down cross

My Arsenal v Manchester United memories range from pleasant to painful

Football philosophy from Kevin Pullein

Arsenal's Matteo Guendouzi (left) and Ander Herrera of Manchester United (right) tussling in their Premier League clash at Old Trafford
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Arsenal play Manchester United in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Friday night. Over the years I have watched a lot of their games and learned a lot from them. Some of it I would like to share.

For much of my life on the Racing Post Arsenal v United was the biggest fixture in English football. It is still one of the biggest.

And it has a long history in the FA Cup. The first meeting was 113 years ago. Altogether there have been 14 previous meetings, one of which went to a replay. Seven times Arsenal won the tie, seven times United won the tie.

Arsenal’s name has been engraved on the trophy a record 13 times, United’s 12 times. Both teams have appeared in 20 finals. Nobody else has played in more than 14.

Here are five things I have learned about football and betting – or remembered – while watching Arsenal play United in the years that I have been fortunate enough to work for the Racing Post.

1 What matters is what happens in the box

The two games that demonstrate this best are Arsenal 1 United 2 in the Premier League in 2014-15, and United 3 Arsenal 2 in the Premier League in 2015-16.

In those games Arsenal had more than 60 per cent of the possession but scored fewer than 40 per cent of the goals. In each game they had 61 per cent possession. Over the two games they scored three goals out of eight, which is 38 per cent.

Those were the clearest motifs of a pattern in Arsenal-United games from, say, the last 15 seasons. Most of the time Arsenal had the ball. Only rarely, though, did they manage to pass it through United’s defenders. Then, now and again, United stole the ball, broke out and found themselves through on goal.

It became the shape of Arsenal’s games against other top teams too.

Gordon Strachan, a former United player, has said: “Football is what happens in the two penalty areas. Everything else is propaganda.” But…

2 What happens in the box is not always what should happen in the box

The perfect example of this was Arsenal 1 United 3 in the Premier League last season, 2017-18.

Unusually for recent times, it was a game in which Arsenal penetrated again and again and deserved to win. They had 33 shots to United’s eight, many of them from good positions. Expected goals figures – derived from the number and location of goal attempts – implied that the fairest score would have been Arsenal 5 United 2.

Teams do not always get what they deserve.

David de Gea, United’s goalkeeper, was brilliant, as he often is. To what extent his brilliance is recognised in expected-goals figures is unclear. But even he does not normally save as many shots as he did in that game.

3 There can be a thin dividing line between success and failure

As there was in the 2005 FA Cup final. It was a game to decide who would end the season without a trophy. In those days a trophyless season was unusual for both of them. Arsenal had won something in the previous three seasons, United in five of the previous six. Either United or Arsenal had won the Premier League in each of the preceding nine seasons.

Then billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and poured in money. In 2004-05 Chelsea won the Premier League and also the League Cup. They were only one of 20 teams in the Premier League but their wage bill that season was one-seventh of the Premier League total.

Arsenal and United were left to squabble over the FA Cup. The score was 0-0 after extra-time. For the first time the FA Cup would be decided by a shootout. Ten kicks were taken. Only one did not go in. Paul Scholes’s spot-kick – United’s second, the third of the shootout – was saved by Jens Lehmann.

One touch on the ball out of perhaps 1,800 across 120 minutes of play and a penalty competition separated Arsenal from United.

4 Sometimes a script written in the stars is torn up and thrown in the gutter

The FA Cup tie that went to a replay was a 1998-99 semi-final. I remember it for a different reason than everyone else. Everyone else remembers it for Ryan Giggs dribbling half the length of the pitch to score an extra-time winner for United. I could not appreciate that goal until much later.

I was working a late shift for the Racing Post sport desk. In those days we had a lot fewer people than we have now. The staffing for a late shift was one person.

It was stressful at the best of times. You had to write the back-page story – a match report and betting update – lay out the page, add a headline, picture and caption and finish it all before the final edition went to the printers at 11pm.

The last thing you wanted was extra-time. In added time at the end of 90 minutes the score was 1-1. Then Arsenal were awarded a penalty. Dennis Bergkamp settled the ball on the spot. All he had to do was score from 12 yards with only the goalkeeper to beat and I should have enough time to do what I had to do. For once, I thought, the gods were smiling on me. Bergkamp shot and Peter Schmeichel saved. No one was smiling on me. The gods were laughing at me.

Something that seems so right – as though it is meant to be – can still go horribly wrong. But…

5 Sometimes you get lucky

In our edition of Sunday, February 25, 2001, I recommended a maximum-stakes buy on the spreads of United supremacy in a Premier League game at home to Arsenal. They won 6-1. The next day my triumph was splashed across the back page. The editor came to my desk to congratulate me.

I lapped it all up but inside I knew I had been lucky. I did not think United would win by five goals. That surprised me as much as it surprised everybody else. I just thought United were more likely to win by some margin than seemed to be acknowledged by the height of the spreads.

So what might happen this time? Everything I have learned from previous Arsenal v United games can be summed up in a three-word answer. Anything could happen.

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Arsenal’s name has been engraved on the trophy a record 13 times, United’s 12 times. Both teams have appeared in 20 finals
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