Between February 28th and March 8th, the Gunners will play four matches. Their three Premier League encounters with Manchester United, Swansea, and Tottenham are separated by just three days each. Then, three days after the North London Derby, Arsenal travel to Hull for a replay of the FA Cup 5th Round match, seeking to advance toward an historic third consecutive trophy in that competition.
The league matches—two at the grounds of other top-five sides--present a challenge that a title-winning team must rise to. As manager Arsène Wenger said, “It is the key period. We work the whole season for this period and that’s where you’re really tested, but it’s where you have an opportunity to show your quality as well. On that front, that is the most interesting period of the season.”
So far, Arsenal have fared well against direct rivals for the league crown, having won four, drawn one, and lost none against Leicester City, Tottenham, Manchester City, and Manchester United.
Four of those five matches were at home, however, including the 3-0 thrashing of Sunday’s opponents in early October. How instructive will we find that contest in our efforts to understand what might happen on Sunday?
In brief, Arsenal had the right tactical plan that day and the personnel to execute it; Manchester United did not. (See Arsenal’s Tactical Triumph for more detail.)
But the personnel will definitely change on Sunday, and the plans will probably shift, too. Both teams have suffered injuries to vital players. For Arsenal, the most telling loss has been that of Santi Cazorla, the architect of the October victory. His ability to dance out of the visitors’ midfield pressure in the first half opened the attacking space that Arsenal exploited.
In response to Cazorla’s absence, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal may again decide to press Arsenal’s midfield. That’s a tactic most opponents have tried since Cazorla’s November knee injury, and Arsenal have often sputtered as a result. Van Gaal does have two players, Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera, who can harry the Arsenal midfield.
The problem is that pressing requires synchronization, persistence, conditioning, and a strong last line of defense. The Red Devils have not had a settled midfield since the turn of the year, raising questions about both their ability to coordinate the press and their capacity to stick to the physical and mental task. Furthermore, due to injuries across the back four, the United defense lacks stability.
Given those factors, van Gaal may opt for the risk-averse, possession game that has characterized much of his team’s play this season. With Michael Carrick and Juan Mata, United do have the players to implement this approach. How aggressively and effectively Arsenal disrupt the hosts’ efforts in this respect will influence the dynamics of the match.
Its outcome, though, will probably be decided up front. Manchester United lack a proven match-winner because Wayne Rooney is out with injury; Arsenal don’t have a player in any kind of goal-scoring form. Indeed, the Gunners have been held scoreless in five of their last eight matches. So both teams could stumble at the critical moment in front of goal.
If Arsenal can convert just one of the many chances it might get—as the league’s most creative team in terms of clear goal-scoring opportunities—that could do the trick. And at the outset of this critical sequence of matches, a positive result is all that matters.
Aaron Ramsey against the Manchester United midfield. Restored to his preferred position in central midfield, Arsenal’s Welshman has performed creditably. Perhaps those performances haven’t met expectations, but were those expectations reasonable? As Tim Stillman observes in his Arseblog column “Sacrificial Ram,” Ramsey has been doing three jobs at once, supporting his deep-lying midfield partner, making up for the absence of a ball-control specialist on the right, and sparking Arsenal’s preference for attacking to the left.
Ramsey will face skillful and intelligent opponents in Scheiderlin and Herrera. The extent to which he can slip their attentions and initiate Arsenal’s attacks will shape Arsenal’s threat overall.
Where to Worry
Arsenal’s defensive focus flagged on just a few occasions against Barcelona on Tuesday evening. Two of those lapses proved fatal. The injury-riddled Manchester United don’t possess the proven attacking threats of Barcelona—no team does, in truth—but at this level, with these stakes, the slightest mental error can be a killer. Wenger and his team will need to turn all their attentions to the task at hand on Sunday.
Most of the accomplished talent on display will be in the midfield, with Manchester United’s Schneiderlin, Herrera, and Juan Mata facing off against Ramsey, Mesut Özil, and Alexis Sanchez. Those two trios will be at the center of the action, but this one comes down to the two defenses. Arsenal’s, anchored by the impressive Petr Cech, has been more stable than Manchester United’s, who may have to cope without its standout keeper David de Gea.
Despite the Gunners’ recent goal-scoring struggles, their chances of getting an unmissable opportunity against Manchester United’s makeshift back line seem strong.
Players to Watch
Arsenal. Danny Welbeck. The ex-Manchester United man has looked lively and dangerous since his return from injury. He’s shown he can rise to the occasion—both here in last season’s FA Cup quarterfinal and in his match-winning substitute appearance against Leicester City two weeks ago. If he’s physically ready, he merits a start, and that can’t be a tantalizing prospect for these opposition defenders.
Manchester United. Juan Mata. The Spaniard now pulls the strings for Manchester United, a role that suits him. He can also find dangerous spaces in the opponents’ penalty area, avoiding the attentions of defenders and midfielders. Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin will need to be especially diligent tracking Mata’s movements.