Arsenal and Man United and the story of two defenses operating at completely different levels

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On Sunday, Arsenal can complete the league double over Manchester United for the first time since the 2006-07 season. This will also be the first time they have won three in a row since September 1998.

In what is 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 game in the title race.

For a long time, a win at Old Trafford could only be achieved if a team played out of bounds and United had a particularly bad day – and even then, that combination was often not enough.

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

Even more telling is that the number they have conceded this calendar year is 13 more than Arsenal have conceded in their 36-game season so far.

United are a team whose basic defensive numbers are those of a team in the bottom third of the league. Arsenal is the team that is, by some distance, the best in the Premier League.

Arsenal vs Manchester United 2023-24


Manchester United

I faced the shots

304 (II)

618 (XVII)

Shots on goal vs

83 (first)

194 (XV)

xG vs

27.29 (first)

64.48 (sixteenth)

Match goals

28 (first)

55 (joint sixth)

That’s why, although Arsenal’s 1-0 win in November 2020 was their only win in their last 16 Premier League visits to Old Trafford, they travel to Manchester as favorites, with recent trips to Brighton & Hove Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. And Tottenham Hotspur. It is seen as just as difficult, if not more so.

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Last season, Arsenal’s confidence came from the way they started matches attackingly, but this time it’s about how they prevent the opposition from seeing their goal for almost 90 minutes in some cases.

Arsenal have conceded in just two of their past eight league games and David Raya has already collected the Golden Glove award, but with two games remaining, Arsenal could still finish with a clean sheet in 19 matches.

This will be the first time they have reached that total in the 21st century, with the previous highs of 23, 21 and 19 coming in 1999, 1994 and 1998 – although they are still some way off Chelsea’s record 25 shutouts in 2004. -2005.

Arteta relied on seven or eight basic pillars to form a team capable of maintaining the level of challenge for the title.

There are dips but not big ones like with United. But while Ten Hag’s side lack cohesion, their individual quality means they can become a dangerous animal when things get going and they have momentum in the game.

By all accounts, 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 if their attacking production has been inconsistent in parts.

It gives them a solid base to fall back on in a low-scoring sport.

The addition of Declan Rice, a key defender to the back four, has strengthened Arsenal and with Thomas Partey back in the starting line-up, they are heading towards their lowest numbers under Arteta when it comes to direct attacks on their own goal. , which now amounts to less than two per game.

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The key to Arsenal having the fewest goals in the league has been their ability to block shots. When defending the lead in matches against rival clubs or in European competition, they were happy to sit deep and protect their advantage for periods of the match.

Of all opposition possession sequences that end in Arsenal’s third, only 33 per cent result in a shot. It is the second best figure in the league in the table with Manchester United in second place, at 46 per cent.

United regularly leave huge gaps in midfield, caught between the two opposing ideas of pressing forward and sitting deep to protect defenders not suited to this front-foot approach.

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

In Arteta’s first full season, their defensive line averaged 22 meters from their goal, but this has creeped forward year on year to the point where it is now 8 meters higher.

It is a huge difference and enhances Arsenal’s ability to press with conviction, knowing that they are compact and with no major gaps in front of the defence.

Arsenal play with a clear identity when in possession, but when not in possession, they are just as compact.

Kai Havertz has led the press as a striker in eight of their last 11 league games, making them a stronger all-round side.

They will force United forward, but if Ten Hag’s side try to play through them, they are more than capable of counter-attacking. Remember, this is the side of the game that the United manager said he wanted his team to become the best in the world when speaking earlier in the season.

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High rebounds are a key part of Arsenal’s game, and 23% of them end in a shot. They now release this shot much faster when the opponent’s form is disorganized, and they pull the trigger within 10 seconds of recovery less than 10 percent of the time.

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

In matches against the ‘Big Six’ this season, Arsenal have conceded nine goals in as many matches. United are on 20 points, and with goal difference a factor should Manchester City stumble and Arsenal take full points, they will be in a punishing mood.

As much as this is a tale of two opposing defences, it is also about one team thriving against the elite and the other floundering.

United have taken just six points from 27 matches against other ‘big six’ clubs this season compared to Arsenal’s tally of 19 points. This equals their point total from last season, which was a huge leap forward from their average of 10.5 points out of 30 on the year. 13 years before that.

Only Manchester City’s record of 25 out of 30 in 2018-19 would 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 how out of the picture they were. In the three-and-a-half years since, Arteta has gotten his team to a psychological place where they feel comfortable taking to these previously intimidating grounds.

(Top image: Alex Bantling/Getty Images)

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