Raghunandhanan Narasimhan provides a comprehensive tactical analysis about the Premier League game that ended Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal.
Premier League’s greatest rivals went up against each other as Mourinho faced Wenger for the first time as a Manchester United manager, having been unbeaten against the Frenchman in his 11 previous Premier League meetings. The onus was on Man United to grab the initiative and take the three points at Old Trafford as they were already eight points behind league leaders Liverpool. Arsenal on the other hand, had the chance to claim top spot with a win over their rivals.
Manchester United (4-3-3): 1.De Gea; 25.Valencia 4.Jones 5. Rojo 36. Darmian; 16. Carrick 6. Pogba 21. Herrera; 11. Martial 8. Mata 19. Rashford
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): 1. Cech; 25. Jenkinson 20. Mustafi 6. Koscielny 18. Monreal; 34. Coquelin 35. Elneny; 8.Ramsey 11.Ozil 14.Walcott; 7. Sanchez
Wenger raised a few eyebrows with his team selection, pairing Elneny and Coquelin in the center of the midfield. Ramsey was deployed in the left wing with Walcott on the other side. Sanchez led the line for Arsenal. Mourinho fielded a three man midfield consisting of Carrick, Herrera and Pogba with Rashford as the striker instead of the suspended Ibrahimovic.
Looking at the line ups it was expected that Martial would be instrumental down the left side for United as Jenkinson was starting his first game of the season. However it was not to be the case as both teams showed an inclination to attack down their respective right flanks. Man United especially exploited the space out wide with Antonio Valencia bombing ahead. The first few minutes saw United boss possession and keep the ball in the final third. Arsenal were content to sit back when United had the ball and did not press them much. Sanchez was the brightest player for Arsenal as he kept roaming from his position. There were instances when Sanchez happened to drop into midfield with Ozil or even Elneny at times being the furthest player forward. United were the dominant side in the game with Arsenal looking completely obsolete in their play.
Static play from Arsenal
Arsenal, uncharacteristically, were very static in their structure. Coquelin and Elneny are primarily defensive players and were very position focused. This meant that the link between defence and attack was very weak and Arsenal did not transition as fast as they would have liked. Arsenal missed Bellerin as Jenkinson did not show much attacking intent. He stayed pinned back wary of Martial’s threat. There was not much penetration from Arsenal as United defended well and cut off the passing lanes. For the first half hour, Arsenal seemed intent attacking United out on the counter with Ozil dropping into midfield to create openings. As the game wore on however Arsenal were extremely passive with their build up and lacked fluidity. Most of their possession was either circulated within defenders or sideways in the midfield. United were very organized as one would expect and this meant that Arsenal needed to have effective link up play in the final third. Two reasons why this did not happen was because Bellerin was sorely missed down the right hand side whereas Ramsey and Walcott offered very little on either side of Ozil. Hence Sanchez had to drop deep to have an impact on the game.
We see here that Sanchez is isolated and marked by Rojo up front whereas Carrick usually man marked Ozil. Both the other central midfielders adopted a zonal marking scheme moving to press the ball carrier if in their zone. This meant that the ball far central midfielder would stay back and help maintain the structure. If Elneny or Coquelin have the ball, they have very limited options to penetrate the United midfield. Both the Arsenal full backs did not attack much. If Ozil or Sanchez were to drop behind to receive the ball they did not have runners in front of them to open up United.
However Sanchez, with his individual quality, did fashion out openings when he dropped into midfield.
One such instance sees Sanchez in possession of the ball. The United defenders did not follow Sanchez whenever he dropped into midfield while Ozil moved up to be the furthest Arsenal player. Once Ozil turns Carrick out and moves forward with his close control, he now has space in between the lines to exploit. Once again, the lack of support up front renders this insignificant.
United control the center
By playing a three man midfield and Herrera being a dynamo, as he has been all season, United controlled the center effectively. Coquelin and Elneny are not the best manipulators of the ball and this meant that United could control the center. They used the ball better than Arsenal despite enjoying lesser possession.
Carrick had access to the midfield and multiple passing options. We also see how Herrera, Mata and Valencia were able to combine down the right. Valencia easily enjoyed superiority in his 1v1 against Monreal due to his pace. Ozil and Walcott had very less defensive contributions and this made it easier for the United midfield to build their play up.
Credit must go to Francis Coquelin who provided a battling performance in the center for Arsenal and broke up play well. He had 7 successful tackles out of 9 and read the game well.
The game was fought in the midfield and Herrera and Coqulein stood out for their respective teams. Herrera put in a solid performance both defensively and offensively as he recorded an assist for Mata’s goal and also made a game high six interceptions.
United favour the right flank
Man United’s attacking threat came down the right hand side with Mata moving into the half spaces while the impressive Valencia moved up the wing. Mata, Herrera and Valencia seem to have developed a good understanding with the three players often linking well to initiate attacks for United. Both Herrera and especially Pogba benefitted from Carrick playing behind them in front of the defense. Carrick offers something unique for United in the view that he rarely passes the ball to the back and is always positive on the ball.
Man United relied on intercepting the ball in midfield and breaking quickly up field. Herrera has been putting in high quality performances in recent weeks and he was everywhere in the United midfield leading with 6 interceptions (4 of them in Arsenal’s half, according to whoscored.com) and looked to release Valencia or Mata quickly.
Despite playing three midfielders including Carrick, United often had very limited options to build from the back. This was the case especially in the first half when Rojo and Jones seldom played the ball through the middle even though there was less pressure from Arsenal. Mourinho has set up his team in this way as he looks to limit any turnovers in play that could lead to dangerous counters. When Arsenal did press, United did not have the options to bypass the press and the central defenders often punted the ball up field. The long balls from the back were also because United avoided any pressing from Arsenal, a tactic which was also seen against Liverpool by Mourinho.
Despite the numerical superiority in midfield for United we see how they line up when their central defenders have the ball. Ramsey dropped into the half space and left Valencia free. Pogba often moved up field to aid in aerial duels, especially with Ibrahimovic missing for United. This meant that Sanchez could press the ball carrier while Ozil could either have Carrick in his cover shadow or mark him specifically.
Ramsey was usually found slotting into the half space rather than on the wings in order to combat the midfield superiority of United. This was also key due to the fact that Mata was usually in the opposing half space for United as Valencia patrolled the wings.
Second half domination for United and a lack of change in tactical setup for Arsenal
The second half saw United dominate proceedings. Despite their domination United did not enjoy as many shots on goal as they would have liked with Arsenal shutting them down well. The central defenders were solid for Arsenal and United lacked the cutting edge in the final third. However their persistence paid off and Mata scored a really well executed finish to give United the lead in the 68th minute. Typical of the way the game had panned out, the goal came from a throw in with Herrera making a good run into the box and finding Mata who had checked his run.
The dominance enjoyed by United was half down to Arsenal failing to muster any sort of attacking threat and the passive nature of their play. Arsenal missed an influential link up player in midfield as they struggled to find any sort of rhythm in their build up play.
Wenger has been a bit stagnant with the way he has set his teams over the last few weeks with very few tactical tweaks. There is a huge reliance on individual quality to make the difference and get in behind the lines. He must however be credited for the substitutions he made as Oxlade-Chamberlain put in a good cross for fellow substitute Giroud to power home a header in the 89th minute. The goal highlighted the fact that Arsenal did not generate many 1v1s down the flanks in the match. The only time they did do that, they ended up equalizing. This was down to Giroud playing as a striker and Sanchez pushing out to the left. With Elneny being substituted and Ramsey going back to central midfield, Oxlade-Chamberlain could move to the right flank. With Schneiderlin coming in for the last ten minutes to shore things up, United took the gas off the pedal and looked to see out the match. This proved costly as United were very much on the front foot and the negativity of the substitution and the change in approach encouraged Arsenal to throw bodies forward.
The performance of United players would have pleased Mourinho despite the result while Wenger needs to rethink his tactics a bit as they need to be less dependent on individual quality to get them through every week.
Manchester United will rue their inability to have killed the game off despite dominating the proceedings. Arsenal scored with their only shot on target and will have been delighted with the late equalizer. It was surely a get out of jail goal by Oliver Giroud with Arsenal gaining a crucial point in a tough away fixture. The substitutes did the job for Arsenal while United have been winless in their last three home fixtures despite being on the front foot in all those games.
Manchester United fan and a tactics afficianado. Loves quality holding midifielders