MANCHESTER UNITED VS ARSENAL
This was a big game; reigning Champions against reigning league leaders. Talk all week had been about how this was a test for David Moyes’ United, with many forgetting that any game is a test for both sides.
In: Evans, Jones, Carrick and van Persie.
Out: Ferdinand, Giggs, Fellaini and Hernandez.
- Several players deserve to be mentioned in dispatches not least Jones and Rooney. But in fairness this was a strong all round performance and as good as these two were it seems unfair on the rest to single them out.
- Praise should also go to the manager. David Moyes got his tactics right from the start, had obviously galvanized his side and made the right substitutions at the right time.
- United worked incredibly hard too press Arsenal and deny them the space and time to get into their passing rhythm. But the key was that United got the balance of their tactics right. They were never so defensive or passive that they surrendered the initiative to Arsenal. Arsenal always had to be aware that United carried a threat of their own and they actually matched Arsenal for menace despite the visitors superior possession statistic.
The first few minutes of the game set the tone for the half. Both sides started at a high tempo with very little space available s a consequence. The key moment was when Giroud stamped on Evans. This was a challenge to United, perhaps not premeditated but if Arsenal thought that United would be discouraged and would wilt as a consequence they were mistaken. Maybe Arsenal thought that an aggressive start may trouble United and that as a consequence of a difficult start to the season they may be lacking in belief and confidence. United simply stepped up to the challenge, and bested it with an aggressive press which denied Arsenal the time and space to take comfort in their passing skills.
High tempo games seem to have suited United in recent years. With the opposition closing United down and little space available United are forced to pass early and be urgently positive. So it was here. United started in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Carrick and Jones in the half back positions in front of the defence. Kagawa started wide left and Valencia wide right, both relatively narrow and deep. Rooney started behind van Persie through the middle but with both pressing Arsenal the shape often looked a bit more like a 4-4-2.
There are a number of key points to make about the first half.
United’s central 4 of Jones and Carrick with Rooney and van Persie ahead worked incredibly hard. Jones occupied space but was always quick to close down. He stayed fairly close to Ramsey, (who has made Arsenal tick in recent matches). Ozil has a natural tendency to drift wide. When he did he was picked up by Kagawa or Valencia, or whoever was nearest. Kagawa and Valencia had excellent first halves, strong and always available as an outlet but resolute in defence. Ozil and Ramsey are fairly mobile, but looking for space when they came deep they were picked up by Rooney or van Persie who did not allow anybody time to settle, even in deep areas. This seemed to unsettle Arsenal who looked slightly off the pace. Flamini seemed to suffer particularly from this and there has to be a question as to whether he can compete in a high tempo game when Arsenal are pressed in the deep?
Arsenal are a great fluid passing side and if you give them time to pass around you they will destroy you. Here United refused to allow them that time in the first half. It was as if Arsenal wanted good comfortable possession with which to build. United by contrast weren’t waiting for comfortable possession. With any sniff of the ball they moved it forward quickly with Rooney dropping deep to link play and Kagawa and Valencia springing forward at every opportunity. United were solid as two banks of four but were never passive enough to surrender the initiative. In this they got the balance right ensuring that Arsenal always knew they were in a competitive game. United were winning the 60/40 balls never mind the 50/50. Arsenal generally failed to press so that when United were in possession they had time to build from the back. For a while Arsenal looked rattled.
United left very little space between the lines. Jones and Carrick had excellent first halves. They shielded the back four, making countless interceptions and ensuring that Arsenal’s midfield players had minimal passing options. Jones was the leader in this positioned slightly to the left in the area Ramsey was anticipated to occupy, but neither Carrick or Jones went too deep, thus avoiding the temptation to become too passive or for too great a gap to open between themselves and the front two. The consequence was that Arsenal’s passing was often square and slow. Evra and Smalling were disciplined when the ball did come wide and when Arsenal lifted it forward usually towards Giroud United perused the tactic of challenging to make life uncomfortable but letting Giroud win is header and then challenging for the next ball. This generally worked.
Rooney was everywhere. Leading the forward press he dropped deep to close down space when necessary and leapt forward to start attacks, always a menace. He seemed to be first to every loose ball.
All this led to a goal on 27 minutes. Boom! United corner on the left hand side, Rooney delivery, van Persie out jumped Giroud, (how tall is he?). Van Perise simply seemed to want it more. There has been some debate since about zonal versus man to man. This is irrelevant if you don’t compete. Van Persie was simply more determined to get their first. Good header. 1-0.
Not a lot changed after the goal although Arsenal appeared a bit rattled and United had a couple of good opportunities to create shooting chance. These didn’t quite work out. The game did become a bit tetchy towards the end of the half with Arsenal getting Jones booked by complaining to the referee after a clash of heads in the area. United should perhaps have been awarded a penalty after 39 minutes when Giroud appeared to foul Rooney in the box.
Then just before half time Vidic sustained a head injury in a clash with De Gea. This would mean that United would need to reorganize at half time and they finished the half with ten men.
At the start of the second half Cleverley replaced the injured Vidic. As a consequence Jones moved back into defence to partner Evans and Cleverley slotted in alongside Carrick in midfield.
Arsenal significantly increased the tempo of their passing at the start of the second half. This reaped some reward as they pushed United back and dominated the first exchanges. Initially Cleverley looked off the pace and was struggling to cope with the physical challenge now presented by the Arsenal midfield. The question at half time was how United would cope without the leadership of Phil Jones at the centre of their midfield? (Get used to that, rumours from within the club is that Jones is an uncompromising character who could start a fight in an empty room – leadership material). Things didn’t look good initially but United steadied the ship with Rooney dropping a bit deeper.
On 61 minutes Arsenal made their first change with Wilshire replacing Flamini. This gave Arsenal a bit of a lift with Wilshire providing some renewed energy and drive just as United had regrouped. United simply stuck to their task; concentrating on retaining their shape and continuing to press Arsenal in all areas. United actually looked the more dangerous on the break and Rooney should perhaps have done better with a shooting chance on 60 minutes.
Arsenal’s momentum though began to build again and they had some success on United’s left hand side. Ozil was drifting to that side and with Evra and Kagawa both playing narrow now there was some space on the overlap. Arsenal began to exploit this and perhaps as a consequence Kagawa was replaced by Giggs on 78 minutes. Arsenal made a change too at this point with Bendtner replacing Cazorla. Arsenal now played two up top as they changed approach to try and salvage something from the situation. The Giggs substitution worked, clogging up that side of the pitch and with Rooney continuing to drop deep the majority of the contest was on United’s left hand side.
Arsenal continued to have some success on that side and on 83 minutes replaced Arteta with Gnabry. Gnabry and Sagna worked in tandem to engineer a number of overlaps in the last ten minutes, from which they whipped in dangerous crossed. Arsenal had been fairly narrow prior to this, now they embraced width. Even with two forwards Arsenal failed to make meaningful contact with any of their late whipped crosses as United rode their not undeserved luck. This was all balanced by the occasional breakaway from United with Smalling missing a good headed chance on 82 minutes. Smalling doesn’t get much of a mention in this report but he was excellent throughout. Solid in defence, (he is not a natural full back), and threatening in support of Valencia in attack. He also made a couple of important last ditch tackles and blocks late in the game.
Fellaini replaced the wilting van Persie on 85 minutes as United saw out the victory.
This result only demonstrates that United are not really in as much difficulty this year as has been made out. We are likely to challenge but it would be overstating things to suggest that we are now likely to win the Premier League. The result and performance suggests however that we are moving in the right direction and in an open race we will be competitive.
The result does not knock Arsenal out either. This was a much improved performance compared to others on their recent visits to Old Trafford, but the game does raise questions about certain aspects of their side and their mentality. That’s an issue for them.
Above all though from a United perspective this result, but more importantly the performance will be a morale boost after a difficult start to the season and David Moyes managerial reign at the club. It demonstrates that when the team is focused and motivated they can still compete. It also suggests that David Moyes is beginning to get the measure of his squad and how best to deploy them.