Arnab Ray breaks down each of the three goals in the high profile Premier League game which finished Arsenal 3-0 Manchester United.
Arsenal vs Manchester United is a fixture has thrown up many a fascinating battle. At its peak, it was a rivalry characterized by Arsene Wenger vs Sir Alex Ferguson off the pitch and their stalwarts, Viera vs Keane on it. The rivalry may have mellowed in recent times but there’s no doubt that it is a fixture that is taken very seriously by the clubs and their respective fanbases.
Goal 1 – Alexis Sanchez (6′)
After their mid-week disappointment, Arsenal were looking for a quick start against Manchester United and got just that 5 minutes into the game. Since taking charge in Manchester, Van Gaal has implemented roughly the same pressing scheme regardless of formation. In the current formation, the number 9 i.e. Anthony Martial is tasked with blocking the simple pass to the other centre-back, the number 10, Rooney marks the the opposition’s defensive midfielder and the wide men are positioned such that they are on hand to press the opposition full-backs without exposing the central areas. Further behind, Schweinsteiger was the one responsible for picking up Santi Cazorla while Michael Carrick stayed deeper to provide cover for the back 4 if the press was successfully bypassed.
From the above graphic, Cazorla is able to find Coquelin who in turn escapes the attentions of Rooney. As Coquelin makes his way into space, the entire United defence suddenly have to organize themselves into a compact shape quickly, something they failed to do time and again in the first half. Consider the screenshot below. The obvious concern is that Arsenal full-back Hector Bellerin has got goal side of Young. At this point, you’d expect the left sided centre-half to cover for his full-back but Blind has been drawn out of position due to the absence of Schweinsteiger in front of him. To be fair to Young, he did recover and United dealt with the attack only to promptly give it away and get caught out in the second phase.
The earlier transition has distorted the defensive shape of the away side and if it’s one team you don’t want to give space to, it’s Arsenal. The North London side are graced with a varied attack boasting pace, power, guile and bags of technical ability. Both Ozil and Walcott have drifted out to the right half space to create an overload on what was obviously United’s weaker flank. Blind and Smalling are naturally drawn not only to the ball but also to Walcott which leaves Matteo Darmian isolated against Alexis Sanchez.
Walcott does well to just hold his ground for the potential pull-back thus ensuring that Smalling cannot commit to blocking the near post cross. Meanwhile, Sanchez loses Darmian easily, not for the last time in the half, and finishes the move off with a neat flick. Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United.
Goal 2 – Mesut Ozil (7′)
The Arsenal fans had barely stopped celebrating the first when Mesut Ozil promptly doubled the lead much to the delight of the Emirates faithful. Chris Smalling’s long ball was no trouble for the Arsenal defence and the clearance fell to Cazorla. Van Gaal has gone on record multiple times to reinforce his belief that defensive lapses often begin with his attackers and on this occasion it was his captain Wayne Rooney who made the first slip-up. The England International was sold a dummy by Cazorla too easily and the Spaniard suddenly had space to pick a pass. The diminutive midfielder picked out Sanchez whose first time flick found Ozil in enough space to ponder the meaning of life and then pick a pass.
This seems like an opportune time to question Van Gaal’s central midfield selection. Morgan Schneiderlin has been brought into the United squad for his defensive acumen, in particular his ability to break up play. He might not be as suave on the ball when compared to Carrick and Schweinsteiger but there’s no doubt that he’s the most adept of the trio in a defensive role. To be fair both Schweinsteiger and Carrick are excellent readers of the game and have little trouble if the play is in front of them. However, in quick defensive transitions the duo simply do not have the legs to recover in time and protect the back 4. The pairing of the two experienced midfielders may be able to get away with this against lesser teams but against an attack of Arsenal’s calibre, they were found out.
Credit must be given to Arsenal as well. They started the game brighter of the two sides and wasted no time in pressing their advantage. The obvious threat of Sanchez drew Smalling out of his position in a bid to help a struggling Darmian. Walcott, who was once again preferred to Giroud, wasted no time in making an intelligent run into the space vacated by Smalling stepping up. The ex-Southampton man would have relished running at Blind. The latter, clearly wary of Walcott’s pace, backed off. Walcott then all but put it on a plate for Ozil who stroked home the second goal of the game. The below graphic is not one United fans will want to see. Ozil has plenty of space inside the penalty area to pick his spot as the pass comes in. Carrick, circled in red, has not managed to get near the Arsenal man while his partner in crime, Schweinsteiger is not even in the frame. Another eventually irrelevant and yet intriguing detail is Ramsey near the bottom of the picture. Who is supposed to be picking him up?
Goal 3 – Alexis Sanchez (20′)
The third and final goal of the game came in the 20′ minute and started from a seemingly innocuous throw-in down Arsenal’s right. At this point, United are desperately searching for an equalizer and as you’d expect have pressed up the pitch in order to compress that side during the throw-in and force a quick turnover in possession. There’s nothing remarkable in this tactic, in fact they would have probably done the same even if the score was 0-0 or even 0-2 in favour of the visitors. What is remarkable is just how sluggish Van Gaal’s men were on the transition once again.
There may have been an element of luck in the way the ball fell for Ramsey thus enabling him to get away from Young but after that it was all about United struggling to come to terms with Arsenal’s attack. In the below graphic we see more than one United outfielder struggling to get back into a defensive position. Young has been caught out by Ramsey, forcing Blind to step up towards the Welshman. Smalling is forced to make a complementary run which is quickly taken advantage of by Walcott. The Englishman may lack the ability to hold up play possessed by Giroud but he certainly makes up for it with his movement.
Just like the second goal, Walcott plays an integral part in the goal. The spin and turn into space means Darmian is forced further infield which leaves Alexis Sanchez in a gargantuan amount of space on the left flank. The Chilean International, who is picked out well by Walcott, has suddenly stumbled upon a rich vein of scoring form. As soon as the ball found its way to him, the outcome seemed inevitable.
Arsenal’s star man took the chance to run at Darmian and the Italian full-back, who was hauled off at half time, could only make a weak attempt at tackling him. The resulting ricochet had just the correct weight on it and sat up nicely to be drilled home. 20 minutes in and game over.
There was plenty of buzz surrounding the game but from a neutral’s perspective, it was hardly one to remember. Arsenal’s early blitz left United reeling and set the pattern for the majority of the game. The away side were thwarted on a couple of occasions by good saves from Petr Cech but by and large their measured build-up play was nothing Arsenal could not handle.
Arsenal will be delighted with the result in a fixture they’ve had little joy from in recent years. There needed to be a reaction after mid-week and Wenger will be pleased that his side has given him one. The intensity was high right from kick-off and they got their just reward. They’ll be content to head into the International break level on points with United and just 2 off leaders City. From a Manchester United perspective, they will be very disappointed with the performance and the result. Louis van Gaal will have to address the central midfield issue and surely when the next big game comes around, Morgan Schneiderlin will find a place in the starting XI. With Darmian and Memphis having games to forget and the Smalling-Blind partnership exposed, the Dutchman will have plenty of thinking to do during the break.
Written by Arnab Ray