Manchester United and Arsenal are set to face-off on Monday Night Football.
Both sides were expected to challenge for the top four spots this season. It’s been six games so far and whilst Arsenal sit fourth (level on 11 points with Leicester and West Ham) United are three points back in eighth place. Both teams have been spotty in terms of performance and are lucky to have the points totals they do. They are some way behind Liverpool and Manchester City.
But in facing each other, what we should be guaranteed to get is some goals and some fantastic entertainment. Of course the question is who will come out on top? Can United claw Arsenal back, or will the Gunners move a massive six points ahead of The Red Devils? We’ve had a look at the match and isolated three key battlegrounds that will decide the match.
1. Emery vs. Solskjaer
Manchester United vs. Arsenal has famously been a contrast of styles for many a year, with a canny and streetwise United taking on an effervescent and expressive Arsenal side. But now it’s two sides who are honestly both better running the break. They each have intentions and ambitions to play with the ball and be effective there, but often run aground when trying that.
Arsenal fare better than United with the ball owing to having a world-class striker, but in general both sides (as currently constituted) only come to life when playing in transition. So the face-off between coaches becomes so important because it will decide who gets to play the way that suits them best.
Playing at home, one would expect United to thunder forward on the front foot – but their transfer business has left them without the midfield needed to dominate the ball and still be potent. Their players excel on the break; Mason Greenwood, Daniel James and Paul Pogba are all born to run, and if Solskjaer can convince his team to surrender the ball and hit the Gunners on the counter then Unai Emery could be in big trouble indeed. His Arsenal side seem incapable of restraining themselves so even though they should try and stay compact and defend, they would probably drive forward and try to dominate the ball. That would be admirable but would play right into Solskjaer’s hands.
2. Midfield maelstrom
Neither side has a good midfield. Arsenal certainly has more talented midfielders with Matteo Guendouzi, Dani Ceballos, Lucas Torreira and yes, even Granit Xhaka. Of course what this is, is an incredibly unbalanced midfield unit. Three of the four players are defensively suspect and although they try, do not have the skills to hold midfield and defend transitions. Lucas Torreira does, but he’s just one man and hasn’t been favoured by Unai Emery recently.
Fortunately for Arsenal, Manchester United’s midfield is awful. Paul Pogba is, on his day, as good as any in the league. But he’s too capricious a talent and surrounded by an absolute desert of nonsense. He’s still United’s best and most productive midfielder by a million miles, but it’s easy to see how in a pitched midfield battle he can be pressed into constantly turning the ball over.
And that will have to be Arsenal’s strategy, swarm Pogba and hope they can throw him off his game. If United do decide to sit back, however, then Pogba would probably be unleashed to drive forward into attack, running through the Arsenal midfield like a knife through butter and charging straight at their defence. The last time he did this in 2019/20, United smashed Chelsea 4-0.
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3. Aubameyang vs. the United defence
The tactical trends of the game lean towards United getting a victory. Not necessarily because they’re better than Arsenal as a team, but because they can actually defend. Only Liverpool and Leicester have conceded fewer goals so far this season, and with Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, United have two of the best defensive players in the division.
So being able to actually defend means they can sit back, absorb Arsenal pressure, etc. etc. etc. it’s all written above. So United are going to win, right? The tactical battlegrounds should belong to them. Well, sure, but don’t start marking them down as victors just yet because Arsenal have an X-factor and that X-factor is called Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
The 30-year-old striker is a dream come true for Arsenal fans. He’s fast, he’s fleet of foot, he’s apparently a wonderful leadership figure – going out of his way to help Gabriel Martinelli settle into the club – and he wears the no. 14. Since he joined Arsenal, only Mohamed Salah has scored more than his 38 Premier League goals, and Salah is just one ahead on 39 despite playing around 500 more minutes and taking over 50 more shots than the Arsenal man.
Essentially he’s a one-man wrecking crew, and if he decides to show up then it really doesn’t matter what Manchester United do. He could go minutes and minutes without touching the ball and then show up to decide the game with a moment of pure magic. And that’s the bottom line, really. Pure genius can make a mockery of the plans of mice and men, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is pure genius.