Arsenal v Manchester United
United went to Arsenal as Champ20ns. With a great record in recent years at the Emirates, Sir Alex regularly shuffles his pack and amends his tactics for what is always a fascinating tactical dual with Arsene Wenger.
In: Ferdinand and Nani
Out: Giggs and Kagawa
– United started poorly, Arsenal started well and they should have achieved more in the first half hour. The fact they did not reflects on the excellence of Evans and Ferdinand, but also on Arsenal themselves. They did not have many clear cut chances throughout.
– In that first half hour Jones and Rooney were poor, not necessarily in their play on the ball, but in their positioning, Jones was too wide, Rooney too high. Rooney particularly needs to work on this as on a number of occasions in away games this season this has been a fault. Later in the game he adjusted and was far more effective.
– In the second half this had more of the feel of a United performance at Arsenal, with the United shape closer to a 4-3-3. The home team pushing on and United looking to catch them on the break. It didn’t quite come off for United, with the final pass being poor and the wing play being even poorer.
The personnel changes saw Jones start in midfield as a partner to Carrick. Ferdinand returned to central defence to partner Evans. Nani came in on the left hand side of the forward middle three with Rooney centrally and Valencia to the right. Robin van Persie sat up front as United set up in a 4-2-3-1 shape.
United started sluggishly and conceded after two minutes. This goal came from a turn over where van Persie lost the ball. Evra was caught out of position. This hasn’t happened that often this season but was shades of an old fault. Tomas Rosicky had time and space to feed Walcott cutting in from the Arsenal right. Walcott was off-side, but it was very tight and he finished well past De Gea. Evra didn’t seem to know where Walcott was.
Arsenal were clearly more determined to make the game in the early stages. They were up for every challenge and looked sharper on and off the ball. They pressed United well when they had the ball and prevented United from having any meaningful possession. United didn’t really respond for about half an hour until they began to come more into the game towards the end of the half. So what was the problem.
United didn’t seem to be match sharp in the early stages. This could have been a bit of a post championship party hangover, and needing the points to secure a Champions League place Arsenal was so much sharper. There were other problems here though. United shape was a rough 4-2-3-1. Arsenal shape was similar, but in the midfield areas Arsenal always outnumbered United meaning that United’s forward players seemed isolated and the Champions could not hold onto the ball. In addition to Arsenal having a greater energy level in that first half hour the positioning of a couple of United players was poor.
Jones was far too wide on United’s left. At times he appeared as if he was playing as a wingback in front of Evra as fullback. This left Carrick isolated in the middle and ensured that Arsenal’s players had time and space to play around him and pick passes with very little pressure on the ball. Cazorla as the deep lying playmaker could perhaps have made more of this. In addition Rooney was far too high. He had to drop deep to help Carrick out. Often United broke up an Arsenal move and tried to play the ball out through the central area. This didn’t work as with van Persie and Rooney high up the pitch it was easy for the Arsenal midfield to intercept or close down Carrick as he looked for an out ball. Koscielny particularly had an excellent game picking off any passes directed towards van Persie.
It is worth pointing out another tactic which Arsenal used well. When United looked to play out from the back Podolski and another Arsenal player always dropped onto Carrick and Jones. This limited United’s options. Arsenal was happy to let Ferdinand and Evans have the ball, secure in the knowledge that passing to the half-backs wasn’t an option. Passes further forward were easily intercepted.
So why didn’t Arsenal score more; despite their good start they didn’t really have that many clear cut chances? The simple answer is that Arsenal didn’t play that well and Ferdinand and Evans were excellent. Walcott after starting well seemed to lose his way and got distracted by petty grumbles with refereeing decisions, (he got himself booked later in the half). Some of Arsenal’s approach play through the middle was good, but they never really threatened to overwhelm the United back line. When they fed the ball wide the delivery was slow and disappointing.
After about thirty minutes United finally got a foothold in the game. Their improvement was as a consequence of switching the ball to wide positions to attempt to move it forward. Earlier in the game they and been attempting to thread moves through the centre of the park and coming up against a brick wall. Now Jones and Carrick, (and very occasionally Rooney), played passes to wide positions, often receiving return passes from full-backs or the wide attackers. This dragged Arsenal wider and asked questions of the Arsenal full-backs who earlier in the game had felt comfortable coming forward. This feature leads directly to the equalizing goal.
United had had earlier chances with wide deliveries, Jones had had a couple of threatening header and van Persie had headed from point blank range directly at the Arsenal keeper Szczesny. Sagna the Arsenal right back lost possession to van Persie by playing what could only be described as a loose back pass. Van Persie seized on it and raced forward. Sagna in a desperate attempt to make up for his error brought van Persie down for a penalty. Boom! He rarely misses from the spot.
In truth after a poor start to the half United were fortunate to reach half time on level terms.
United’s shape in the second half was much better. Jones was a lot closer to Carrick and Rooney dropped deeper. This was now closer then to the 4-3-3 which United have regularly deployed at the Emirates. As a consequence United saw more of the ball simply because when they had it they were able to keep it for longer. Arsenal still pushed forward with purpose, but with Rooney deeper he was more easily able to pick up the ball, turn and develop play.
Arsenal were disappointing, they needed to win this game to gain maximum advantage over Spurs in the race for a Champions League place, but with United formed up in a better shape they simply ran out of ideas as the half wore on. Ferdinand and Evans remained solid and in the last quarter of the game it seemed likely that it would be United who would get the next goal on a breakaway. They didn’t for two reasons; firstly the final pass was poor and secondly Valencia and Nani were poor.
On 73 minutes United made their first change with Anderson replacing Rafael. Jones moved to right back with Anderson playing in the centre, slightly higher than Carrick. Anderson, much maligned amongst many United fans, gave a good cameo performance, linking play well and instigating a couple of very promising breakaways with good long passes. On 82 minutes Giggs replaced Nani, in terms of position a straight swap, and at the death Hernandez replaced Rooney.
The game petered out as a draw without too many late dramas.
A word on Arsenal; they continue to disappoint. In the first half they looked sharp, but they did seem to run out of ideas and considering they really needed to take maximum points to help their Champions League prospects their second half performance was poor. They just don’t seem to have the desperation to turn good football into winning football and seem too easily satisfied. This can only be a mental thing as they have players of great talent.
United were not at the races in the first half and Arsenal, generally much sharper should have made more of this. They did not and United stabilized towards the end of the half, got an equalizer and generally looked much more comfortable in the second half.
United might have snatched this game late on, and if they really needed the points you can’t help but feel that they might have made more of their second half breakaway moves. On reflection a draw was probably a fair result.