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Saturday, 16 November 2013

Arsenal vs. Man United: van Persie and the dangers of over-reliance

A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece about Arsenal's underwhelming start to the 2012/13 season, attributing their frustrations mainly to the loss of Robin van Persie's goalscoring talents. At the time Arsenal had been struggling to score, whilst van Persie's goals already had Man United team out in front as the league's top scorers and just one point off the top spot. It was evident that Arsenal had been over-reliant on the dutchman's goals in the 2011/12 season, and the team were unable to compete with United's enviable quartet of goalscorers (with Rooney, Hernández, and to a far lesser extent, Welbeck, making up the numbers).

Just one year on, however, the situation looks very different. As the chart below shows, after eleven games this season, United have scored just eighteen goals, seven of which were provided by van Persie. If you took those seven out of the equation, the team would have the fifth worst scoring record in the league. 

By contrast, if you took the six goals scored by Arsenal's top scorer so far, Aaron Ramsey, away from their total of twenty-two, the Gunners would still have the fifth highest goal count. van Persie's recent goals against Arsenal, Stoke, and Southampton, meant that United have won two and drawn one, instead of drawing two and losing one. Without those five points saved, the team would find themselves wallowing in ninth place. Arsenal, even without the four extra points secured against Sunderland and Swansea by Ramsey's goals, would still be in the Champions League places.

Although last season United set a Premier League record by having twenty different goalscorers throughout the year, just six players have found the net since August. As you can see from the chart above, Arsenal have in fact already had ten different goalscorers this time round.

This gives the impression that it is Arsenal who have the more evenly-balanced squad. The team appears much less dependent on top scorers Ramsey and Olivier Giroud than United are on van Persie and Rooney. Even Liverpool, who are just one goal and two points behind Arsenal, are heavily reliant on the goals of their two strikers, Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, who have provided sixteen of the squad's twenty-one goals.

Many fans have voiced concerns that unlike United and Liverpool, who have two prolific strikers apiece, Arsenal rely too much on Giroud for their goals. Yet Arsenal's other attackers have shown that they are extremely capable of supporting the Frenchman, contributing fifteen goals between them. This is a tally not even matched by Chelsea's formidable group of midfielders.

Despite their many different scorers last season, the only United midfielder to makes a significant contribution to the team's goal count was Shinji Kagawa with six. And the only real change to their ranks has been replacing Paul Scholes with Maroune Fellaini, who has yet to replicate the form that saw him score eleven for Everton last season.

There is still more good news for Arsenal fans, who have been without two of last seasons three top scorers, Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski, for most of their games so far. With these two forwards, who can both play in the central striker position, due to return from injury in the coming weeks, Wenger will have even more goalscoring options available.

Liverpool and United may have the best strike partnerships in the league, yet it is Arsenal's attacking line that has looked the strongest overall in the start to the season. van Persie and Rooney made the difference when the two sides played each other last weekend, but with injured players returning, Arsenal's squad looks much less vulnerable than in recent years. The prospect of signing another striker in January, which already has the papers speculating, would be the icing on the cake. It is now United who are reliant on van Persie's goals, and Arsenal who have the better squad depth.

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