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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United | Heavy man orientation and poor spacing

Zachary Wu provides a tactical analysis of the Premier League game that finished Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United

The Gunners vs The Reds. A fixture once regarded as the pinnacle of English football in the mid to late 90s has been relegated to second rate status. The teams were the dominant Premier League sides around the turn of the century but both have dropped off in the last few years.

Arsenal started as expected with their now customary 3-4-3 system with Lacazette starting (in a big game finally). Arsenal’s game plan was to play a cautious possession game where they got men forward in limited numbers and hoped to score.

United on the other hand started with their own 3-4-3/3-5-2 system with a backline of Rojo, Smalling and Lindelof. Further forward, Lingard played a very interesting role, joining Martial and Lukaku to form a trio with the ball and dropping into midfield to form a midfield trio without the ball with the split strikers ahead. United’s gameplan was to defend resolutely and take advantage of opportunities on transitions.

First half

Heavy man orientations

With both teams lining up similarly, both teams used heavy man orientations to contain their direct opponents at the start.

Here, Lindelof is tight on the diminutive Sanchez.

Likewise, Monreal is tight on Lukaku, not letting the big Belgian turn. This method was rather effective at the start as the defenders were not fatigued and were alert in closing down the man on the ball quickly.

Poor spacing

Arsenal had a tendency to drop numerous players outside the United block. This is not useful as it leaves fewer numbers ahead when the ball advances up the pitch.

Here, Sanchez(blue) drops excessively deep to receive the ball. This leaves only 1 Arsenal player, within the United block, which is insufficient for effective central penetration.

Here, Iwobi (blue) drops unnecessary to receive the ball. With no threat in behind, as no Arsenal player is behind to exploit the space between wingback and centreback, the near side wingback can push up high, together with the near side United midfield to push Arsenal back early in their buildup, forcing them away from goal.

Despite all this, Arsenal were still able to create some decent chances due to their individual talents or combination play opening up the United defence together with United’s poor defending at times.

Lack of intensity

For a Mourinho side, the lapse in concentration at times was extremely surprising.

Here, Lukaku (blue) does not challenge his immediate opponent after a rebound from a corner. With this unchallenged header, the ball goes back into the danger area resulting in a (slightly fortuitous) De Gea save at point blank range from Lacazette. This lapse of concentration by Lukaku could have easily led to an Arsenal goal but luck was on their side this time.

Obsessed with the ball

Here, every United player is concentrating on the ball and not defending the space.


There is a huge space at the edge of the United box (yellow) which is not defended by anyone. Pogba (pink) is just ball watching, neither defending space or a man. This could be problematic as the rebound could fall to an onrushing Arsenal player which is an easy shot just inside the box with little to no pressure.

As the rebound falls to Xhaka (purple), because of Pogba(yellow) being totally out of position and so many United players (blue) so deep, it leads to a high quality chance for Xhaka who shoots just wide. Being too focused on the ball and not being defensively aware of space being afforded to opponents caused such an opening to occur.

Pogba’s defensive disasterclass

For a box to box midfielder who is regarded as one of the world’s best, he is surprisingly oblivious to threats to his goal.

For some reason, Pogba (pink) has decided to drop into the backline, despite only 1 Arsenal player in the box, leaving acres of space at the edge of the penalty box (yellow). Lacazette (orange), on the ball realises this and chips a ball for Ozil (blue) to have an attempt on goal. This needlessly conceded chance could all be prevented if Pogba had stepped out to the edge of the box and Arsenal would have never have had the opportunity to threaten the United goal.

Again, Pogba is culpable for United conceding another chance. This continued in the second half of the game too.

Pogba (purple) is only looking at the ball, oblivious to Ramsey (yellow) making a blindsided run. He does not track Ramsey, trying to pass on the responsibility to Rojo (blue) but Rojo is already busy marking Lacazette.

As a result, Arsenal have a wonderfully worked goal as Ramsey (yellow) lays the ball back to Lacazette (blue) thanks to Pogba and his defensive ineptitude. Again, Pogba’s positioning allows Arsenal to have a good chance to score.

United are set up well bar Pogba(purple). Matic has tried to block the passing lane with his cover shadow but Lacazette (blue) has moved slightly forward rendering this ineffective. Meanwhile, Pogba is standing outside the box, neither defending space or man.

Arsenal are able to fashion 2 high quality chances from this mistake by Pogba, with De Gea doing brilliantly to deny both Lacazette and Sanchez with a double save. Again, this could have been all prevented if Pogba had stayed deeper, and actually bothered to defend. Arsenal would never have been able to fashion such a high quality chance to score if Pogba had stayed compact and blocked either the passing lane or had man marked Lacazette.

Second half

Little changed much in the second half. The second played out almost exactly the same as the end of the first. Arsenal’s offense vs United’s defence. Almost training ground stuff.

Arsenal were getting the ball towards the United deep block and trying to pick the lock with crosses and combination play. The tempo was as quick as the end of the first half, but Arsenal were getting more bodies within the United block, especially in the crucial Zone 14, behind the United midfield and in front of the defence. While there were still some spacing issues and pass selection problems, they were still able to create big chances on occasion, due to Pogba’s lack of defensive awareness, most notably the double save of De Gea from Lacazette and Sanchez.

United were still sitting in their deep block but the lack of a reliable out ball or a stable structure in possession meant that it was difficult to create a stable base to frequently create stable counter attacks or to give the defence some respite. Also, Pogba’s lacklustre defensive display made them vulnerable and they nearly conceded a couple of times.

After the killer third goal, United took off Martial for Herrera and sat even deeper. This also removed their counter attacking threat with Lukaku completely isolated upfront and unable to fashion counters single-handedly.

Arsenal went for broke with the last roll of dice introducing 2 strikers for a fullback/wingback and a centre midfielder. With so many forwards on the pitch, including a big traditional #9, it was surprising to see Arsenal so hesitant to cross the ball resulting in almost nothing created of note apart from a possible penalty when Welback was brought down. Having removed the building blocks to a stable structure and introduced brute force, Arsenal had to cross the ball more frequently to make use of the fresh legs of their substitutes by using good movements to continually hound and create problems for the United defence. They did nothing of that sort, seemingly unprepared to adapt from their passing philosophy to going long and direct.

After the Pogba red card, United sat in a 5-3-1 formation, with a huge emphasis on the centre midfielders to quickly shift across. When Darmian came on, he moved to left wingback, leaving utility man Young to play the left sided centre midfield position. Rashford came on to wind down the clock and replace the exhausted Young.

Looking forward

Arsenal must be disappointed in how foolishly they conceded the first two goals from their own mistakes. While United were clinical in their finishing, the errors leading to the shots on goal were highly unnecessary. The two needless concessions put them on the back foot so early on and they were forced to throw even more men forward and leaving them even more vulnerable (than usual) on transitions. While their fightback was admirable and they should have come from behind to win according to xG (Expected Goals), 4.56 to 2.27. For a top club, they shouldn’t be making such rookie errors and getting themselves in that sticky situation in the first place.

While perhaps it was fortuitous performance, Manchester United must be pleased with the results, if we’re being resulted orientated. However, the suspension of Pogba could hurt them hard next week, with most attacks going through him and their high reliance on individual talent. They could struggle to transition from their deep block to a counter attack without Pogba. While that being said, another midfielder could offer more defensive coverage than Pogba in the crucial Manchester derby. Also, outscoring your xG (Expected Goals) and opponents underscoring their xG (Expected Goals) is highly unsustainable. It may work for a one off game but it is undeniably unsustainable in the long run. United will struggle if this continues.

Zachary Wu

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