The odds, according to one well-known bookmaker, are a little short of 100/1 that Manchester United and Arsenal will share nine goals between them this weekend. Surely cheap at a half the price if the past week is anything to go by. Four goals down at half-time against Reading in the Capital One Cup, the Gunners roared back to score seven at the Madejski Stadium on Tuesday night. Outdone in the scoring stakes, perhaps, but never out-entertained, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side was on the wrong end of a nine-goal thriller at Stamford Bridge in the same competition on Wednesday.
On this perfunctory evidence neither Manchester United, nor Arsenal, can defend; the recipe for fun at Old Trafford this weekend, if not always the highest quality.
Football isn’t as a simple as that, of course, and there is little doubt both sides will change personnel and outlook significantly ahead of this weekend’s Premier League fixture at Old Trafford. But there is also a truism in the analysis: these old rivals have defended far from optimally over the past week, even if Arsene Wenger’s side has become noticeably tighter at the back in the Premier League this season. Just six goals conceded in nine games attest to that.
By contrast, United’s recklessness in conceding twice against SC Braga, Stoke City and then seven in two games against Chelsea cannot be underestimated; this is a side not set up to restrict the opposition, with little to no support for an ever-changing back-four coming from the Reds’ open midfield.
Roy Keane, Nicky Butt and Nobby Stiles turn away now, there is nothing for you to see here.
Still, entertainment should be the watchword at Old Trafford for the early kick off against the north Londoners. That is the case even if fixtures against Wenger’s men have lost the edge of a decade ago, with Arsenal no longer in contention for major honours at home or abroad.
“Every game against Arsenal is always a big one,” insists Ferguson, despite Arsenal failing to secure silverware since 2005.
“Since I’ve come down here, it’s always the most important ‘derby’ game in the sense that both teams have always been challenging for the league. It won’t be different tomorrow.
Still, United begin the tie as favourites even if there is little chance of Ferguson’s side repeating last season’s 8-2 thrashing of the Gunners. Weakened by injury and a Champions League tie the previous week, Wenger’s men capitulated under a barrage of United pressure. Part of the incentive, says Ferguson, for Arsenal’s more physical presence this season.
“They’re stronger physically if you look at the make-up of their team now,” adds the 70-year-old.
“They are a solid team. Podolski, Giroud, all these players they have brought in are more physical types of player than they have had in the past.”
Yet, with a plethora of forwards in outstanding form, including nine-goal former Arsenal favourite Robin van Persie, there seems little chance of United drawing a blank at Old Trafford for the first time in 53 games. Indeed, with both van Persie and Wayne Rooney in outstanding shape there is unlikely to be room in the starting line-up for Javier Hernández, whose season burst into life with three goals in two matches against Chelsea this week.
“You’ve got to think of Chicharito’s form as well and I’m trying to think of all sorts of ways I can utilise the three of them together and Danny Welbeck of course,” adds Ferguson
“Chicharito is in terrific form. He is improving all the time. The key to Chicha’s form is the decent rest he’s had in the summer. It’s difficult to work out how to utilise three of them – we did it at Newcastle but we won’t be able to do in every game. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic problem for me.”
Whatever the Mexican’s merits, the focus will largely be on van Persie, who faces his former club for the first time. The Dutchman scored 132 goals in 277 games for the Londoners over nine seasons, before departing in a £24 million deal last summer.
Having settled into life at Old Trafford with such ease, and with the player overcoming the ‘injury-prone’ tag of old, van Persie has already become central to United’s hopes this season. The Dutchman is set to start as United’s lone forward, with Rooney in a deeper role.
“Robin van Persie has a great quality in the fraction of a second that he understands where to go – you can talk and talk and talk, but defenders have to read that at the same time,” says former manager Wenger.
“His speed of analysing those little pockets around the box are absolutely exceptional. The team know him as well because they have played against him in training. But in the game it is a question of timing – how quickly will they read it as well as he reads it?”
Elsewhere, Anderson may only make the bench, despite impressing against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup. Ferguson, trusting to experience, is likely to revert to Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick in central midfield, with Tom Cleverley dropping to the bench. Ashley Young, Antonio Valenica and Nani will compete for two spots in Ferguson’s side, but Shinji Kagawa misses out through injury.
Chris Smalling is close to fitness, although not ready to return to the first team squad, while David de Gea should take over in goal from Anders Lindegaard.
Meanwhile, Wenger’s team arrives seeking to erase memories of last season’s traumatic defeat at Old Trafford, where the Londoners lost both the game and, at times, their dignity. Wenger is likely to call on newly fit Jack Wilshere and Bacary Sagna, although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain faces a fitness test on a knee injury. Gervinho and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny are definitely out.
“They say a pessimist is a well-informed optimist – on the day, I was badly informed,” admits a rueful Wenger of last season’s thrashing.
“There is an emotional aspect in a defeat like that, but the football aspect, as a manager, has no real meaning. There is no mathematical consequence. We lost a game, that is all. It was easy to explain. You feel humiliated but after that, the next game, when you win, you don’t focus on that.”
Yet, it is hard to imagine last season’s result not coming factoring into the game at some point, not least because of United’s penchant for beating the Gunners in recent seasons. Eight of the past 10 meetings between these sides have gone United’s way.
It is hard to foresee anything other than a continuation of the pattern on Saturday; then this has been a week of odds-busting scorelines.
Manchester United v Arsenal – Premier League, Old Trafford – Saturday 3 November 2012, 12.45pm
United (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra; Scholes, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Young; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Wootton, Büttner, Giggs, Powell, Anderson, Cleverley, Fletcher, Nani, Hernández, Welbeck.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Mannone; Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermalen, Santos; Wilshere, Arteta; Ramsey, Carzola, Podolski; Giroud. Subs from: Martínez, Djourou, Jenkinson, Yennaris, Squillaci, Frimpong, Koscielny, Coquelin, Walcott, Arshavin, Chamakh.
Referee: M Dean
Assistants: S Ledger, A Garratt
Fourth Official: P Dowd
Head to Head
Last 10: United 8, Arsenal 1, Draw 1
Overall: United 96, Arsenal 78, Draw 46
- van Persie remains joint top Premier League goalscorer, with Newcastle’s Demba Ba, having netted seven goals in nine appearance this season;
- The Dutchman’s goals have come from 23 shots, with 48 per cent on target – just over 30 per cent of striker’s shots have resulted in goals this season;
- Hernández’ return to form has brought two goals in the Premier League this season, with four shots on target from seven attempts;
- The highlight of Arsenal’s uneventful fixture against QPR last week was the return of Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta’s goal;
- Arteta’s strike was his first in the Premier League this season – Arteta has taken just eight shots at goal, with four on target so far this season;
- In contrast, no other midfielder in the league has taken more shots on goal than Santi Carzola – the Spaniard’s 33 shots have brought two goals, with 58 per cent of attempts on target;
- Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey put in a shift of 6.86 miles against QPR, the second highest distance covered by an Arsenal player in a single game this season – after the Welshman’s 7.01 miles against Manchester City;
- Arsenal has the most frugal defence in the league, having conceded just six goals in nine games;
- Per Mertesacker has been at the heart of Arsenal’s improvement – the German has lost out on just one of the 13 tackles he has attempted, the best return of any player to attempt ten or more tackles this season.