Arsenal host Manchester United, as Mikel Arteta continues his search for a first win in charge of the Gunners since taking the reins. A draw with Bournemouth and a loss to Chelsea have left Arsenal in 12th, but there have been some promising signs in both games, as well as constant defensive worries, and with the injuries mounting for Arteta’s side, United may sense an opportunity to further Arsenal’s woes.
Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s side come into the game in fifth place, looking to keep pace in the race for Champions League football, and a 2-0 win at Burnley further boosted those hopes. However, they have been the benefactors of individual mistakes in both of their last two games against Burnley and Newcastle, and come up against a different threat in Arsenal, so how will both sides adapt to this?
In Arteta’s first two games, he has looked to implement more structure into the Arsenal side, opting for a more rigid 4-2-3-1 shape, and it has shown to have both its strengths and weaknesses in these opening two games.
Against Bournemouth, it allowed Arsenal to control the game for long periods, enjoying 61.1% possession and giving Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka a more defined role, as he completed 90/96 passes in the centre of the park. Although Xhaka missed out with illness against Chelsea, the opening 35 minutes against the Blues’ back five saw them dominate centrally once again, as the two man midfield became overrun and allowed Lucas Torreira and Callum Chambers to enjoy plenty of the ball and pull the strings, also getting the best out of Mesut Ozil.
However, Chambers’ injury, coupled with Frank Lampard’s tactical tweak, did see Chelsea regain control of the match, and they eventually made this pay in the final ten minutes, benefiting from an error from Bernd Leno and a devasting counter attack, the latter of which Solksjaer will be keen to target on Wednesday.
United have shown a willingness to sit off against sides such as Chelsea and Manchester City this season, and with the impetus being on the home side to control possession, the Red Devils will look to invite on the Arsenal pressure and hit them on the counter, utilising the pace of Marcus Rashford, Dan James and Anthony Martial on the break.
Arsenal’s full backs are expected to push high in Arteta’s tactics, and both Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka could be targeted by United’s front three on the break, particularly with the spaces they vacate in behind. Furthermore, with the injury worries adding up and centre half, and a tendency to play a high line from the Gunners, it makes United even more threatening on the break, and the returning Paul Pogba could be key in the midfield to utilising this threat. His long passing ability is world class, and when offered the space in behind, he has shown time and time again an ability to hit the spaces and create for the attacking front three, and this is certainly an area of concern for Arsenal. Factoring in Chambers’ absence, the inconsistent and often rash David Luiz could struggle alongside Shkodran Mustafi, with Sokratis another injury doubt. As Chelsea highlighted with their winner on Sunday, the devastating pace could overrun the midfield and defence, so Arsenal will have to be wary of this threat.
However, Scott McTominay’s absence could be important in the middle of midfield for United, as Arsenal will look to dominate possession, and try and play at an increased tempo to that of Burnley and Newcastle, where the Scot’s presence wasn’t missed as much. Although Nemanja Matic performed well against Burnley, the Serbian midfielder lacks the energy of the Scot to perform in these games, and if Mesut Ozil is on form and allowed to drift in these pockets of spaces, he will be well equipped to cause the United backline problems. Fred has impressed in recent weeks and may be given the role of man-marking Ozil, but with Pogba returning, as well as Jesse Lingard being available, the balance of the United midfield will be interesting, and is certainly worth considering ahead of Wednesday’s game.
The other area Arsenal will be able to target United is out wide, and it is the left side of United’s defence where the worry often lies. Although Brandon Williams put in an excellent performance against Burnley, he was often left exposed by Rashford who doesn’t contribute defensively, and up against a more potent attack of Arsenal compared to Jeff Hendrick and Phil Bardsley, either he, or Luke Shaw, could have their work cut out, particularly by the overlaps provided by Maitland Niles down that flank. Reiss Nelson has started both games out wide for Arteta, and has proved himself to be a tricky customer, but the Gunners may be tempted to give Nicholas Pepe a run out on the wing, and if so, the tackle markets on the left back are certainly worth keeping a keen eye on.
Down the other flank, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Saka are building a budding partnership, and Saka’s high positioning does allow Aubameyang a role which enables him to drift in from that side, and this could cause United problems if Arsenal are able to counter, especially with his pace up against Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof. An early goal would open the game up, and if United are forced to come out and play a high line, Aubameyang will relish the opportunities in behind the United defence.
If the game is to live up to its billing, it does have the makings of a fantastic game to start the New Year, and as a result two markets take appeal.
Firstly, with weaknesses at the back for Arsenal, it is hard to see past United netting at the Emirates, but with Arsenal’s attacking talent starting to shine through, I’d expect them to net as well. Ozil’s performances have picked up in recent weeks, and he could be due another big game up against Matic and Fred, and as a result I believe goals will be the way forward for this game. Available at 1.83 (Bet365), Over 2.5 goals and Both Teams to Score stands out.
Often a lively affair, the tactical elements for both sides means that cards are unsurprisingly appealing on both sides for this match. Too early to pick out individual players in the markets, both sides to have over 1.5 cards at 2.20 (Bet365) is hard to turn down, especially when adding in the potentially tiring legs of both sides. Arsenal in particular could see their depth stretched with injuries and the end-to-end game against Chelsea which saw nine dished out, and this further reinforces the thoughts on this game.