Arsenal, Man United and a tale of two defences operating on completely different levels

On Sunday, Arsenal can complete a league double against Manchester United for the first time since 2006-07. It would also be the first time they have won three in a row against them since September 1998.

In what constitutes the ultimate indictment of the shift in power between the two clubs, Arsenal are expected to win at Old Trafford even with the pressure of it being their penultimate match in a title race.

For so long, victory at Old Trafford could only be enjoyed if a team played beyond their limits and United had a really bad day – even then that combination was often not enough.

Today, Arsenal prepare to face Erik ten Hag’s side, confident that an average performance should see them, remarkably, with at least 21 shots on goal. This is the number Manchester United have conceded, on average, in matches in 2024. They have allowed 317 shots, compared to Arsenal’s 132, and conceded 97 on target, compared to Arsenal’s 30.

What’s even more striking is that the number of goals conceded this calendar year is 13 more than Arsenal have conceded so far in their entire 36-game season.

United are a team whose underlying defensive numbers are those of a team in the bottom third of the league. Arsenal’s are those of a team that is, by far, the best in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs Man Utd 2023-24


Manchester United

Head shots

304 (2nd)

618 (17th)

Shots on target

83 (1st)

194 (15th)

xG vs

27.29 (1st)

64.48 (16th)

Goals against

28 (1st)

55 (6th common)

That’s why, although Arsenal’s 1-0 win in November 2020 was their only victory in the last 16 Premier League visits to Old Trafford, they head to Manchester as heavy favourites, with recent trips to Brighton & Hove Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur. considered just as difficult, if not more.

Last season, Arsenal’s confidence came from the way they started games with an attacking blitz, but this time it’s mostly about how they can prevent the opposition from having a meaningful view of their goal for almost a full 90 minutes in some cases.

Arsenal have only conceded two of their last eight league matches and David Raya has already won the Golden Glove Award, but with two matches remaining Arsenal could still finish with 19 clean sheets.

It would be the first time they have reached that total in the 21st century, with previous records of 23, 21 and 19 in 1999, 1994 and 1998 – although they remain far from Chelsea’s record of 25 shutouts in 2004-05.

Arteta has relied on seven or eight pillars to form a team capable of maintaining a challenging title run of form.

There are dips but no major dips like with United. But even though Ten Hag’s team lacks cohesion, their individual quality means they can be a dangerous animal when push comes to shove and they have momentum in a match.

By any metric, Arsenal are the stronger team, but they have now reached a level of consistency where their defensive numbers have remained low for two and a half seasons, even though their offensive output has fluctuated in part.

This gives them a solid foundation to build on in what is a low-scoring sport.

The addition of Declan Rice, the protector-in-chief of the back four, has strengthened Arsenal and with the return of Thomas Partey to the starting line-up, they are trending towards their lowest numbers under Arteta when it comes to attacks direct to their goal. , which now stands at less than two per game.

The key to Arsenal conceding the fewest goals in the league has been their ability to suppress shots. When defending their lead in matches against rival clubs or in European competitions, they are content to sit back and protect their advantage during certain periods of a match.

Of all the opposing possession sequences that end in Arsenal’s third, only 33% result in a shot. This is the second best figure in the league in a ranking in which Manchester United are second, with 46 percent.

United regularly leave huge spaces in midfield, caught between two conflicting ideas: pressing from the front and sitting deep to protect defenders ill-suited to this front-foot approach.

Arsenal’s trio of Gabriel, William Saliba and Ben White offer them the gifts of availability and reliability, but they are also tailor-made for the aggressive style of play employed by Arsenal.

In Arteta’s first full season, their average defensive line was 22 meters from their goal, but this has progressed year on year to the point that it is now 8m higher.

That’s a huge difference and explains how Arsenal are able to press with conviction, knowing they are compact and without gaping holes in front of the defence.

Arsenal play with a clear identity on the ball, but out of possession they are just as consistent.

Kai Havertz has spearheaded the press as a center forward in eight of the last 11 league matches, making them a stronger team overall.

They will force United to play long, but if Ten Hag’s team tries to play through them, they are more than capable of counterattacking. This, remember, is the aspect of the game in which the United manager said he wanted his team to become the best in the world during a speech earlier in the season.

High recoveries are a key part of Arsenal’s game and 23 percent of them end in a shot. They now get this shot much quicker when the opposing form is disorganized, pulling the trigger within 10 seconds of a recovery just under 10 percent of the time.

To capture the speed of change since that 1-0 win at Old Trafford in 2020, only four players remain in Arteta’s squad. Despite three different managers in that time, United have nine survivors but little progress to show for that familiarity.

In matches against the “Big Six” this season, Arsenal have conceded nine goals in as many matches. United are 20 and with goal difference a factor if Manchester City fail and Arsenal take maximum points they will be in a punishing mood.

While it’s a tale of two contrasting defenses, it’s also about one team thriving against the elite and the other floundering.

United have taken just six points out of 27 against other Big Six clubs this season, compared to 19 for Arsenal. That’s equal to their total last season, which was a huge jump from an average of 10.5 points per 30 in the previous 13 years.

Only Manchester City’s record of 25 from a possible 30 in 2018-19 could beat it, but they lost a game that year, something Arsenal have yet to do.

Arsenal’s victory in the Covid era in 2020 seemed momentous because of the scale of their gap. In the three and a half years since, Arteta has brought his team to a psychological state where they feel comfortable in their own skin on these once intimidating pitches.

(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

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