What will it take for Manchester United to finish higher than Arsenal this season?

Credit: Sky Sports
Credit: Sky Sports /

This is the first in a five-part series examining what Manchester United need to do to overtake the teams currently ahead of them in the table: Arsenal, Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Chelsea. At time of writing, Arsenal sit one place in front of United, in 5th on 41 points. 

After a stunning bout of festive football, the top six of the table have clearly begun to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. Each are obviously playing well, as managers both new and old do battle to try and establish themselves as the dominant force in the Premier League.

However, of those six teams, only four can qualify for Champions League football; a target one would assume is the minimum required of the managers of each of these clubs. Problem is, Manchester United currently sit at the back of the pack in sixth.

Despite a slow start, United have found a good run of form, and have closed the gap between themselves and their fellow league big boys. Just two points ahead of them are Arsenal, who started the season strongly, but have faltered in recent games — most notably in away games against Everton and Bournemouth.

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Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is yet to sign a new contract after 20 years of service at the club, and he’ll be desperate to finish first for the sake of his job, or his legacy.

So how does this Manchester United team on a roll haul in their arch-rivals, and move above them in the table?

Cohesive style:
Unlike Mourinho teams of years past, Manchester United have yet to show a consistent, cohesive style of play out on the pitch from game to game this season. At least in part, this can probably be attributed to the four managerial changes (including Giggs’ stint) the club has undergone in four years, but also Mourinho’s nonsensical first team picks for the opening third of the season. By contrast, under Wenger for the last 20 years, Arsenal have played the same way come hell or high water. The players know what they’re doing, even if it doesn’t always work. They play the game their way.

But with United’s center midfield and center back selections finally solidified (and Rooney finally mostly out of the picture) plus Zlatan Ibrahimovic starting every game, the spine of the United first team has finally had a chance to set and gel. With the players improving each game, and the chemistry coming, Mourinho should be able to impart his tactics better, and a more consistent style of play can hopefully begin to develop. This chemistry will hopefully lead to better…

Attacking interplay:
Part of the aforementioned style of Arsenal is their attacking interplay, and while in years past you may have been able to accuse the club of trying to pass the ball into the net, the Gunners are taking their chances this season, scoring 44 goals in 20 games — second only to the heavy artillery of Liverpool.

Arsenal have attacking players to spare. Former starlet Jack Wilshere has been at Bournemouth all season and you wouldn’t even know it. However it’s the front three’s ability to move off the ball, give each other options, and work their way into the opposition box that has always been Arsenal’s killer signature.

When United have gotten going properly — most notably when Mata, Pogba, and Mhkitaryan really click — they can be, and have been, just as deadly. However it’s taken them too long to get to top gear in previous matches, or relying on second half substitutions like Rashford to add some dynamism to the offence. By contrast, Arsenal’s link up play really begins as soon as Alexis Sanchez decides. Which brings us nicely onto the final point…

Find an Alexis Sanchez:
As in previous years, Sanchez is at times the only player on the field giving 110% for Arsenal, and at times that’s all that matters. He’s a one man goal machine, scoring 13 and assisting 7 in the league no matter where he’s played on the pitch, making a total of 20 goals he’s had a direct hands in this season.

While some could argue Arsenal are a little reliant on him, United lack a superbly forceful player like Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard, or Kevin De Bruyne who can pick the ball up anywhere on the pitch and be a threat. United could really use somebody to step up for them, whether Pogba from the center, or Mhkitaryan or Mata from the wing. Zlatan can’t do it all when he’s busy poaching goals.

Next: The Recent Curse of the Number 7 Jersey

The two teams square off next May 6th, just two weeks from the end of the season when it will surely be all to play for, with the top teams as close as they are. What else do United need to do to overtake Arsenal? Let us know in the comments below!