The 'fickleness' of football fans is a widely acknowledged mantra in the world of sports fanaticism but surely nothing illustrates it more than the conflicting attitudes of the fanbases of both Manchester United and Arsenal going into today's Super Sunday fixture. At the start of the season, Arsenal fans were ready to roll out the stairway to heaven and appoint Mikael Arteta the 'Messiah' but back to back losses in the EPL, with barely a threatening shot mustered on target (their XG did not exceed 1) has brought the cloud of pessimism and self-doubt back to the footsteps of the Emirates.
In stark contrast you have the fall and rise in the fortunes of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. Despite being heralded himself towards the end of last season, the complete lack of backing of the board and an atrocious start to the campaign had many wondering if he would make it past the New Year. Fans were baying for blood, eager for change - especially if they could not get their hands on Woodward... Solksjaer would have to do as the sacrificial lamb. Then came the turning point... the win against Newcastle, a game in which United faced a notoriously difficult opponent and came from behind to put to the sword. They then followed it up with a stunning series of european masterclasses against PSG and RB Leipzig... both teams considered to be contenders for the Champions League trophy and with widely appreciated hipster German tacticians at the helm.
Thus there is an awful lot at stake on this game. If United can win again here, the momentum behind Ole will be momentous and they will be odds on to finish in the Top 4, with the rest of the league wary of a resurgent Reds. If they lose, it will feed into the narrative that Ole only seems to be able to lay on tactical masterclasses where he is up against aggressive sides with a high line and can counter into... otherwise he comes unstuck, not a great recipe for domestic dominance. For Arsenal, for Arteta to retain the goodwill he has built and to keep the fans onside, a positive display here is a must. A third defeat here could prove fatal and squad/fan confidence would be undermined to a degree that the season could become a write off.
Arsenal have averaged just 8.8 shots per game and scored 1.3 goals-per-game in the Premier League in 2020-21. It’s their lowest shots-per-game average in a single PL campaign since 1997-98 (when the data is available), while it’s their lowest goals-per-game average since 1995-96 (1.29). Furthermore, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has gone five league matches without a goal for the first time since November 2014, while playing for Borussia Dortmund. During this five-game streak, the striker has attempted only five shots in total and failed to land a shot on target on three occasions.
So what is causing the above issues? One of the key causes is the absence of Mesut Ozil. Not necessarily the man himself but a player of his vision and reativity is sorely lacking in the spaces in between the midfield lines. For me Willian and Ceballos, do not have the class of a Bruno Fernandes, Kevin De Bruyne and whilst teams like Spurs and Liverpool also lack creative midfielders of this ilk... they can make up for it through the sheer potency and creativity of their forward lines (think of Kane's recent demonstrates of defence unlocking passes or Mane's ability to shift gears and disturb well set defences) whereas Arsenal's game-breaker is the rather one-dimensional Auba.. who is a great finisher of chances but not really a chance creator.
Defensively Arteta has managed to do what Emery failed to achieve during his tenure at Arsenal. He has given them defensive steel and they look hard to beat. Whereas United on average concede their first home goal within the first 5 minutes of games this season, Arsenal usually start well away from home and do not concede until the 25th minute. Their average of 1.33 goals conceded per game vs 1.47 XG suggests they have not been reliant on luck defensively and that they have done a good job of limiting their opponents ability to create threatening openings.
The signing of Gabriel has been a major factor with his stats mirroring Liverpool's Virgil Van Dijk. He has a 63.64% aerial duel success rate (VVD 63.16%) and 64.71% ground duel success (VVD 62.5). The vulnerable soft centre of the Arsenal backline has been reinforced and it should not be taken for granted that goals can be scored against the Gunners. Flanked by the likes of Tierney another high defensive IQ player means even in the half spaces and channels, Arsenal are not necessarily vulnerable although when Tierney is utilised at wing back it means the defence is less secure.
Despite United's huge wins against the likes of Newcastle and RB Leipzig, in truth Ole's men have been just as impotent in terms of chance creation on the domestic stage, ranking 16h in the league for XG (Goals scored) but unlike Arsenal, they have been able to be more efficient with their limited chances, 12th in terms of actual goals scored. On closer inspection however, 2 of these were penalties.
So what is going on with the United attack? with the talent in their attacking ranks, surely they should be featuring at the top end of the table.. Well one of the major issues is the lack of a tactical strategy or patterns of play when United are facing a team which is defending with a low block. Teams such as Crystal Palace or Tottenham under Mourinho look to defend deep away from home and counter with pace, flair and precision... they deploy United's favoured strategy against them and it leaves the Red's short of ideas and does not suit arguably their most potent threat... Marcus Rashford who thrives when there is space to move into.
After the capitulation against Tottenham, where United seemed stuck between wanting to take the game to Spurs and shut up shop, Ole seems to have miraculously re-energised his backline. Wan-Bissaka seems to have finally grown into his shirt, Maguire seems calm and composed whilst Lindelof and Shaw, whom I do not think were that bad, have tightened up their games ever so slightly.
One of the key factors behind their recent resurgence has to be the influence of Fred and McTominay . By removing plodders such as Matic and Pogba (whose actual statistics in terms of duels won is not that bad - due to the nature of their physical stature), United have gained greate protection in terms of positional play and pitch coverage. Their side can keep the defensive shape better and this is illustrated by the fact that when Pogba plays, United concede 2.7 goals per game and when Matic has played, United concede 4 goals per game... shocking stats (Fred 0.5 and McTominay 1.8).
Man. United:DDG, AWB, V. Lindelof, H. Maguire, L. Shaw, Fred, Pogba, McTominay, B. Fernandes, M. Greenwood, M. Rashford
Arsenal: Leno; Bellerin, Mustafi, Gabriel, Tierney; Thomas, Ceballos, Xhaka; Willian, Lacazette, Aubameyang
Prediction: With both teams preferring to counter into the half spaces via Rashford and Auba, it looks set to be a cagey affair as they deploy low blocks to take away this route to goal. Fortunately for United, in AWB they have the perfect antidote to Auba... someone who can read his intelligent runs and match him for pace and power. Rashford is unlikely to face such an obstacle although if Gabriel drifts more towards the right, he too will come up against someone who can track his drives into the box... expect him to therefore strike from range instead.
The midfield battle seemingly favours United, who may now have stumbled upon the right formula of creativity and defensive energy but that does depend on Ole getting his team selection right. If he goes back to the likes of Matic and Pogba together, then the Reds will face themselves on the back foot. The battle between Partey and Fernandes will be riveting to watch. The latest Gunner, on paper has the game to snuff out the Portuguese but United are not a one man team in the creative stakes... Pogba could prove to be a thorn in Arsenal's side and he was immense against Leipzig.
United to win 2-1.