Arsenal's season may be defined by whether they beat Manchester United at the Emirates.
Arsene Wenger's team are in need of a huge response after losing 5-1 to Liverpool. The opportunity comes when David Moyes brings his struggling squad to North London in a midweek fixture that is likely to compound the misery of one set of supporters.
Fresh from their disappointing 2-2 draw with Fulham, the Red Devils need a result to spark some kind of run. It's been an abysmal campaign for United, one with very little positives, so Moyes' men may be approaching this one with a certain amount of dread—particularly as Arsenal will go top with a win.
Here, we run through the keys to victory for both sides in this important Premier League fixture.
Keys to Victory
Arsenal Must Play Their Natural Passing Game
The Gunners suffered with a real lack of rhythm against Liverpool. Players such as Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla appeared lethargic in midfield as mistakes hampered the team's game in uncharacteristic fashion.
Ozil stuttered to make a positive impression once again, as noted by WhoScored.com:
Mesut Özil: Recorded a WhoScored rating of 4.3 vs Liverpool, the lowest by an outfielder in a Premier League match this season #LivArs— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 8, 2014
The German has also come under fierce scrutiny in the press. A plethora of disappointing displays ensure many have questioned his £42 million price tag.
Ozil can often appear disinterested—hands on his hips, staring into oblivion—but Wenger doesn't believe his player has an attitude problem, per Jeremy Wilson of The Telegraph: "He feels the pressure of course because he knows a lot is expected. ... He's not a guy who doesn't care. His style can sometimes look like that but he’s really the opposite character. He needs more support, he needs understanding."
This support is all well and good, but Ozil also needs to improve his performances. He is a world-class player and can certainly influence the game against United if Arsenal stick to their natural qualities.
Moyes' midfield are laboured despite the best efforts of players such as Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher. A turn of pace is lacking, agility is nowhere to be seen, and simple movements are made to look difficult.
Which team will win this match?
Should Arsenal ping the ball around with confidence, chasms will open up between whomever Moyes decides to deploy. This occurrence is likely to see Wayne Rooney drop back in order to provide support, a strategy that once again plays into Arsenal's hands.
If the Englishman pulls away from Robin van Persie, both Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny will have an easier night.
Arsenal don't need to change their game too spectacularly against the Red Devils; they just need to ensure control is maintained. As we've seen all season, United's defence are likely to give something away before too long.
United Must Progress Away from Their Forced Crossing Game
Moyes claimed his United squad were suffering with "mental softness" after their 2-2 draw with Fulham, as reported by Jamie Jackson of The Guardian. While this is true, the United manager hasn't exactly helped the club's plight by placing an emphasis on one-dimensional play.
As we all know, this dimension comes in the form of crossing. OptaJoe has the damning details:
18 - Just 18 of Manchester United's 81 crosses against Fulham found a teammate. Fruitless.— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 9, 2014
This approach simply won't work against Arsenal. Aside from the Liverpool match and a 6-3 capitulation against Manchester City, Mertesacker and Koscielny have been excellent for the North London club.
A large part of this is Mertesacker's positioning in the area. He plants himself around the penalty spot, waiting to deal with crosses as they float in. He has won 2.9 aerial balls per match this season, as reported by WhoScored.com, compared to Koscielny's 1.4.
United's winning goal during their last encounter with Arsenal came when Mertesacker was out of the side. Van Persie was left free in the area and guided home a fantastic header, but it's unlikely the Dutchman would have received this much room had the German defender been in place.
Will Arsenal win this season's Premier League?
Despite utilising a strong team against Fulham, United simply couldn't break down the Cottagers defence from wide positions. Both goals came from the centre and suggested an overemphasis on hitting the flank is misguided.
Moyes has plenty of smart passers at his disposal, as highlighted with the acquisition of Juan Mata. The Spaniard has created an assist in each of his three matches since moving from Chelsea, and, unsurprisingly, they have all come when he moves into the middle.
Mata has been forced to start on the wing in each of his United appearances, suggesting Moyes isn't ready to get the best out of a player who thrives just behind the strikers. It would be disappointing to see a rerun of the Shinji Kagawa affair—there is very little point in turning a nimble No. 10 into a winger who doesn't possess the pace or power to compete.
Onlookers will undoubtedly count every single cross United send into the box. Moyes can surprise everyone, including Arsenal, by utilising a fast-paced passing game that allows Rooney, RvP and Mata to work freely on the edge of the box.
United will surely get more joy with this tactic and might even drum up some plaudits after the terrible crossing display of Feb. 9.