Man United v Arsenal: One big game, five big questions

Date published: Friday 27th April 2018 2:13

Arsene Wenger’s final experience of Arsenal against Manchester United will probably be a wistful swansong, a painful day that highlights just how far the Gunners have fallen over the last ten years. It will take a minor miracle to avoid a heavy defeat, not only because Arsenal are yet to win a single away point in 2018 but because Wenger will be resting key players ahead of the Europa League semi-final second leg next week.

After the 2-1 defeat at Newcastle United, Wenger described his side’s run of losses on the road as “baffling”, which speaks volumes about his cluelessness over the last few years. The sequence, leaving Arsenal with just 13 points from 16 games on their travels in the Premier League, shouldn’t baffle anyone; they are too expansive, too attack-minded, and don’t apply any pressure off the ball, making it easy for any decent tactician to outscore them.

Jose Mourinho will know exactly how to exploit their weaknesses, particularly since he has finally begun to play more assertive attacking football against fellow top six sides. The Portuguese will enjoy twisting the knife into football’s “specialist in failure”.


1) Will Pogba swagger in the spaces around Willock and Xhaka?
Arsenal are expected to field Joe Willock alongside Granit Xhaka at the base of a 4-2-3-1 formation, further weakening the most brittle part of the team. Xhaka’s positional play has never been good enough for a defensive midfielder (opponents frequently burst through huge corridors of space in the middle), which heaps pressure on 18-year-old Willock to control Paul Pogba. Poor guy.

Pogba blows hot and cold, of course, but he usually flourishes when faced with a timid midfield battle and/or is given licence by his manager to roam forward. Mourinho will probably deploy three central midfielders, allowing Pogba to shuttle up and down, swaggering across the Old Trafford turf as he did at Wembley last weekend. There are many ways to overwhelm an Arsenal midfield, but the most effective is to use power; Pogba versus Willock is a horrible mismatch that should steer United to victory.


2) Will Sanchez use his knowledge of Arsenal to drive straight at the full-backs?
Arsenal’s second biggest flaw is defending the flanks. Their full-backs sprint forward far too quickly, the centre-backs have no idea how to come across to cover, and the wingers rarely track back to lend a hand. When you add Arsenal’s unwillingness to press the ball, it’s pretty obvious why they keep losing away from the Emirates; the opposition easily find space for a cross.

In Arsenal’s last five away defeats they’ve conceded six goals from situations where an opponent has been free to pick out their target from close to the byline, and every time the full-back has either a) been completely absent, b) been dragged out of position to cover a wayward centre-back or c) simply not bothered to close down the cross.

United don’t tend to cross from the byline, instead either whipping balls in from deep (Ashley Young and Pogba like to take aim from 25 yards out) or working it into the area via central attacks. However, Alexis Sanchez knows exactly what’s wrong with the Arsenal defence. The Chilean is superb at making in-game tactical adjustments; look out for him driving directly at the full-backs, causing havoc in wider areas than you would usually find him.

Arsenal fans should be very worried by Sanchez’s threat from the left, particularly if, as expected, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Calum Chambers are tasked with controlling that flank.


3) Can Arsenal take advantage of being outplayed by springing quick counters?
It looks as though Arsenal will be totally outplayed, then, seeing far less of the ball than Wenger would like. If United win the territorial battle the Gunners will be forced into a more compressed defensive shape and will need to play longer passes forward – two potentially effective tactics.

Of the last six goals United have conceded (stretching back to the beginning of March), five have been from long-ball counter-attacks and/or corner kicks. In short, the only real chink in Mourinho’s armour is fast distribution down the wings that either leads directly to a chance or wins a corner, which account for 50% of their goals conceded over the last six weeks.

Danny Welbeck is in excellent form at the moment, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is most effective when able to play on the shoulder of the last defender. Together, these two could cause damage in the spaces behind Antonio Valencia, as long as the Gunners defence is able to launch longer accurate passes into the left channel.


4) Will Mourinho play two or three in midfield?
Just how attacking is Mourinho prepared to be? Well, it depends on how desperate he is to humiliate his old foe, because Arsenal’s reserve 11 is definitely there for the taking. Perhaps the best way to win big at Old Trafford is to intimidate the visitors, in which case a 4-2-3-1 formation with Sanchez, Jesse Lingard, and Marcus Rashford all in the same team is the best option.

Mourinho has been considerably more attacking in matches against the top six over the last few months, a fact that has gone under the radar somewhat because of the huge points gap to Manchester City. United used a 4-2-3-1 in the home game against Liverpool in March, a progressive 4-4-2 diamond in the victory against Chelsea, and a top-heavy 3-4-2-1 for the 3-1 win at Arsenal.

A 4-2-3-1 looks the best bet for Sunday. Rashford’s pace could definitely expose Bellerin (or Chambers) as it did Trent Alexander-Arnold in that win against Liverpool, while Sanchez or Lingard as an out-and-out number ten would put serious pressure on Willock. Pogba might be slightly limited as part of a two, but Nemanja Matic should cope fine on his own, freeing the Frenchman to burst forward.



5) Can Petr Cech cope with a United storm?
Assuming United do take the early initiative, Petr Cech’s goal will be peppered with shots. The Czech goalkeeper has made numerous errors on the road in 2018, from failing to save simple shots to flapping wildly at crosses; Mourinho will instruct his players to hit pot shots and deliver crosses to capitalise on the pressure.

The new Arsenal manager will reportedly be given just £50 million to spend in the summer, which probably means a new goalkeeper won’t be high on the list of priorities. Consequently, Cech needs a strong performance in a big game such as this one to restore the fans’ confidence in their number one – and improve his own self-esteem.

Alex Keble – follow him on Twitter


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