There was a time when Manchester United against Arsenal was the Premier League fixture. The North Londoners may no longer be genuine title contenders, but the pair can still be expected to provide plenty of entertainment when they meet on Saturday (12.45pm GMT, live on Sky Sports).
Both sides were involved in thrilling Capital One Cup ties in midweek, United losing 5-4 away to Chelsea, while Arsenal came back from 4-0 down to triumph 7-5 at Reading.
For United, such scorelines have not been particularly out of the ordinary in a campaign in which they have often been required to draw on their strong offensive capabilities to cover for a defence that has looked far from solid.
Excepting an opening day 1-0 defeat away at Everton, all subsequent Premier League matches involving United have seen three or more goals. Four have yielded five goals (3-2 wins over Fulham, Southampton and Chelsea and a 2-3 defeat against Tottenham) and one, six goals (a 4-2 win over Stoke). An average of 4.11 goals have been scored in matches involving the Red Devils.
United have already conceded 13 times and are on course to concede significantly more than the 33 they let in last season. Injuries, ageing legs, the sharp decline of Patrice Evra and a startling lack of protection from midfield have all contributed to the team’s defensive woes.
The ease with which teams such as Fulham and Tottenham have cut through the United midfield will surely have caused Sir Alex Ferguson to regret not splashing out on a new central midfielder during the summer. United have plenty of energy on the flanks and in forward areas, but there is a conspicuous lack of this attribute in the middle of the park.
Ferguson does, however, possess a stellar attacking cast, bolstered by the summer arrival of Robin Van Persie from Saturday’s opponents. The Dutch striker has hit the ground running to score seven in his first nine appearances, while fellow new signing Shinji Kagawa, Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney all have two goals to their credit.
With the quick and direct Antonio Valencia on the right flank and Danny Welbeck and Nani in reserve, Ferguson has the necessary tools to unlock most defences. This goal threat has largely been sufficient to overcome their defensive deficiencies, seeing United to seven victories thus far. They currently occupy second place, just a point behind leaders Chelsea after their controversial victory in West London last weekend.
Saturday’s opponents Arsenal are a further six points and four places back in sixth, with four wins, three draws and two defeats. In direct contrast to United, only three of Arsenal’s matches have ended with three or more goals. Matches involving the North London club have averaged just 2.22 goals, the third lowest of any team in the league.
The departure of Van Persie has been keenly felt, with neither of the forwards signed during the summer having yet looked likely to pick up his mantle as the club’s top goalscorer. Olivier Giroud scored 21 times for Montpellier last season, but has managed just one in nine league appearances, while Lukas Podolski has just two following his arrival from Koln.
It is unfair to judge these two in comparison to a seasoned Premier League striker as they will no doubt improve their scoring ratios once fully adapted to the league, but at the moment the absence of the 30 goals Van Persie provided last season is painfully clear. Arsenal have averaged just 1.56 goals per match this season, well down on the 1.95 they managed last season.
Spanish midfielder Santi Cazorla, another new signing, has already made an good impression in his appearances to date, scoring twice, providing two assists and playing the second highest number of key passes of any player in the league. If Arsenal can work him into space behind the United midfield he could do some damage on Saturday.
Arsenal have improved defensively, at least in relation to the number of goals they have conceded. The Gunners have let in just six in nine league matches, keeping four clean sheets and letting in more than one goal on just one occasion.
It is, however, tempting to see this more as a product of dominant, yet unpenetrative possession, rather than a water-tight defensive unit. This theory is given credence by the manner in which Schalke were able to slice through the Arsenal defence at will in their recent 2-0 Champions League win at the Emirates.
Man Utd v Arsenal Betting Tips Verdict
Manchester United have won eight of the last ten matches between these sides in all competitions. Schalke displayed the ease with which Arsenal’s defence can be breached with swift attacking football and if United can find a similar rhythm then they should again emerge victorious on Saturday.