It’s a cliché long held dear that a demanding festive period can shape a club’s entire season and rarely has that been truer than this year. For evidence of this we only need look back at the Premier League table on Christmas morning.
Liverpool sat proudly at the summit having just thrashed Crystal Palace 7-0. They looked imperious. A consecutive title beckoned.
Only then they drew at home to West Brom on December 27th and thus began a startling spiral that saw them winless in five with a usually prolific strike-force firing blanks. Subsequently their title odds have drifted to 13/2.
Manchester City meanwhile languished in eighth having also recently dropped points at home to the Baggies. Pep Guardiola’s magnificent creation looked broken and Blues talked of the need to secure a top four spot above all else but then a routine victory over Newcastle on Boxing Day extended on a solid performance at Southampton and City haven’t stopped winning since. They presently look imperious.
Another title beckons.
Speaking of Newcastle, they were comfortably tucked up in mid-table when Santa did his rounds with seven points from 12 putting them in good form. That Etihad defeat however has led to an abject freefall and Steve Bruce is now 8/15 to be the third manager to leave his Premier League post.
Nowhere though has a change in fortunes been so dramatic than at the Emirates.
When Arsenal hosted Chelsea on Boxing Day the Gunners already looked out for the count. Having only won four of their 14 games they hovered perilously over the drop-zone and Mikel Arteta frankly was a dead man walking. His mandate to deconstruct, then reconstruct a side long in stasis had seemingly stalled on the first part and every week brought a worse version of crisis.
A 2-1 win over Chelsea changed everything and even that sweeping statement is said with some under-statement because ever since Arsenal are a team transformed. They are vibrant and confident. Only Manchester City have accrued more points and conceded fewer goals in 2021.
In hindsight it was a Christmas miracle.
Saka and Laca
There are several reasons for this miraculous recovery not least the switching of Bukayo Saka to the right flank.
The teenager has been a revelation all season, collecting Man of the Match awards like kids his age typically rack up acne and all from a wide number of positions that highlight his versatility.
His reimagining as a right-winger has proven pivotal to the Gunners’ dramatic improvement and in the six games since he was deployed there against Chelsea, Saka has been involved in 43% of Arsenal’s goals, scoring four and assisting twice.
These figures feed into a wider point: that Arsenal are finally carving out opportunities and better yet taking them. In the six games leading up to their Yuletide transformation Arsenal had a measly 18 shots on target, averaging three per game. In their six matches since that has doubled to 36.
It’s not just Saka of course responsible for this, just chiefly so. The performances of Emile Smith Rowe continue to impress and the youngster has scored or assisted in seven of his 11 appearances this term across all competitions. Then there’s the intriguing proposition of new loan signing Martin Ødegaard making a cameo against Manchester United this Saturday, a player of redoubtable flair.
All of which is manna from heaven for a rejuvenated Alexandre Lacazette whose season mirrors that of his club. The French striker rediscovered his goal-scoring boots against Chelsea after an 11-game barren spell and has since scored five in six.
Lacazette is 8/5 to score anytime against Manchester United
The Reds run riot on the road
A highly credible 16 points from 18, with players collectively finding form and all talk of crisis shushed means that Arsenal are in a very good place right now. But here come Manchester United, opposition who will surely pose the toughest test so far to the Gunners’ resurgence.
This is not simply because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men are locked into a title chase after accumulating 13 games unbeaten until Wednesday night’s loss to Sheffield United. It’s not even wholly because of the considerable threat presented by Bruno Fernandes with his 11 goals and eight assists in the league alone.
It’s because the fixture is taking place at the Emirates.
If United’s defeat to the Blades surprised this week it would have positively shocked had it taken place at Bramall Lane and that’s because the 13-time Premier League champions are abiding masters at winning away from home. Indeed, they were last bettered on their travels over a year ago at Anfield and it should not be under-estimated how hard players fight to retain such records.
The visitors are 6/4 to get all three points in North London
United’s propensity to score late on has been widely acknowledged but it should be noted the trend is waning.
In their first 16 games in all comps the Reds scored a staggering 40% of their goals in the final ten minutes. In their last 16 games that has dropped to 17.2%, a perfectly reasonable figure.
What hasn’t changed however is their inability to start matches on the front feet and so it inevitably follows that they tend to concede early.
26% of the league goals put past them this term have come inside the opening ten minutes and for simplicity’s sake it would be great to say that Arsenal typically come out of the blocks strongly but sadly they do not. They have scored 15 of their 26 league goals in the second period.
Still, the smart money is on the Gunners to break the deadlock at evens and the even smarter money then heads to the in-play market to back a United equaliser. The visitors have picked up a whopping 16 points from losing positions this season.
Arteta has the knack
It’s hard to predict how United will react to their midweek setback but almost certainly Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would have much preferred his sobered side was facing someone else this weekend.
Though we are admittedly only talking about a small sample size it is Arsenal who the Norwegian has the worst record against in the top-flight and it matters too that in his brief managerial calling Mikel Arteta has won both of his contests v United.
The Gunners are 9/1 to win 2-1 this Saturday