When Mikel Arteta’s side travelled to Old Trafford last November they set up in such a way that allowed them to simultaneously suffocate and expose their hosts.
United’s in-form attackers, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, were hassled and harried into submission while Bruno Fernandes was managed out of the game, rendering Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side impotent.
The resulting 1-0 win was just reward for a disciplined tactical masterclass from Arteta, though what followed for both clubs was startlingly different, Arsenal plunged into a dreadful malaise while United surged up the league table.
Today, at last, we face off again, with both sides more established and their respective paths and league objectives much clearer before them. This time around, the consequences of victory or defeat will be more keenly felt.
So how then does Arteta go about making it back-to-back wins against United?
A performance of similar style and substance to November’s might work but, at home, it would be incredibly unusual, if not unprecedented, for the manager to set up in such a way. It would be unexpected, for sure, but ultimately unlikely for an Arsenal team on our own patch.
Injuries and unavailability will play a big part in shaping the make-up and the plan for the hosts but, if we assume the same side that started against Southampton will do so again today, we must also assume they will set up in similar fashion.
The 4-2-3-1 has become the favoured formation for this iteration of Arsenal and, with the right personnel in place, works incredibly well for us at both ends of the pitch. Where November’s Arsenal were shaky and uncertain defensively and constipated in attack, this current Arsenal has the second best defensive record in the league and is, after a lengthy lull, back in scoring form.
Given the vulnerablilities of Solksjaer’s team – they have the worst defensive record in the top half of the table – it would seem that, unlike in November, attack is the best course of action for Arsenal. This is a United team that is vulnerable as never before, defensively inept with fragile confidence and prone to panic. There will be spaces and time for the likes of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe to exploit, with the pace of Nicolas Pepe and Gabriel Martinelli likely to be key.
But we must be wary.
United, for all their faults, have shown themselves to be devastating away from home on the counter-attack, with a notable collection of scalps taken this season. An abject defeat to Sheffield United in mid-week is one thing but victories over PSG, RB Leipzig and Liverpool tell a different story.
Solsjaer will almost certainly seek to do to us what was done to him last year. His side, for all their improvement, can’t go toe-to-toe with Arsenal in footballing terms, so he will likely fall back on a tactic which has served United well at the Emirates in years gone by and, to that threat, Arteta must be wary.
The visitors will have plenty of pace in attack and the players – in Paul Pogba and Fernandes – capable of springing the traps.
In short, Manchester United will be a different animal this time around and, in order to meet that threat, so will we.