Halloween might have been and gone for most of us, but if Arsenal fans are still having nightmares about last season’s visit to Old Trafford, then you can hardly blame them.
The painful memory of last year’s embarrassing 8-2 defeat at the hands of Manchester United will still haunt everybody at the club, not least manager Arsene Wenger, who has spent a great deal of his tenure in direct competition with Sir Alex Ferguson and would have felt the most chastising day of his Arsenal career as much as any supporter.
That incredible result last August was the nadir of a poor start to last season for the Gunners, which saw Wenger’s side (recently shorn of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri) take just one point from the first three games and go on to lose at relegated Blackburn and arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur before October was out.
Although such is the power of perception in football, helped by whatever agenda the media seem to be pushing at the time, that you might be surprised to learn that Arsenal actually had more points going into November last season than they have this term – 16 to 15 – which indicates that Wenger’s side were either a) not as bad as people thought last year or b) haven’t had the best of starts this time, either.
I actually think it is the latter. An impressive recovery last season saw Arsenal win a trophy, sorry, I mean finish third to secure Champions League football for a 16th consecutive season under Wenger and even if that is about the limit of their ambitions this time, they will be confident of making the top four once again. That must be achieved, however, without the help of a certain Dutch guy who notched one or two goals last year and who, much to the annoyance of the travelling support, will be in the opposite dressing room when the Gunners pitch up at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Yes, we can’t possibly go any further without mentioning Robin van Persie, who comes face to face for the first time with the club where he spent seven largely injury-hit years and one exceptional goalscoring year, and it adds an extra bit of spice to a match that doesn’t need any further heating up.
Even if it doesn’t have the same significance of years gone by – although Wenger told the recent AGM that winning the Premier League is his top priority, he hasn’t been close for years – it is still a fixture that fans and neutrals alike look forward to and the lunchtime clash is no exception.
Arsenal head north as the 17/4 underdogs, with the draw at 14/5 and United at odds-on at 31/50, and there is reason for me to think that those odds are wrong.
Technically, this match pits the league’s highest scorers against its best defence. No, really: while United have knocked in 24 goals, Arsenal have only let in six in nine games to boast the best record in the Premier League. But as we know, stats don’t tell the whole story and I would rather trust the fact that Arsenal have only kept one clean sheet in the last 11 games and head to Old Trafford on the back of conceding five – five! – goals against Reading.
That said, United come into the match as a defensive shambles. The Red Devils lost an epic Capital One Cup tie 5-4 to Chelsea on Wednesday to make it 11 goals conceded in the last four games and Van Persie must be thinking he has swapped scoring all the goals for a team who are terrible at the back for scoring all the goals for a team who are terrible at the back.
For what it’s worth, Van Persie is 7/2 to score first on Saturday and 9/10 to notch at any time and both prices will surely attract plenty of interest, because even if we ignore the fact that both sides let in five in midweek (the teams were much changed, after all) and look at league form, everything suggests United will be winning this. The Red Devils’ controversial 3-2 victory at Stamford Bridge on Sunday put them just one point behind Chelsea at the top of the Premier League and six ahead of Arsenal, who lie in sixth place, and in many ways it was a typical United performance this season.
They looked, as they have done all year, extremely ropey at the back when playing against 11 men and they have now conceded at least twice in seven games this season. That suggests United could be vulnerable and Arsenal should certainly take heart from Tottenham’s 3-2 win at Old Trafford four weeks ago. But with United scoring so many goals, they have generally somehow found a way to win. Since losing at Everton on the opening weekend, United have won 11 of their 13 matches, despite conceding 22 goals and keeping just three clean sheets.
With Ferguson’s men letting in so many goals they are there for the taking, but I don’t think Arsenal have it in them. Don’t be fooled by that best defensive record statistic: the Gunners are as vulnerable as United, they just aren’t getting as many goals.
Arsenal have scored 14 goals in the league – there are eight teams that have scored more – but when you realise that six of those came against a very poor Southampton team at the Emirates, Wenger’s boys have hit eight goals in eight games as Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud struggle to find their feet.
And with Arsenal’s recent record against United so poor – Ferguson has beaten Wenger in eight of the last ten games, with one draw – I genuinely think that Arsenal don’t believe they can go to Old Trafford and win.
So I am on United here and with goals guaranteed, the 13/10 on a home win and over 2.5 goals looks a great bet to me, especially with returns of £46 on offer for anyone back it with their free £20 bet after registering with bwin.
There have been at least three goals in 12 of United’s 14 games and there is no sign that the goals are going to stop coming. At 13/10, get on most of them being in the Gunners’ net.