Ole Gunnar Solskjaer maintained his 100 per cent winning record as Manchester United’s interim manager last weekend, which means the Red Devils head into this FA Cup fourth-round clash on the back of seven successive victories in all competitions.
The Norwegian has already passed one major test against fellow big-six opposition, beating Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 at Wembley, but he may have to settle for a draw in what looks set to be an entertaining, goal-heavy fifth-round clash with Arsenal on Friday night.
Even in his wildest dreams, Solskjaer could not have anticipated things going quite so well in his first few weeks at the helm of the club he represented as a player for over a decade.
Cynics may point to a fixture list which has pitted United against five bottom-half sides in the Premier League and a Championship outfit in the previous round of the FA Cup, but it is not as if United were comfortably beating – and playing such free-flowing football against – such opponents under Jose Mourinho.
Solskjaer has put the Red Devils back in top-four contention, with just three points now separating them from Chelsea in the final Champions League qualification spot.
The former striker has received plenty of credit for the work he has done so far, but much of it has focused on his man-management skills.
He has certainly excelled in that regard, lifting the mood around the club and delivering messages of optimism rather than pessimism in the press, as well as getting the likes of Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial – players who endured difficult relationships with Mourinho – back on side.
Solskjaer’s Tactical Nous
It is unfair, however, to ignore the tactical elements of United’s revival under Solskjaer: the full-backs are now playing higher up the pitch, there is more pace in the team and more verticality to their play, Pogba has been handed a freer, more advanced role with the protection of two midfielders behind him, and Marcus Rashford has been a revelation at centre-forward, relegating Romelu Lukaku to the bench.
The England international, incidentally, could be worth a punt as an anytime goalscorer at a best price of 2/1 (Betfair).
While United have been consistently excellent in the last few weeks, the same cannot be said for Arsenal.
It has been an up-and-down winter for Unai Emery’s men thus far, with victories over Burnley, Fulham and Blackpool in the FA Cup offset by a 3-2 defeat by Southampton, a 5-1 thrashing by Liverpool and a 1-0 reverse against West Ham United.
Last weekend’s meeting with Chelsea was therefore rightly billed as a must-win – and Arsenal did exactly that, triumphing 2-0 after a fine all-round display.
They have generally performed well in the big games at home this term, when the Gunners have started quickly and played with great aggression and intensity, and they will probably come flying out of the traps again here.
For that reason, the first goal being scored in the first 15 minutes looks like good value at 15/8 (Black Type).
Reasons To Bet on Arsenal
At the other end of the field, there is cause for Arsenal optimism.
Even when they have been dropping points, goals have not been particularly hard to come by for the north Londoners: only Manchester City and West Ham have kept clean sheets against them in the Premier League this term, while Arsenal have failed to score in just three of their last 32 encounters in all competitions.
Fielding Aaron Ramsey in an advanced role behind Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette worked brilliantly against Chelsea last time out, and that front three possesses the speed, movement and, above all, quality to take advantage of United’s shaky rear-guard.
Indeed, for all the undeniable improvements the Red Devils have made under Solskjaer, they remain vulnerable at the back.
Remarkably, relegation-threatened Fulham are the only team to have kept fewer clean sheets in the Premier League this season than United, whose recent shut-out against Tottenham Hotspur owed more to David de Gea’s world-class goalkeeping than any sort of structural solidity.
Victor Lindelof has enjoyed a much-improved campaign but Phil Jones is still unconvincing and Diogo Dalot, for all his potential, is liable to be caught out of position.
Arsenal’s speed in transition could cause the visitors real problems at the Emirates Stadium, which is why both teams to score is so short-priced at 8/15 (William Hill).