Robin van Persie comes face to face with his former team mates and the club whom he spent eight years of his career tomorrow lunchtime. This game, in theory, has goals written all over it. In these two sides’ Capital One Cup ties in midweek, there were 21 goals. Both conceded five, and last time Arsenal travelled to Old Trafford they lost 8-2.
No-one expects a repeat on Saturday, but this is a chance for Arsenal to demonstrate how far they have come in the 14 months since that disastrous result. Victory would thrust the visitors back into title contention and to within three points of Manchester United. Defeat would leave them nine points adrift of their rivals and unlikely Premier League champions.
For United, they will hope to continue the positive momentum created since their defeat to the last side from North London to set foot in Old Trafford, Tottenham. They had won five games in a row in all competitions, including impressive away wins at Newcastle and Chelsea in the Premier League. Prior to the 5-4 defeat to Chelsea on Wednesday, United had conceded two goals in the previous three matches and have now gone behind in nine of fourteen matches in all competitions
By contrast, Arsenal are in the unusual position of having the statistically tightest defence in the Premier League. Six goals conceded in nine games is seven fewer than United. By contrast they have only netted 14, reflecting the problems Arsenal have had finding someone to take responsibility for goalscoring in the post van Persie era. United have been positively thriving going forward with the Dutchman, scoring 24 in the league and looking threatening whenever they have the ball
This match on Saturday promises to be open and the central midfield area will be a particularly important part of the pitch to keep an eye on. Neither side play with a real defensive midfielder, preferring a proficient passer who can help their team make the transition from defensive phases to attacking quickly. The space afforded to opponents in the Manchester United midfield has been particularly notable this season, and that could be particularly vulnerable with Arsenal the visitors. Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla are all playmakers, although responsibility for creating chances falls on the latter duo. Expect Arsenal to dominate this area of the pitch and boss possession
However this often happens when these two teams meet. Arsenal dominate possession, fail to break United down and are hit on the counter attack, and this game is likely to be one in which wingers are critical.
Sir Alex Ferguson will likely utilise two wingers in Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia to pierce the Arsenal defence. They will try and get the ball out wide quickly and stretch Arsenal, before feeding van Persie and Wayne Rooney in space. With Kieran Gibbs still absent Arsenal will be extremely vulnerable to this if they play Andre Santos. Arsène Wenger may be well advised to go with Thomas Vermaelen at left back for this one and play Laurent Koscielny at centre back.
At the same time, Arsenal are adept themselves, and possibly strongest when on the counter attack. That was the way in which they beat Liverpool and it was quick counter attacking that got them back into the game against West Ham in October. Lukasz Podolski can look lost when Arsenal face a defensive opponent playing a deep line, but with space to attack the German comes alive and he should have more influence here. As should Theo Walcott, fresh from inspiring Arsenal’s remarkable comeback against Reading in midweek. With Olivier Giroud steadily improving, Wenger’s team are more than capable of hitting United on the break
So the key to this game will be two main factors. Which team is better at getting back into a defensive shape when they lose the ball, in particular ensuring their wingers track back quickly to support full backs. And then which side is more clinical when chances come their way. If van Persie was still playing for Arsenal, you would suspect they may have the advantage in that area. But with him now plying his trade for the Red Devils, that may just give them the edge.