Manchester United vs Arsenal

How could Arsenal line up against Manchester United – and should Unai Emery stick with a back three?

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While it all came right in the end, Unai Emery’s team selection for Sunday’s north London derby raised a few eyebrows.

Though many expected him to revert to a more conservative back four against Tottenham, Emery stuck with the back three experiment which worked well against Bournemouth in late November. Barring a wobble towards the end of the first half, Arsenal’s defence were strong against Spurs with Hector Bellerin and Sead Kolasinac excelling in the wing-back roles and Shkodran Mustafi, Sokratis and Rob Holding barring an unfortunate penalty incident – fairly solid as the three centre-backs.

Having gone with a back four all season – barring a middling 45 minutes against Qarabag in the Europa League which resulted in a return to a four-man defence at half-time – the back three Emery fielded against Bournemouth was heralded for its tactical intelligence. Widely acclaimed for freeing up Bellerin and Kolasinac going forwards, the latter got two assists against the Cherries while, in the north London derby, Bellerin was heavily involved in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s thunderous equaliser.

Emery also has unresolved issues further forwards, with questions marks over Mesut Ozil especially. Here are the key questions he has to answer before Arsenal travel to Old Trafford to face Manchester United on Wednesday night.

Back three or back four?

Sead Kolasinac has been revitalised under Emery as a left-wing back (Getty Images)
Kolasinac has been revitalised under Emery as a left-wing back (Getty Images)

Given that Arsenal’s new formation survived the north London derby relatively unscathed, it seems unlikely Emery will change things at Old Trafford. Though Laurent Koscielny has returned to training and should be in the frame for a return to action imminently, Emery should go with the same back three of Mustafi, Sokratis and Holding with Bellerin and Kolasinac on the flanks.

If there is one obvious criticism of Emery’s take on the 3-4-3 formation, it’s that Bellerin and Kolasinac are encouraged to leave excess space in behind because of their ambitious positioning. While this is all part of the give-and-take involved in Emery finding the balance between attack and defence, both Kolasinac and Bellerin were exposed on the stroke of half-time against Bournemouth when the Cherries caught them high up the pitch on the counter-attack.

That led to a goal for Josh King which United may well look to replicate. Certainly any one of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard would pose a major threat if granted too much space to run in behind the wing backs, so Arsenal need to watch out.

Return for Mesut Ozil?

Mesut Ozil was ruled out at the weekend with a 'back spasm' (Getty Images)
Mesut Ozil was ruled out at the weekend with a ‘back spasm’ (Getty Images)

Having suffered a “back spasm” in the build-up to the north London derby, Mesut Ozil was a high-profile absentee for Arsenal at the weekend. Emery was less than forthcoming when asked about his No 10 in his post-match press conference, responding to several questions about Ozil with the answer: “I don’t know.”

Emery has since stated that he’s not sure whether Ozil will be fit for the United match, making a quick return to the starting line-up seem unlikely. With Granit Xhaka suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card of the league season against Spurs, Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi should start in the middle of the park.

Ramsey and Lacazette to start?

Lacazette celebrates scoring Arsenal's third goal in their 4-2 comeback win against Spurs (Getty Images)
Lacazette celebrates scoring Arsenal’s third goal in their 4-2 comeback win against Spurs (Getty Images)

While Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were not as ineffective against Spurs as some would make out, Emery’s decision to replace them at half-time with Aaron Ramsey and Alexandre Lacazette paid off. Ramsey notched up two assists and Lacazette scored late on, helping to turn the game on its head in the second half.

Ramsey and Lacazette will now expect to start against United, but Emery may see things differently. It will be interesting to see whether he makes a straight swap for Iwobi and Mkhitaryan or whether he decides Ramsey and Lacazette are best used as game-changing subs.

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