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Dublin: 11°C Monday 19 April 2021

Where Arsenal v Manchester United will be won and lost

Louis van Gaal’s injury-ravaged side face a tough task against a Gunners outfit unbeaten at home in the league.

Van Gaal has had a mixed start to life as Man United manager.
Van Gaal has had a mixed start to life as Man United manager.

LOUIS VAN GAAL’S Manchester United revolution is stumbling forward at a snail’s pace and, despite having no small problems of their own, Arsenal are clear favourites to deal the Dutchman another blow when the two sides meet on Saturday.

It is easy to see why. The Emirates Stadium has proved a fruitful hunting ground for United in recent times — they have only lost once in the last five years and claimed victory twice — but every match exists within its own context.

Van Gaal’s men head into this weekend winless in six games in all competitions on the road, conceding 13 goals and keeping just one clean sheet against Burnley in the process.

The United manager is also faced with a ludicrous injury list off the back of the international break. Summer signings Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Radamel Falcao are all definitely out while David De Gea, Rafael, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw, Michael Carrick and Angel Di Maria will be monitored right up until Saturday. Several will likely have to play whether they are 100 per cent ready or not. Arsenal’s situation is hardly worth shouting about either.

Like United they have won just four of 11 Premier League games and they are yet to beat a team outside the bottom six. The fact that Arsene Wenger remains just a point off a coveted Champions League spot is less the work of his own team and more down to the failings of almost everyone below Chelsea and Southampton so far.

But the Gunners remain a formidable prospect at home, losing just one of nine in all competitions in north London (a League Cup defeat to Southampton in September). No other side in the Premier League averages more shots (20.4) or shots on target (7.8) per game, and no visiting team has yet kept a clean sheet at the Emirates this season.

There is nothing to suggest United will buck that trend. Regardless of whether the consistently impressive De Gea is deemed fit enough to start or Anders Lindegaard deputises, Arsenal will fancy their chances of carving open a depleted, makeshift and inexperienced away defence.

Of all the absentees, Blind is undoubtedly the biggest loss. Boasting a pass success rate of 90.2 per cent, the Dutchman averages 2.6 interceptions per game (best among United midfielders) and 2.9 tackles (second-best) in front of the back four, and his absence also makes it likely that Van Gaal will start without his two most effective midfield passers, with Juan Mata (91.9%) expected to remain on the bench and captain Wayne Rooney in his place.

It is reasonable to assume that Arsenal will spend most of the match on the front foot. No Premier League home team averages a bigger share of possession (59.3%), with just 19% of the action taking place in the Gunners’ defensive third. In Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (34) and Alexis Sanchez (31), Wenger will also field two of the division’s four most successful dribblers, both of whom will relish the chance to try and commit United’s uncertain and possibly unfit defenders.

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Britain Soccer Premier League Source: AP/Press Association Images

Sanchez is clearly the main dangerman, having scored eight goals in his first 10 Premier League appearances with a superb 36% shot conversion rate. Strike partner Danny Welbeck, if he is passed fit by Arsene Wenger, will also have a point to prove against the boyhood club that sold him for €20 million in the summer but must be more clinical if he is to make it –- despite his Champions League and England heroics, he has netted just twice from 26 attempts in the league so far.

United’s task looks highly difficult, but there are ways in which they can give themselves a chance. The first and most important is to defend deep, forcing Arsenal to play in front of them.

The Gunners have shot from outside the penalty area more times (89) than anyone else in the Premier League this season, but are yet to find the net once from range. Another is to attack down the flanks. Fortunately this is something United already do a lot (just 27% of their attacks have come through the middle of the pitch this season).

Wenger likes his full-backs to push high up and both Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj are quick and skillful enough to exploit the space left behind, though the visitors must improve their speed and decision-making in the transition –- they are yet to score a single goal from a counter-attack this term.

Van Gaal will surely have noticed with particular interest how easily and often Swansea City’s Jefferson Montero embarrassed Calum Chambers in one-on-one situations on the left flank at the Liberty Stadium a fortnight ago and, if Marouane Fellaini is given time to lope into the penalty area, he may be able to exploit a huge aerial mismatch with reluctant centre-back Nacho Monreal on crosses.

Arsenal give up the fewest shots (seven) per game of any team in the Premier League, so United will have to be ruthless. The bad news is that Robin van Persie has been anything but so far this season, with three goals from 26 attempts giving him a conversion rate of just 11.5%.

The Dutchman re-finding his finishing touch is just the last of several dominos Van Gaal needs to fall if his team are to harbour any hope of compounding Wenger’s troubles on Saturday.

By Liam Twomey,

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Van Gaal says Blind ‘not out for six months’ but length of lay-off still unclear>

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