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

On Sunday Arsenal can complete the league double over Manchester United for the first time since 2006-07. This will be the first time since September 1998 that they have won three consecutive matches against them.

In what is the ultimate indictment of the change of power between the two clubs, Arsenal are expected to win at Old Trafford, despite the pressure of it being their final game in the title race.

For so long, a win at Old Trafford could only be valued if a team played beyond its limits and United had a very bad day – even then, that combination was not often enough.

Now, Arsenal prepare to face Eric ten Hag's side with the belief that an average performance should get them, remarkably, at least 21 shots on goal. This is the number of goals Manchester United have conceded on average in games during 2024. They have allowed 317 shots compared to Arsenal's 132, and have had 97 shots on target compared to Arsenal's 30.

What's even more shocking is that that's 13 more than Arsenal have conceded in their entire 36-game season so far this calendar year.

United are a team whose underlying defensive numbers rank in the bottom third of the league. Arsenal is a team that is, in some ways, the best in the Premier League.

arsenal vs man utd 2023-24


Manchester United

faced bullets

304 (second)

618 (17th)

faced shots on target

83 (first)

194 (15th)

xG against

27.29 (1st)

64.48 (16th)

goals against

28 (first)

55 (joint sixth)

That's why, despite Arsenal's 1–0 win in November 2020, their only win in their last 16 Premier League visits to Old Trafford, they are on par with recent visits to Brighton & Hove Albion, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur. , travel to Manchester as heavy favourites. Seen as equally difficult, if not more so.

Last season, Arsenal's confidence came from the way they started games with aggressive attacks, but this time it is as much about them as they were, in some cases denying the opposition a meaningful sight of their goal for the entire 90 minutes. Can keep away from.

Arsenal have only lost two of their last eight league games and David Raya has already collected the Golden Glove award, but with two games remaining, Arsenal can still finish with 19 clean sheets.

It will be the first time they have reached that total in the 21st century, with previous highs of 23, 21 and 19 coming in 1999, 1994 and 1998 – although they are just shy of Chelsea's record of 25 shutouts in 2004–05 .

Arteta has relied on seven or eight mainstays to build a team capable of maintaining title-challenging form.

There is a decline but not as big a trough as United. But while Ten Hag's side lack cohesion, their individual quality means they can be a dangerous beast when things click and the game has momentum.

By any measure, Arsenal are a strong team, but they have now reached a level of consistency where their defensive numbers have remained low over the past two and a half seasons, even if their offensive output has fluctuated in parts.

arsenal rolling npxg ribbon 2

This gives them a solid base to build on again in a low-scoring game.

Arsenal have been strengthened by the addition of custodian-of-the-back Declan Rice and with the return of Thomas Partey to the starting line-up, they are heading towards their lowest numbers under Arteta when it comes to direct attacks on goal. Are increasing. , which is now down to less than two per game.

arsenal rolling direct attacks conc 1

The key to Arsenal conceding the fewest goals in the league has been their ability to suppress shots. When defending a lead in games against rival clubs or in European competition, they are happy to protect their advantage by sitting deep for the duration of the game.

Only 33 percent of all opposition possession sequences that end in the Arsenal third result in a shot. This is the second best figure in the table in the league, with Manchester United in second place with 46 percent.

arsenal shot conc rate

United regularly left massive gaps in the middle of the pitch, caught between the two conflicting ideas of pressing from the front and sitting deep to protect defenders better suited to that front-footed approach.

Arsenal's trio of Gabriel, William Saliba and Ben White gift them with availability and reliability, but they are also designed for the attacking style of play used by Arsenal.

In Arteta's first full season, his average defensive line was 22 meters from his goal, but year-on-year it has moved forward to the extent that it is now 8 meters higher.

That's a huge difference and it underlines how Arsenal are able to press with conviction, knowing they are compact with no gaps in front of the defence.

Arsenal def line

Arsenal play with a clear identity on the ball, but out of possession, they are just as cohesive.

Kai Havertz has led the press as a centre-forward in eight of the last 11 league games, making them a strong all-round team.

arsenal poss won

They will force United into long runs, but if Ten Hag's team try to play through them, they are capable of counter-attacking. Remember, this is part of the game, with the United manager speaking at the start of the season saying he wanted his team to be the best in the world.

High retrievals are a key part of Arsenal's game and 23 percent of them end in a shot. They are now getting away from that shot much faster when the opposing team is disorganized, and less than 10 percent of the time they pull the trigger within 10 seconds of the return.

arsenal press style contrast

To capture 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 had nine survivors but there has been little progress to show that familiarity.

In games against the “Big Six” this season, Arsenal have conceded nine goals in as many games. United are on 20 and will be in a mood to punish if Manchester City fall behind on goal difference and Arsenal take full points.

As much as this is a story of two contrasting defenses, it's also about one team succeeding against the elite and the other team floundering.

United have taken only six points from 27 against the other “Big Six” clubs this season, compared to Arsenal's 19 points. This is equal to his previous season's total, which was a huge jump from an average of 10.5 points out of 30. 13 years ago.

Only Manchester City's record of 25 out of a possible 30 in 2018–19 will be able to break it, but they lost one game that year, which Arsenal have yet to do.

Arsenal's COVID-era victories in 2020 were significant given how far they had fallen out of the picture. In the three and a half years since then, Arteta has got his team to a psychological place where they feel comfortable going into these intimidating grounds.

(Top photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

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