Once a place where they battled intensely with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in epic battles, Old Trafford has been a reasonably happy hunting ground for Arsenal in recent years.
The Gunners have gone unbeaten at the home of United in their last three visits. Such is the rarity of this record, the Gunners have never failed to lose four straight games at Old Trafford in the history of the fixture.
There’s only one slight issue, as they prepare to travel up to Manchester for tonight’s Premier League clash: Arsenal have been well beaten in most of their matches against the Big Six this season. If Mikel Arteta’s side are to mount a serious top-four challenge this season then they will need to change that.
Mikel Arteta (right) needs a big victory on Thursday to help Arsenal’s bid to reach the top four
Arsenal have failed to lose at Manchester United’s ground in their last three top-flight visits – last season Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (centre) celebrated scoring the winning goal
Back-to-back defeats against Chelsea and Manchester City – including a 5-0 drubbing by the latter – gave the impression that the Gunners were a long way off the top of the table.
A resurgence, helped by the emergence of new signings such as Takehiro Tomiyasu and Aaron Ramsdale, helped steady the ship and get Arsenal back into European contention – but a 4-0 thrashing at Liverpool last month brought the Gunners back down to earth.
Now Arsenal’s season looks to be at a crossroads. One point behind fourth-placed West Ham – with Tottenham and United hoping new managers can haul them back into contention from behind – Arteta’s men need a big-game victory and fast.
So how do Arsenal improve on their record on big games, which had been very good under Arteta until recent months?
Arsenal have struggled in big games this term, losing 5-0 to Man City and 4-0 to Liverpool
The Spaniard beat Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United for his first victory as Gunners boss, while he also beat Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in his first season in charge, which also included wins over Chelsea and City on the way to the 2020 FA Cup. But now Arsenal can’t lay a glove on these teams.
One area where the Gunners could improve is being more streetwise on the biggest stage. Arteta is stubborn in his insistence to play out from the back at grounds such as Anfield and the Etihad Stadium, but perhaps a more conservative approach is needed.
Against Liverpool last month, the Gunners were given several warning signs that a patient approach by holding the ball in deep areas was not going to work.
One of them saw Ben White try to carry the ball out of defence before he was hounded by Kostas Tsimikas and Sadio Mane. The latter crossed to Mo Salah in the box and only a fine double save from Ramsdale denied the Egyptian.
At Anfield, Arsenal came out with the ball and the likes of Ben White (left) were caught often
The Gunners were utterly embarrassed after being dismantled by a rampant Liverpool
Arsenal weren’t so lucky when they made a similar error in the second period. Nuno Tavares took the ball out of defence and tried to find White with a square pass. The Portuguese full-back only picked out Diogo Jota who went through and put the Reds 2-0 up.
The Gunners have been accused on a number of occasions of trying to play too much, like they are a team much better than they really are.
After their 2-0 loss to Chelsea in August, Jamie Carragher hit out at Arteta for showing naivety in the way they tried to defend against Romelu Lukaku and the European champions
He said on Sky Sports: ‘The best way to describe Arsenal is that they tried to play like Man City and Liverpool would do, but they don’t have the players.’
The Gunners were called ‘naive’ by Jamie Carragher after their 2-0 loss to Chelsea in August
And the way Manchester United pressed Chelsea in last Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge shows how dangerous playing out from the back can be. The Red Devils’ goal, courtesy of Jadon Sancho, came from closing down the Blues high up the pitch while goalkeeper Edouard Mendy nearly gifted Fred a late winner in that match too.
Cut out the crosses
A more long-term trend can be seen in Arsenal’s recent record against the big teams and it is that the Gunners struggle to defend out wide against better opposition.
At Anfield last month, Liverpool put the game past Arsenal by putting crosses into the box. After White’s mistake for Salah’s first-half chance, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick found Sadio Mane in the box just before half-time for 1-0, before Tavares’ error put the game beyond the Gunners.
Against City in August, four out of the Premier League champions’ five goals came from crosses, with the home side first to every ball against Arsenal’s defenders.
The Gunners have struggled with defending crosses in big games, including the Liverpool tie
Four of Man City’s five goals against Arsenal in August came from crossing positions
And in their London derby with Chelsea, both of the Blues’ goals came from wide man Reece James, who Arsenal really struggled to contain during a frantic first half at the Emirates Stadium.
But while Arsenal will have defensive concerns going into Thursday night’s clash at Manchester United, there is no reason why the Gunners should not be positive going into the clash.
The Liverpool loss is the Gunners’ only defeat since August and they have been reasonably consistent against teams who themselves fail to turn up regularly, which is exactly how United can be described after one win in eight league games.
Arsenal can go with confidence to Old Trafford if they press the likes of Harry Maguire (centre)
Press, press, press
Looking back at last season’s win at Old Trafford, the Gunners were excellent in pressing United high up the pitch to create several clear-cut chances.
Alexandre Lacazette created one for both Willian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in either half, with the pair just missing the target on both occasions – in a 1-0 Old Trafford victory that is one of Arteta’s highlights as Gunners boss so far.
And considering how poorly United have dealt with being pressed so far this season, a relentless game plan from Arsenal would not be so foolish on Thursday night.
Against Watford last month, which cost Solskjaer his job as United boss, Bruno Fernandes gifted the Hornets an early penalty after being pressed well by the home side, while Harry Maguire was sent off after Tom Cleverley’s industrious work-rate on the Red Devils’ backline.
Arsenal have the opportunity to steal a march on the top-four race this week – and the three points are there for the taking if they want to put the chase on United, who themselves are trying to turn themselves into a pressing side with interim boss Ralf Rangnick incoming and watching from the stands tonight.