Arsenal will beat Manchester United, as long as they make the match as boring as possible


To adapt Johan Cruyff’s view of Italian opposition, Manchester United cannot beat you but you can lose to them. Erik ten Hag’s team struggle to control the football, space or anything of note, but helped derail Liverpool’s season in two haywire league and Cup games while Chelsea, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur also failed to win at Old Trafford this season.

That should serve as a minor note of caution for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal, for whom nothing but victory will do on Sunday as they chase a first Premier League title in 20 years. Arsenal have a miserable record at United, not winning a league game in front of fans at Old Trafford since 2006, but on every current measure should be ripping Ten Hag’s dishevelled, injury-ravaged team apart. Away supporters will travel north with thoughts of avenging painful 6-1 and 8-2 defeats at a stadium that has proved a graveyard.

Arteta’s hardest task might be preventing his players feeling like kids in a sweet shop, giddy at the time and space on offer against a United team who can appear hollow in central midfield. Rushing forward to take advantage and punish United to the maximum can lead to loose passes and a see-saw game, which brings United’s attacking talent and speed into play. Arsenal want control; United need chaos.

Liverpool know all about that, butchering numerous attacks as they contrived to throw away an FA Cup tie and draw in the league at United. Statistically dominant, Liverpool were to some degree just plain unlucky. But their direct, helter-skelter style also contributed to the flow of both games. They squandered numerical advantages and United counter-attacked on the back of Liverpool’s own failed counter-attacks.

Over the last two seasons, Arsenal have been described as falling somewhere between Manchester City and Liverpool’s style of play. This season, they have shifted towards the City end of the spectrum and it might be wise to emulate the slower, more deliberate approach of their title rivals on Sunday.

Since the start of the 2016-17 Premier League season, the away team at Old Trafford has completed 600 passes or more on seven occasions, resulting in five wins. Unsurprisingly, Pep Guardiola’s City account for four of the seven, though two defeats show possession does not make a team immune from being caught out. City’s most dominant and impressive display at Old Trafford came two seasons ago, when they completed 762 passes in a stress-free victory. Guardiola’s post-match thoughts that day were revealing.

“The best way to silence Old Trafford is to have the ball with a lot of passes and attack the box in the right moments and we did that,” Guardiola said. “We have the desire when we don’t have it [the ball] to recover it and after that, play and play and play. Not to attack quicker you will score more goals, just to arrive in the right tempo. I love to arrive in the boxes, not be in the boxes.”

One team who do not feature in the list of Old Trafford visitors with the most passes since 2016 is Arsenal, despite being a nominally possession-based team during this period. Arteta’s team have lost 3-2 and 3-1 on their last two league visits, surrendering periods of dominance and being sucker-punched.

Guardiola’s City are the only team in the Premier League’s top seven to win at Old Trafford this season, with United still to host Arsenal and Newcastle. They are also the only one of those five opponents to keep a clean sheet. Of those teams, City recorded the slowest ‘direct speed’ at 1.38 metres per second. This is an Opta metric which measures how quickly or slowly a team progresses the ball up the pitch. Crystal Palace, Bournemouth and Fulham won at Old Trafford with faster direct speed, partly a result of having just 22, 31 and 47 per cent possession respectively.

This passage of play from Liverpool’s FA Cup defeat at United illustrates the risks of playing too directly. Virgil van Dijk’s distribution is a major weapon for Liverpool, but on this occasion he attempted a risky interior pass into Alexis Mac Allister when his team had comfortable possession at the back. The pass is well read by Scott McTominay, who robs Mac Allister of possession and starts a United break. The result was Alejandro Garnacho being one-on-one with Jarrel Quansah and United won a corner.

This is a scenario Arsenal need to avoid. After naming the same team for wins over Chelsea, Spurs and Bournemouth, Arteta will likely stick with a winning formula. That would mean Thomas Partey in midfield, a player whose willingness to receive the ball under pressure in his own half infuses Arsenal’s game with added risk.

Partey likes to turn and carry the ball beyond opponents, whereas Arteta’s alternative pick, Jorginho, favours safer one- and two-touch passes. Partey’s approach can make Arsenal more incisive, but potentially more vulnerable. Arsenal won six points with Partey in the team against Chelsea and Spurs, but suffered their two worst expected goals against figures out of 36 league games this season.

Regardless of Arteta’s selection, Arsenal need to avoid riding the Old Trafford rollercoaster. Given the rate at which United concede chances and shots, there is no need to take outlandish risks. Opportunities will present themselves. Slowing down could be the best way for Arsenal to step towards the Premier League title.

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