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Is this the worst Man Utd team ever to face Arsenal in the Premier League era?

10:00 AM WAT 27/09/2019
Paul Pogba Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Man Utd
Sir Alex Ferguson picked makeshift teams against the Gunners and still won – but there's no such confidence in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's struggling side

Manchester United face Arsenal on Monday with what may be the worst side they have ever picked to face the Gunners in the Premier League era.

Since the inception of ‘modern’ football, United have managed to defeat their old rivals even when their team appeared starkly depleted or vastly inferior – or both.

Under Sir Alex Ferguson, in particular, being shorn of key players was not necessarily an impediment on the way to victory. In a 2011 FA Cup game against Arsenal, the Scot picked a famously esoteric side.

Edwin van der Sar lined up in goal, behind a back four of Wes Brown, Chris Smalling, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, with Fabio, Rafael, John O’Shea and Darron Gibson in midfield, and Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez up front.

Fabio and Rooney netted in what was a surprisingly facile 2-0 victory over Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.

It made no difference that Ferguson picked seven defenders, three of whom lined up in midfield; every single player carried themselves with the belief they would win regardless of the makeshift nature of the line-up.

After 15 years’ rivalry, Ferguson had located Arsenal’s jugular. Of course, Wenger had, by that stage, rendered Arsenal eminently beatable in any circumstances.

Distilling his beliefs into their purest forms, the Frenchman had assembled a side devoid of physical strength but full of mental weakness. It might have been a pretty terrible United side but they were still too strong for the Gunners.

It is a testament to Ferguson’s mind control that almost any team he put out in his later years believed they could beat almost any domestic opponent.

Conversely, following several years of managerial upheaval and varied approaches to recruitment, any domestic opponent now believes that they can beat Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side.

With United weakened by poor investment, injuries and dreadful form, they could line up on Monday evening with a particularly lopsided selection.

David de Gea was at the heart of a ruthless, smash-and-grab victory against Arsenal at the Emirates in 2017, but this is a different De Gea.

He has signed a contract extension but perhaps only because he has conceded Real Madrid will not move for him any time soon. Vulnerable to unforced errors and unable to command his area physically, United's problems now start at the goalline.

Ahead of him, Victor Lindelof has shown a propensity to flounder when exposed to high balls, and Ashley Young has been pressed into action again by yet another Luke Shaw fitness problem.

It is the front six, though, where the problems become almost intractable.

Paul Pogba returned to the starting line-up against Rochdale in the Carabao Cup in midweek, but is doubtful to face Arsenal after aggravating his ankle injury.

If the World Cup winner fails to recover in time, then Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay may both start. Fred, meanwhile, has not yet impressed in over a year for the club, so it is staggering that United did not buy a central midfielder to either make the most of Pogba’s talents or to inject some greater energy.

United are even shorter on quality up front after failing to replace Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.

Marcus Rashford, who is set to miss the visit of Arsenal through injury, has long been confident of his ability to play as a central striker, but is struggling to consistently demonstrate his suitability for the role.

From a debut season full of technical talent and instinctive finishing, which included a brace in a 3-2 win over Arsenal on his first Premier League start, just three days after his first-team debut, he now appears to need to relearn the basics.

Anthony Martial is a superior option, but his fitness and contribution are not guaranteed either.

Lukaku and Sanchez were correctly shown the door but it is risible that United may have to give Mason Greenwood the chance to lead the attack by default rather than because his talent demands it.

Startlingly, it is not through the middle that United are likely to struggle most against Arsenal, but the wings.

Daniel James has been arguably the one shining light at an otherwise gloomy Old Trafford so far this season, but with Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard the other options out wide, there is a distinct lack of end product.

Wenger's influence at Arsenal was so profound that his DNA remains embedded at the Emirates, with new manager Unai Emery having changed little in terms of the erratic nature of the Gunners' displays, so it would be no surprise if United again ended up winning.

However, the situation at Old Trafford is now so desperate that it is more likely that Solskjaer will suffer further embarrassment.

If that happens, the Norwegian could lose the remaining support of both his players and the fans, who will need only to look at the teamsheet on Monday night to fully appreciate just how poor United now are.