Arsenal and Manchester United share as much history as any two clubs in the Premier League era. Although Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle flirted with the idea of usurping Fergie’s men in the mid-90s, it wasn’t until Arsene Wenger took over at Highbury in 1996 that United had a true challenger for the crown, creating a rivalry that would light up the best years of modern English football.
Although the backdrop is less dramatic now – neither side are immediate contenders for the title – meetings between Arsenal and United never fail to generate a great deal of excitement.
And Friday should be special. A cup tie under the floodlights at the Emirates Stadium between two old foes, it’s undoubtedly the standout game of the FA Cup fourth round. Here, we preview it.
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United’s resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is well documented at this stage. The Norwegian on Saturday became the first manager in the club’s history to win his first six league games in charge. Having also seen off Reading in the FA Cup third round, Solskjaer is aiming for an eighth successive win to continue his dream start to life at the United helm.
He has fresh memories of a hard-fought triumph over a north London side, too, with United having beaten Tottenham at Wembley two weeks ago.
Now that Solskjaer has revived the club’s hopes of finishing in the top four, he is setting his sights on the competition he won twice as a player.
But seeing off Arsenal away from home is a big ask, especially as the Gunners are fresh off a 2-0 win over Chelsea. Under Unai Emery, Arsenal have offered a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. After starting the campaign with defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, they embarked on a four-month unbeaten run in all competitions before coming undone at Southampton.
They have thumped Spurs, been thumped by Liverpool, looked second-best against West Ham then looked far superior against Chelsea. In short, you can never be too sure what you’re going to get from them but, make no mistake, they have enough firepower to really hurt United.
It will be interesting to see how Solskjaer approaches this game. Having gone effectively gung-ho in United’s home games so far, the 45-year-old was much more reserved in the win at Spurs.
The Red Devils, particularly in the second half when they were protecting a lead, sat back and absorbed Spurs’ pressure which, had it not been for a series of excellent David de Gea saves, would have produced an equaliser for Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
Arsenal, in many ways, pose a similar threat. They have quick, nimble-footed attackers who love to press high and, like Spurs with Harry Kane, have one of the most clinical finishers around in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Emery, like Pochettino, is also an astute, versatile tactician. In Arsenal’s 4-2 win over Spurs, Emery’s 3-4-2-1 allowed his side to dominate large periods of the first half. However, after Spurs got their noses in front with two quickfire goals, Emery made two half-time substitutions and changed the shape, allowing his players to launch a stunning fightback which overwhelmed their derby rivals.
Last time out, against Chelsea, Emery lined up with a diamond in midfield, with Aaron Ramsey as the attacking point behind a fearsome striking duo of Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
United struggled at times against Spurs’ diamond so it’s very possible Emery will retain this shape for Friday night’s clash.
The 21-year-old continued his rich vein of form with a brilliant strike in the 2-1 win over Brighton, bringing him to five goals under Solskjaer after netting for a fourth successive time in the league.
Rashford has never looked so confident and clinical, fearless even, and he will relish taking on a depleted Gunners defence which, without Hector Bellerin, is lacking the one man who can truly match him for pace.
Rashford has had success against Arsenal in the past, too, bagging a brace on his Premier League debut in February 2016 as Louis van Gaal’s men saw off the Gunners 3-2 at Old Trafford.
Almost three years on, the England international has developed remarkably and is well and by far United’s star man entering this tie.
In an Arsenal side brimming with quality – from the brilliant Lucas Torreira to the razor-sharp Lacazette – Aubameyang is comfortably the biggest goal threat.
The Gabon international will mark one year as a Gunner on January 31 and it’s been a hugely productive first 12 months in England, with 26 goals in 42 appearances in all competitions.
While the 29-year-old doesn’t quite have that electrifying burst of pace that marked him out as one of European football’s most coveted forwards while he was at Borussia Dortmund, he constantly finds space in the box, can link-up effectively with Lacazette and doesn’t need a second invitation to score.
Victor Lindelof, who has been excellent under Solskjaer, will have his hands full trying to keep Arsenal’s record signing quiet.
United have certainly edged Arsenal in recent meetings, losing just one in the last six, winning three and drawing the other two.
Their last visit to the Emirates – in December 2017 – was a fruitful one too, running out 3-1 winners after a virtuoso counter-attacking display and a spectacular performance from De Gea.
While it will be difficult shutting Arsenal’s attack out, we’re backing United to get the job done with a 2-1 win and for Rashford to continue his goalscoring form.
* odds subject to change