Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal: Tactical Analysis

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The rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal in the Premier League era has been intense with quite a few memorable encounters between the 2. Incidents such as the infamous tunnel confrontation between Viera and Keane and the  bizarre ‘Pizzagate’ fiasco are ones that continue to be widely referenced years after their actual  occurrence. Having said that, the rivalry has mellowed over the last few years owing largely to Arsenal’s rather long transition period. Robin van Persie’s transfer last season saw some of the edge return and with Arsenal flying high this season, this is a fixture that both sets of fans were desperate to win.

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Both teams set up in the 4-2-3-1 system that they (and so many other teams) prefer. For the home side, Rafael missed out due to injury which meant that Smalling featured at right back. Carrick and Jones were preferred in the centre of the park and Kagawa started on the left. Arsenal were hampered by illness which saw Mertesacker and Rosicky miss out. Vermaelen replaced the German at the heart of the defence. Flamini was back in the middle of the park which meant in form Aaron Ramsey featured on the right.

United both pressing and sitting deep

United were happy to sit deep and stay goal side of play

United were happy to sit deep and stay goal side of play

With Arsenal’s attacking pedigree, United had to put in a shift off the ball. Pressing too high up the pitch would mean that Arsenal could play through the defence and exploit the space behind while sitting back would invite pressure and handicap the attack. Thus, the compromise was to have the attackers press high up the pitch and if Arsenal were to bypass the attacking players then to get behind the ball and make themselves difficult to break down. Both Valencia and Kagawa put in shifts on the flanks to keep the Arsenal attack at bay while Carrick and Jones/Cleverley sat in front of the back 4 making sure that the defensive unit as a whole stayed compact.

Arsenal’s attacking failings in the first half

Arsenal's regular intricate passing was missing in the 1st half as seen by Giroud's passing via squawka.com

Arsenal’s regular intricate passing was missing in the 1st half as seen by Giroud’s passing via squawka.com

As mentioned before Rosicky missed out which meant that Ramsey was deployed on the right. The trio of Rosicky, Ozil and Cazorla were devastating against Liverpool last weekend (read more about that here). The reshuffle meant that Arsenal failed to hit the ground running at Old Trafford. Ramsey had an uncharacteristically poor half and he wasn’t the only Arsenal player to do so. Giroud cut a frustrated figure as he was shackled by both Evans and Vidic. Arsene Wenger after the game said that his team suffered from nerves which would explain the lack of cohesion in the usually dynamic attack. Arsenal were poor but they were also pegged back by the excellent performance of Phil Jones in the 1st half.

Phil Jones’ midfield role

Phil Jones' Action Areas in the 1st half via squawka.com

Phil Jones’ Action Areas in the 1st half via squawka.com

Arsenal’s excellent start to the season has been largely due to their penetrating play through the middle of the park. The likes of Ozil, Ramsey, Cazorla and Rosicky all tend to use the space between the opposition’s defence and midfield. It is in this area of the pitch that they enjoy forming triangles with Giroud usually the focal point of attack. Thus it was imperative for United to ensure that Arsenal’s creative players had as little space and time on the ball in such positions. I’d initially thought that Moyes would deploy 3 men in central midfield to try and choke Arsenal’s attacking threat but instead he chose to instruct Phil Jones to shield the defence and do a clean up job in front of the back 4. It was a role that the Englishman played to near perfection in the 1st half. He set the tone as tackled both Giroud and Ozil early on in the game and his block of Cazorla’s shot in the 33rd minute was just another instance of him thwarting the Arsenal attack. In general he was quick to sense danger and closed off space whenever Arsenal had the ball in central areas. It was no coincidence that Arsenal dominated proceedings in midfield once Jones moved to centre back after Vidic’s injury.

Arsenal playing higher up the pitch in the 2nd half

Arsenal's attack moved higher in the 2nd half via squawka.com

Arsenal’s attack moved higher in the 2nd half via squawka.com

Vidic’s injury meant that Moyes had to reshuffle his men. He chose to bring on Tom Cleverley and move Jones to a deeper role. While Cleverley has improved his defensive game recently, he has an entirely different skill set to Jones. Cleverley didn’t have a bad half and pressed well off the ball but Arsenal enjoyed more possession higher up the pitch in the 2nd half. Of course the other factor that facilitated this shift was United’s willingness to sit back and defend their lead as the game moved to the latter stages.

Sagna pushing forward as Arsenal chased an equalizer

Sagna attempted as many as 7 crosses in the 2nd half via squawka.com

Sagna attempted as many as 7 crosses in the 2nd half via squawka.com

For all of Arsenal’s creativity and technical flair, it was the French full back who posed the most threat as the North London side pushed for an equalizer. Kagawa had done a good job of tracking back and staying goal-side of the right back but he visibly tired and was eventually taken off. Wenger also threw on young Gnabry who looked bright and kept Evra occupied. The above 2 factors meant that Sagna found himself in space and took the opportunity to deliver as many as 7 crosses in the 2nd half as seen in the graphic above. Indeed 2 of them were delightful balls and were as close as Arsenal came on the night to troubling De Gea.

Manchester United’s Substitutions

David Moyes has got some stick thus far for what has been perceived to be negative substitutions most notably in the game against Southampton but on the night his substitutions were spot on. As mentioned above, Kagawa’s tiredness led to him coming up short in his defensive duties so Moyes replaced him with Giggs. The last substitution of Fellaini replacing Van Persie was another one that made sense for United. The big Belgian added an additional layer of protection higher up the pitch, added height to set pieces and his physical presence was one that United could use to see out the last part of the game.

Conclusion

The game wasn’t “one for the ages” or “an advert for the Premier League” but it was one whose importance cannot be diluted. On a weekend that saw City, Chelsea and Spurs all drop points, a win for Manchester United means that despite their lukewarm start they’re just 5 points off leaders Arsenal. On the night, United were simply the more determined of the 2 teams and a solid team performance punctuated by fine individual performances from the likes of Rooney and Jones got them through. For Arsenal they’ll have better days at the office and if anything they’ll be disappointed that they didn’t show the fine form they were in coming into this game. The result has left the Premier League table as tight as ever and although it’s only November, a close title race seems to be growing in its inevitability.

Did you notice a tactical aspect of the game that we missed? If so, do leave a comment below. Make sure you follow us on Twitter @OOTB_football and like us on Facebook. We’re on Google+ and Tumblr as well for those interested.

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Arnab Ray

Arnab Ray

Arnab is an opinionated Bengaluru FC and Manchester United fan. Always up for a good football discussion/ petty argument.
Arnab Ray