The dynamics of the rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United has changed over the past decade but it is a rivalry that still exists. Arsenal came into the game against their old foes near the top of the pile while United languished a good way below them in 7th. Both sides had dropped points in the weekend with Arsenal on the receiving end of a 5-1 drubbing at the hands of Liverpool and Manchester United dropping further points in a 2-2 draw against bottom side Fulham. With Chelsea only managing a draw against West Brom and City’s game being postponed, Arsenal were looking to ensure they topped the table once again while United knew that anything but a win could spell the end of any top 4 aspirations for the season.
Arsenal 0-0 Manchester United
Arsenal: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta, Wilshere; Rosicky(74′ Oxlade-Chamberlain), Ozil, Cazorla; Giroud
Manchester United: De Gea, Rafael( 45′ Ferdinand), Smalling, Vidic, Evra; Valencia(82′ Young), Cleverley, Carrick, Mata(75′ Januzaj); Rooney, Van Persie
United’s compact set-up which made them difficult to break down
Manchester United have had the measure of Arsenal in the recent years and barring subtle changes made for each game, the underlying principles have been the same- stay deep and take the sting out of the Arsenal attack and counter quickly and effectively. United did half of that last night but weren’t able to form enough of a counter-attacking threat, something we’ll revisit later in the article. For now let us focus on the things United did do right. Right from the offset, it was apparent that United would seek security in numbers when it came to defending their goal. As soon as Arsenal obtained possession, the away side’s midfield dropped deep and were happy to let Arsenal come at them. They afforded Arsenal time and space near the centre circle with only Robin van Persie occupying an advanced position but the deep midfield stifled any space between the defence and midfield strangling the area of the pitch where the likes of Rosicky, Cazorla and Ozil and indeed Arsenal are at their most dangerous. This led to United being very difficult to break down and Arsenal were going to have to be at their precise and free flowing best to do so.
Credit must be given to Carrick and Cleverley as well. The duo displayed plenty of discipline and were crucial in ensuring that their team came away from the Emirates with a clean sheet. They worked well together to maintain the shape of the team and pressed well in deeper areas to curtail Arsenal’s attacking threat. Cleverley in particular carried out his, admittedly limited, role well and had one of his better games in recent memory. With the midfield sitting so deep, it was left to Rooney to drop in and form the extra man in midfield in front of the above mentioned duo providing additional cover.
The above image illustrates my point with Carrick and Cleverley trying to cut off the obvious passes on offer to Gibbs and Rooney playing as the 3rd central midfielder. Rooney dropping deep was hardly an isolated incident as shown by his heat map given below with almost no involvement in and around Arsenal’s penalty box.
Arsenal pressing high in the 1st half and preventing United from building attacks
If United were content to sit back and let Arsenal come at them, the home side as you’d expect tried to force the issue a bit more off the ball. The 4 attacking players of Arsenal were always looking to pressure their opponents if not in the other half then at least in near the centre circle of their own. Indeed for the entirety of the first half, the Gunners were energetic and pressed well making it very hard for United to build attacks.
The above is a good representation of Arsenal’s pressing which made it difficult for United to play the ball out of defence. Another example of their effective pressing is given in the below image albeit in a slightly deeper position. Cleverley has the ball in Arsenal’s half but is quickly closed down by 2 Arsenal players which means he’s now facing the wrong way and is forced backwards to retain possession.
Van Persie’s movement causes problems but poor play in the final third costs United
Arsenal’s pressing definitely made it difficult for United to shift the ball quickly and spring counter attacks but having said that the away side’s attack left a lot to be desired on the day. The most disappointing aspect from a United perspective is that there was certainly space and chances on offer as the match unfolded. Arsenal’s recent defensive record at the Emirates is exemplary and the duo of Koscielny and Mertesacker have formed an imposing partnership at the back for the Gunners. However, they were coming off the back of a big loss to Liverpool and they were solid but not at their imperious best. Robin van Persie didn’t have the best of games but the problem certainly wasn’t down to him alone as United failed to find their attacking spark. From a United point of view that’s a real pity as although Van Persie’s finishing was off, his movement was as good as usual. An image below shows exactly what I’m on about. A slightly overhit through ball from Mata released Van Persie whose right-footed shot flashed wide of the goal. Arsenal’s back line isn’t exactly picture perfect as shown with Mertesacker stepping up while Koscielny failed to do so.
Another example of this is shown below. Koscielny once again has failed to step up along with Mertesacker just playing Van Persie onside. And once again, the ineffectiveness of the delivery cost the away side with Szczesny able to come off the line and clear the ball which was a tad over hit.
There were similar chances throughout the game but United failed to capitalize and make their opponents pay. It came as no surprise that Van Persie came the closest to breaking the deadlock for the Reds after Rooney’s quality measured ball towards the back post before a great save from Szczesny thwarted his former teammate.
Change of approach from Arsenal in the 2nd half
After failing to break down a stubborn United side (owing to their compact set-up), Arsenal came out in the 2nd half with a couple of tweaks to their tactics. Firstly, their pressing was more selective as they perhaps tried to draw United out a bit more and then catch them out before their midfield had an opportunity to organize themselves. Another more obvious change was the increased use of the wide areas in attack in the 2nd half. Sagna and Gibbs were willing to go forward in the 1st half as well but were utilized more often in the latter part of the game. In fact as the below image shows Arsenal attempted 14 crosses in the 2nd half, double the amount (7) they did in the 1st half of the game.
Indeed, Arsenal’s best chance from open play came from a cross from the right wing with Giroud not being able to make any contact with the cross. Not exactly what you’d expect from a side boasting the likes of Rosicky, Ozil and Cazorla but if an unsurprising by-product of the way the game was going.
Where does this leave them?
On the face of it, a point at the Emirates against an Arsenal side in 2nd place isn’t a bad result at all for Manchester United if taken in isolation. However, at the end of the day it’s a point that doesn’t really help their current situation especially with Liverpool widening the gap in 4th with a late win against Fulham. Arsenal as well wouldn’t be overjoyed with the draw. They should have fancied their chances against a struggling United side but to be honest they were nowhere near their fluent best. Whether that was down to United’s solidity or the hangover from Saturday’s drubbing or most likely, a combination of the 2, Arsenal failed to capitalize on Chelsea’s dropped points. For Arsenal, it’s all eyes on another big fixture this weekend while for Manchester United it’s time for a warm weather break in search of rejuvenation.
Did you notice a tactical aspect of the game we missed? Let us know by leaving a comment below.