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Arsenal-Man U: Gunners need to make this opportunity count

Arsenal have put themselves in a position to make this match against 2nd place Manchester United count for a lot. A win sees Arsenal continue their recent form and allows their European aspirations continue.

Check out today’s lineup blog: Arsenal-Man U: Team news, lineup, and prediction

Before the Southampton match this week, the conversation revolved around making the decision to rotate the squad in the FA Cup worthwhile by taking all three points versus the Saints. Winning on Tuesday would justify Arteta’s decision in the short-term, it would kick off Arsenal’s hellish run of upcoming games in a very positive way, and continue to put themselves in positions where winning points would carry significant meaning.

At the beginning of the week Arsenal stared down a league run against: Southampton, Manchester United, Wolves, Aston Villa, Leeds, Manchester City, and Leicester. A run of 7 opponents that yielded only 5 of 21 possible points the first time playing. To make matters more difficult, Arsenal will have their two Europa League legs against Benfica in the middle of that run.

A repeat production of 5 points would definitively end Arsenal’s chances of competing for the top four and likely end any hope of making their way back to the Europa League as well. Even taking 10-12 points from this run of fixtures, an amount I myself am leaning toward as a prediction, may not be enough but would be a considerable step in the right direction.

With a 3-1 win over Southampton, Arsenal achieved those first steps of keeping their form in the league rolling, justifying Arteta’s decision, and getting a win in a match they really needed to win. “We’re keeping the momentum going, the run going, being very humble and understanding that there are a lot of things we have to improve,” is the mentality Arteta is preaching. “There is so much we have to do to catch up with many other teams still, and go game by game. Let’s see where we get.”

By getting that win over Southampton, Arsenal have put themselves in a position that sees them become a threat, if they can put together a nice run of results, while not needing to win every one.

A win tomorrow sees them climb up to 33 points, level with Everton and Tottenham, who may have games in hand but this season has proved that points on the board are better than games in hand. Just ask Manchester United who will be kicking themselves for not getting a result against bottom of the table, Sheffield United.

Arsenal have earned the right for this matchup with Manchester United, at the Emirates, to really count for something. It might be a bit of a stretch to stamp it with the fabled “six pointer” label, but the way the table lies, if you said Arenal are going to be in the hunt down the stretch, my guess would be that United are one of the sides the Gunners are in direct competition with.

If I had to guess, Liverpool will finish strong, despite their struggles this season, and Manchester Untied and Leicester will slowly fade leaving an opportunity for someone to jump them in the race for Europe. This makes the match at hand a golden chance for Arsenal to do themselves a favor for down the road. Not to mention, taking the double over Manchester United is always a reward in and of itself!

You won’t need reminding of the fact that Arsenal beat Manchester United at Old Trafford for the first time in fifteen years this season, but Manchester was in a very different place at the time — and so were Arsenal.

Since then, Arsenal went through an extended period of league struggles, while Manchester United have found a real groove that has put them just one point back of their biggest rival, and current league leaders, Manchester City. United will certainly be looking for revenge on Arsenal’s soil to even the score, as well as, a bounce back from this week’s embarrassment.

“We know it’s going to be really difficult. They’ve been in top form,” commented Arteta in his prematch press conference. “They’ve been top of the table, playing really well. We know they are a real threat so we have to be at our best to beat them on Saturday.”

The match should be quite different from the one Arsenal recently played against Southampton. Manchester United look to press teams quite a bit less than Southampton, and with less success when they do.

2020-21 season avg.PressuresSuccessfulSucc. %
Southampton141.145.532.3
Manchester United126.438.330.3
Arsenal113.333.829.8
Stats from FBref.com; All stats are “per 90 averages”

In Arsenal’s first clash, United pressured even less than the numbers above. Out of 111 pressures, 34 of them were successful for a 30.6% success rate. While their percentage remaining the same suggests they chose their moments to pressure well, the lower quantity may be contributed to the presence of Thomas Partey and Mohammed Elneny offering themselves as options to relieve the danger.

With this understanding, we can expect Arsenal to have more time on the ball, however, Manchester United are a team that loves to hit teams on the break. They don’t dedicate themselves to that game nearly as much as, say, a Mourinho Tottenham team, but Ole’s side is certainly content to pick and choose their moments to press and look for transition opportunities and breaks. Arsenal will have to be aware of it.

Last time, Gabriel had a monster game and played a big part in shutting down United’s attack. He didn’t feature for a few weeks due to testing positive for Covid and his return match against Southampton in the FA Cup loss wasn’t the dream return anyone would have been hoping for, but Arteta need to find a way to get his presence back and involved on a regular basis. This would be a great opportunity to do that.

In possession, Partey played a major role in stumping United’s press as he controlled the center of the park. His abilities as a tidy, physical, press-resistant midfielder were frustrating for Manchester to deal with. Additionally, Partey and his midfield partner Elneny exemplified workrate. Always an option to receive the ball, always swarming and looking to push the tempo. If Xhaka is given the start, as he has been recently, another match like his performance against Southampton is needed.

Xhaka was filled with positive intent, looking for opportunities to transition the ball quickly, positioning himself well to clean up loose balls, and driving the team forward. It was another complete performance for the Swiss midfielder.

Arsenal have announced they will be without captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who scored Arsenal’s winning penalty against the Red Devils this season, but Pepe and slotted in just fine in his absence as the Gunners dedicated their win to number 14. Whether Pepe gets a second start on the left wing or Gabriel Martinelli does, may come down to who plays behind them.

If Kieran Tierney is back fit, you can expect him to play. In the past, Arteta has looked to have one left-footed player and one right-footed player on each wing. The most recent example of having two righties on the same wing? When AMN and Aubameyang played against Crystal Palace on the left, which did not go well. Kieran Tierney is a left footed player, which would mean Gabriel Martinelli is the one that balances him out, but it would be hard to argue against Pepe getting another start after his complete performance last time out.

It’s a tough decision, but seasons like this are filled with tough decisions for a manager. Of course, there are other aspects to the choice than just balance or form — the areas of the pitch Arteta is looking to exploit, each player’s ability to tuck in and play the “Auba role”, or defensive workrate — and getting this decision right is a necessity for Arteta.

It’s early in his career, but there is something of a thrill for Arsenal fans in watching Arteta outsmart, out coach, and out tactically outwit managers and coaches from other big 6 clubs. He has already outlasted Frank Lampard, but seeing him take the double over Ole would be a sweet, sweet treat.

A big three points on the line, huge opportunity to show what the side can do against other big 6 clubs, a chance to improve the home record, and a need to keep this run of good form going. A draw may suffice, but a win sees Arsenal continue to sneak their way into contention.

Check out today’s lineup blog: Arsenal-Man U: Team news, lineup, and prediction

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