Shorthanded and struggling, Arsenal and Man United look for a boost
"... and the winner of today's match could jump over West Ham and Swansea and into fourth place in the Premier League table."
Twelve contests into the season, that's not the most compelling pitch for a match, but then again, matches framed like that don't often pit clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United against each other. That's the position the Gunners and Red Devils find themselves in at the quarter pole, though, as injuries and curious roster construction have combined to leave both teams struggling for form -- and for health.
That neither club reinforced at central defender during the summer remains one of the major mysteries of the early season, and the problems back there have had a huge impact on both teams. United had to quickly switch from the back three it was working on all preseason to a more conventional back four, and has been left starting unimposing combinations from among Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Tyler Blackett, Marcus Rojo and even midfielder Michael Carrick. None of them should be starting regularly for a major club.
Things are now even more dire with Rojo's long-term shoulder injury suffered against Manchester City, and now defensive midfielder Daley Blind -- whose presence had helped shield the wobbly back four -- injured his knee while on international duty with the Netherlands and will miss at least several weeks.
Arsenal has had its own defensive issues. With Laurent Koscielny (and Mathieu Debuchy) continuing to miss time, the Gunners have been left with the pace-challenged Per Mertesacker paired with stopgap fill-in Nacho Monreal. The issues here have contributed to the Gunners dropping more points from winning positions (nine already) than any other team in the league, per Opta, and all four of Arsenal's wins this season have come against teams that currently sit 14th or worse in the table.
The net result of the central deficiencies is that United (14) and Arsenal (13) have combined to concede 27 goals in their 22 matches, despite both teams being in the league's top four (Arsenal is No. 1) in terms of average shots conceded per match. The problem is that both teams allow an extremely high percentage of shots from inside the 18-yard-box, where shots typically have higher goal equity.
A full 65 percent of Arsenal's shots conceded come from inside the box (vs. 63 percent for United), while United has allowed nine percent of its shots against to come from inside the six-yard-box, according to WhoScored.com. Both of those figures are second-worst in the league.
So both clubs have relied on a plethora of potent attacking options (though, once again, injuries have impacted the picture, ranging from Falcao to Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud -- who is back for this match -- among others). This match is set to feature two of the most electric players in the league in Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez and United's Angel di Maria, but hey, Di Maria suffered an ankle knock while on international duty and his presence is in some question.
Anyway, something has to give on Saturday between these two seemingly resistible forces. United heads to the Emirates with just three away points out of a possible 15, with four of those matches coming against the current bottom eight. Meanwhile, Arsenal will look to shake its dicey habit of drawing at home.
The Red Devils have only lost once in their last 14 matches against the Gunners, and this would be an opportune time for them to continue that streak. The January window may not prove to be a fix-all for either team's deficiencies, but for the two most-injured teams in the league this season, grabbing as many points as you can while you heal up and reevaluate needs isn't a bad plan.