalry.
Manchester City v. Swansea (Saturday, November 22th – 9:00 AM ET, NBC Live Extra)
As was covered above, the Swans are flying high after their win over Arsenal, while Manuel Pellegrini has to figure out how he’s going to get his extremely well remunerated bunch clicking once again. Is it merely a matter of time, or is something more serious afoot at the Etihad? Regardless, City know they cannot afford to drop any points at home in a week where Chelsea themselves have a seemingly straightforward home date with West Brom at roughly the same time.
Everton v. West Ham (Saturday, November 22th – 10:00 AM ET, NBC Extra Time)
Could be the most exciting match in the 10 a.m. ET slot. Both sides have managed to play a consistently entertaining brand of the game – something that couldn’t be said of either team not too long ago (or in West Ham’s case, last year). Everton will be under pressure to deliver the points at home, but look for everyone’s favorite Premier League striker duo of Diafra Sakho – should he play – and Enner Valencia to make amends for last week’s scoreless performance and terrorize what has been one of the worst defenses in the Premier League. Only two other teams above the relegation zone (Sunderland and Crystal Palace) have conceded more goals than the Toffees this season – and no team has conceded more goals playing at home.