Two of the teams involved in the increasingly competitive battle for a top-four Premier League finish lock horns when Arsenal host Manchester United at the Emirates on Sunday (11.30am ET).
Man Utd are the current occupants of fourth place, but with Tottenham Hotspur now just three points ahead of them in third, Arsenal a point behind in fifth and Chelsea a further point back but with a game in hand, there is still plenty to play for down the final stretch.
There have been times in the campaign when such a tight race appeared unlikely. Just three fixtures ago, Spurs were nine points clear in third. Back in mid-December, after a poor start to the campaign under Jose Mourinho, Man Utd were a full eight points shy of Chelsea and Arsenal in fourth and fifth respectively. But everything has now contracted.
That it has can largely be attributed to the impact Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has had since replacing Mourinho to become the interim coach at Old Trafford. Since his arrival, in 13 matches, no Premier League team has taken more points than the 32 accumulated by United. Spurs have taken 25, Arsenal 23 and Chelsea 22, albeit having played one match less.
Romelu Lukaku led the calls for Solskjaer to be appointed on a full-time basis after United came back from a two-goal first-leg deficit to progress to the last eight of the Champions League with a 3-1 win away to Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday. Lukaku scored twice in the opening half-hour, either side of a goal for the home side. Then Marcus Rashford held his nerve to convert from the penalty spot in injury time to send United through.
That happened despite the fact that a combination of injuries and suspensions had robbed Solskjaer of his entire starting midfield, a few defenders and a quartet of forwards. For his substitutions he had to turn to a trio of teenagers, two of whom were making their debuts in European competition. In the circumstances, it was a highly impressive outcome.
The success that Manchester United have under Solskjaer can be qualified by noting their underlying statistics. While improved, the stats are less favorable than results, and Man Utd have benefited from a relatively large number of penalties in that time. Looking at what United were under Mourinho compared to now under Solskjaer and it is easy to see why the groundswell behind him becoming the new permanent head coach continues to grow.
United’s season can be neatly split into two sections: a bad start followed by clear improvement thereafter. Arsenal’s isn’t quite as orderly, but has generally gone in reverse. Between the third and 15th set of fixtures, they put together a 13-match run of results almost as good as United’s under Solskjaer. Between the 10th and 25th, they endured a 16-match run that was as bad as United began the season under Mourinho.
Things have, though, picked up a little. The Gunners come into Sunday’s match on the back of three wins in their last four in the league. They secured a worthy 1-1 draw away to Spurs in last weekend’s North London derby, a match they could easily have won. They actually have the league’s third-best record across their nine matches this calendar year.
Unai Emery’s side also have the potential advantage of what looks to be a marginally easier run-in than their competition. The other three sides around them all still have two more of the current top six to come after this weekend’s round of fixtures. So if they can maintain the superb home form that has seen them to eight consecutive victories at the Emirates and combine that with a few more points on the road, a top-four place could still yet be theirs.
That home record will, though, come under serious threat this weekend against a United side who have won all nine of their away matches in all competitions since Solskjaer took over, including triumphs away to Spurs in the league and Arsenal and Chelsea in the FA Cup. Man Utd were also the victors in last season’s equivalent fixture at the Emirates.
Our Preview’s Arsenal vs. Man Utd Predictions & Picks Verdict
Even with their injury problems and the likely comedown from their midweek exploits, United are the form team at this stage of the season. They should be able to maintain their unbeaten league record under Solskjaer with another win on Sunday. Here is our Arsenal vs. Man Utd prediction, at the best odds of all the USA sports gambling websites:
- Bet on Manchester United to win @ +200 (2/1) with Bovada.