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Arsenal: the game plan for how they can be more streetwise and win at Manchester United tonight

Once a place where they fought intensely with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in epic battles, Old Trafford has been a fairly happy hunting ground for Arsenal in recent years.

The Gunners have gone unbeaten in the past three visits to United’s home. Such is the rarity of this record, the Gunners have never failed to lose four consecutive games at Old Trafford in the history of the competition.

There’s just one minor glitch as they prepare to travel to Manchester for tonight’s Premier League clash: Arsenal have been well beaten in most of their games against the Big Six this season. If Mikel Arteta’s side wants to face a serious top four challenge this season, they will have to change that.

Mikel Arteta (right) needs a big win on Thursday to help Arsenal reach the top four

Arsenal have failed to lose on the grounds of Manchester United in their last three top visits - last season Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (center) celebrated scoring the winning goal

Arsenal have failed to lose on the grounds of Manchester United in their last three top visits – last season Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (centre) celebrated scoring the winning goal

Back-to-back defeats to Chelsea and Manchester City – including a 5-0 drubbing by the latter – gave the impression that the Gunners were way off the top of the table.

A resurgence, aided by the emergence of new signings such as Takehiro Tomiyasu and Aaron Ramsdale, helped keep ship steady and get Arsenal back into the European fray – but a 4-0 thrashing at Liverpool last month brought the Gunners back to the soil.

Now Arsenal’s season appears to be at a crossroads. One point behind fourth-placed West Ham – with Tottenham and United hoping new managers can drag them back into the fray from behind – Arteta’s men need a big win and fast.

So how do Arsenal improve on their record in big games, which has been very good under Arteta until recent months?

Arsenal have struggled in big games this season, losing 5-0 to Man City and 4-0 to Liverpool

Arsenal have struggled in big games this season, losing 5-0 to Man City and 4-0 to Liverpool

become streetwise

The Spaniard defeated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United for his first win as Gunners boss, while also beating Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in his first season as manager, which also included victories over Chelsea and City en route to the 2020 FA Cup. But now Arsenal cannot put a glove on these teams.

One area where the Gunners could improve is to be more streetwise on the biggest stage. Arteta is stubborn in his insistence on playing from behind at venues such as Anfield and the Etihad Stadium, but perhaps a more conservative approach is needed.

Last month against Liverpool, the Gunners got several warning signs that a patient approach of holding the ball in deep areas would not work.

One of them saw Ben White trying to carry the ball out of defense before being chased by Kostas Tsimikas and Sadio Mane. The latter crossed over to Mo Salah in the penalty area and only a nice double save from Ramsdale stopped the Egyptian.

At Anfield, Arsenal came out with the ball and people like Ben White (left) were often caught

At Anfield, Arsenal came out with the ball and people like Ben White (left) were often caught

The Gunners were utterly embarrassed after being dismantled by a rampant Liverpool

The Gunners were utterly embarrassed after being dismantled by a rampant Liverpool

Arsenal were not so lucky as they made a similar mistake in the second period. Nuno Tavares took the ball out of the defense and tried to find white with a square pass. The Portuguese fullback singled out Diogo Jota who went on to give the Reds a 2-0 lead.

The Gunners have been accused a number of times of trying to play too much, pretending they are a team that is much better than they actually are.

After their 2-0 loss to Chelsea in August, Jamie Carragher lashed out at Arteta for showing naivety in the way they tried to defend against Romelu Lukaku and the European champions.

He said on Sky Sports: ‘The best way to describe Arsenal is that they were trying to play like Manchester City and Liverpool would, but they don’t have the players.’

The Gunners were called 'naive' by Jamie Carragher after their 2-0 loss to Chelsea in August

The Gunners were called ‘naive’ by Jamie Carragher after their 2-0 loss to Chelsea in August

And the way Manchester United pressured Chelsea in last Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge shows how dangerous it can be to play from behind. The Red Devils’ goal, courtesy of Jadon Sancho, came from closing the Blues high on the pitch, while goalkeeper Edouard Mendy also nearly gifted Fred a late winner in that game.

Cut out the crosses

A more long-term trend can be seen in Arsenal’s recent record against the big teams and it is the Gunners struggling to defend widely against better opponents.

Last month at Anfield, Liverpool shot the game past Arsenal by putting crosses into the penalty area. After White’s error on Salah’s first-half opportunity, a free kick by Trent Alexander-Arnold Sadio Mane just before half-time in the penalty area made it 1-0, before Tavares’ error put the game out of play for the Gunners.

Against City in August, four of the Premier League champions’ five goals came from crosses, with the home side coming first on every ball against Arsenal’s defenders.

The Gunners struggle to defend crosses in big games, including the Liverpool draw

The Gunners struggle to defend crosses in big games, including the Liverpool draw

Four of Manchester City's five goals against Arsenal in August came from crosses

Four of Manchester City’s five goals against Arsenal in August came from crosses

And in their London derby with Chelsea, both goals from the Blues came from wide man Reece James, who struggled to contain Arsenal during a frenetic first half at the Emirates Stadium.

But while Arsenal will have defensive concerns in Thursday night’s game against Manchester United, there is no reason why The Gunners should not be positive about the game.

Liverpool’s loss is the Gunners’ only defeat since August and they have been fairly consistent against teams that don’t show up regularly themselves, which is exactly how United can be described after one win in eight league games.

Arsenal can move to Old Trafford with confidence if they put pressure on Harry Maguire (center)

Arsenal can move to Old Trafford with confidence if they put pressure on Harry Maguire (center)

Busy busy busy

Looking back on last season’s win at Old Trafford, the Gunners were excellent at pushing United high on the pitch to create some clear-cut chances.

Alexandre Lacazette created one for both Willian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in both halves, with the pair just missing the mark both times – in a 1-0 Old Trafford win that is one of Arteta’s highlights as Gunners boss to date.

And considering how badly pressured United have been so far this season, a ruthless Arsenal game plan on Thursday night wouldn’t be so foolish.

Against Watford last month, which cost Solskjaer his job as United boss, Bruno Fernandes gave the Hornets an early penalty after being well pressed by the home side, while Harry Maguire was sent off after Tom Cleverley’s diligent work pace on the backline of the Red Devils.

Arsenal have a chance this week to steal a march into the top-four race – and the three points are up for grabs if they want to go on the hunt for United, who are trying to make themselves an urgent side with interim boss Ralf Rangnick comes in tonight and watches from the stands.

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