Manchester United vs. Arsenal could come down to Paul Pogba vs. Alexis Sanchez
Manchester United vs. Arsenal has long been a match of special importance and intrigue, and Saturday's encounter between the age-old rivals is one of the most highly anticipated clashes in recent history. With Jose Mourinho going nose-to-nose against Arsene Wenger, this time on the Old Trafford touchline, it really doesn't get much bigger. There's no Zlatan for this one, and Mesut Ozil has been absolutely ridiculous recently so it looks like this one tilts towards the Gunners, but this match may come down to two men: Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez.
Pogba's very first touch for Manchester United slipped right under his lengthy grasp, and that moment's been a poignant metaphor for the bulk of his Red Devils' career so far. He's struggled in an unfamiliar role, had a rotating cast of partners in midfield, and been memed more times than a tiny Japanese dog. Recently though, he's started to round into form, and he's looking more and more like the imperious conductor United broke the global transfer record for.
Sanchez is reveling in his new role as Thierry Henry 2.0 at Arsenal, and has seized upon Wenger's challenge to become a real, bona fide, actual striker by grabbing goal after goal and leading Arsenal's line in a manner the Emirates hasn't seen since Robin van Persie. Ozil might be the creative director for this team, but Sanchez is the tireless VP of Ops, scoring, distributing, leading, and running until his legs have dialed up HR and threatened to literally fall off.
The match, of course, lies finely balanced on a number of different key points: can Manchester United's patchwork backline deal with Arsenal's beautifully balanced attack? Will Hector Bellerin's lighting-quick pace be missed against the babyfaced assassin Marcus Rashford's darting advances? Can whoever's chosen to join Pogba in midfield stack up against Arsenal's continuously improving unit, even as the Gooners may miss out on the services of pocket dynamo Santi Cazorla?
Chief amongst these concerns are Pogba and Alexis, though. While Pogba's form has improved greatly, there's still the worry that he's being deployed wrongly for United. One of Mourinho's biggest tasks is to figure out how to best set his young charge up to succeed, while providing the proper balance and thrust in midfield. Even so, the onus is on Pogba to perform, no matter where in what role his manager decides to give him. On the other side of things, Sanchez has been an injury worry for weeks now. The Arsenal man isn't just dogged in his determination on the field, he's just as bullish and stubborn in his insistence on playing at all costs, if that costs him the integrity of his leg muscles. Wenger lamented Chile's use of his oh-so-critical attacker through injury and fatigue, and it remains to be seen whether Sanchez will be deemed fit enough to play from the start, or held in reserve as a “break glass in case of emergency.”
United-Arsenal has huge implications in the Premier League. Arsenal's right in touching distance of the top of the table in fourth, needing to keep pace with Jurgen Klopp's rampaging Liverpool, Antonio Conte's revitalized Chelsea, and Pep Guardiola's increasingly sinister-looking Manchester City. On the other side of the coin, United sit in sixth place. A loss would put them a full nine points outside of the top four, distancing them even further from the all-important Champions League qualification spot, and further clouding Mourinho's future in the United dugout.
This one is big all around. It's the world's most-watched league, with two of the world's most prestigious clubs and two of the game's most colorful and storied managers. But as always, the game comes down to players, and Pogba and Sanchez are the main characters in this grandiose epic.
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