As Arsenal head into today’s matchup with Manchester United, they should be bringing a heightened level of confidence. Their last three matches have seen them control over 57% of the ball, including 72% against Fulham. While no one is likely to expect the Gunners control that much of the ball when they walk into a fierce rivalry match at Old Trafford, there’s no reason the team should not believe themselves capable of dictating play for serious chunks of the match.
To be a little more specific than the obvious notion that Arsenal are unlikely to possess the ball for 70% of the match, it’s far more likely that the match has the same ramped up energy and split of the ball that Arsenal saw in their season opener, away at Crystal Palace. Considering Arsenal are guaranteed to be missing Thomas Partey and Elneny, and are potentially missing one or two others — although everyone else has traveled — Arteta has to have the side available to him ready and on the same page. All seeing the same rabbit or duck, as Mikel would say.
A major part of Arsenal’s game won’t just be using possession in order to create chances and take the sting and verve out of United’s side, it must also be used and manipulated to keep the ball in areas that reduce United’s threat on the break.
It’s very likely that Albert Sambi Lokonga will be selected in lieu of the injured midfield duo, and while he played very well against Aston Villa, especially in his distribution, Villa looked to press the Gunners very little. It would be fair to assume that Ten Hag will be more daring in his approach at home.
But pressing Sambi, a player that is likely be one of Arsenal’s deeper midfielder players in the build up, is not the only concern Arsenal should be leery of. This season, United have looked most dangerous when they absorb pressure, win the ball and break. They may not be as dependent on it as other sides in the league, nor choose to rely on it like Conte’s Spurs, but when they have been dangerous, it often comes on the break.
It’s been a slow offensive start for United, only scoring 5 goals in their first five matches, but 2 of the 5 have been from counter attacks, 2 from open play, 1 from an own goal. Even in this recent run of form, United have won their last three games: 2-1, 1-0, 1-0. Their attack has been far from prolific.
Conversely, two of Arsenal’s best aspects this year has been the build-up play they have shown the league they are capable of and the controlled number of attackers they are getting involved in the final third. If Arsenal push those numbers forward and lose the ball, it not only stands to feed into United’s preferred style of play, but it puts a heightened pressure and responsibility on Sambi defensively to make a serious tackle. And while his play on the ball was good, and he made plays when he was in the area, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say an area of weakness in his game is still his ability to read the game defensively and intervene to make the play.
Two things are likely to help him:
- This year, Arsenal’s structure has adopted very inverted fullbacks that join the holding midfielder central to form the 2-3-5 attacking shape. This not only assists with sustaining pressure on opposition teams, but it help reduce the reliance Arsenal have on the holding midfielder possessing the mobility and positioning to always be in the right spot. These two should offer support for Sambi both in case of emergency, and in case of counter attacks.
- Granit Xhaka has been in impeccable form to start the season and was excellent in his role of “Sambi support” against Villa. He has shown a comfort dropping deep to pick up the ball and progress, pushing wide left to provide a progressive passing option when the fullback tucks in, and he is still showing a keen ability to read the game and get himself into the box. His ability in these three areas of Arsenal’s setup have played a major role in his and the team’s early success.
Both of these factors will be important. Based on recent games, it’s likely that Arsenal face a United front four of: Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Elanga or new signing Antony, anchored by Bruno Fernandes. Given United are also getting Casemiro up and running, it’s possible that he anchors the midfield and a more advanced Christian Eriksen is involved in the attack.
There has been limited footage of this set up, none involving Antony, which makes Arteta’s job a little harder, but with two midfielders in Eriksen and Bruno pushed forward, Arsenal will have to find a variety of options to build up play without abandoning the center of the park. The ability to handle multiple marks is something that often sets Partey apart from others, but it’s not an option. If, by fortune, Zinchenko is capable of playing after a slight knee sprain, his technical ability and special profile of left back/central midfielder hybrid would be most welcome.
The transition game is a threat, and Arsenal can play a major role in denying easy transition opportunities by taking care of the ball. However, they can’t find themselves holding back their attacking numbers simply to assist their back up holding midfielders. How the side finds ways to control the ball, get numbers forward, and be leery of the transitions United want to take advantage of will be keys to the Gunner’s success and something you will want to keep an eye on.