MANCHESTER UNITED vs ARSENAL
With United and Arsenal both vying for a top fourth finish this game could be seen as having double significance. A win here would be a psychological boost to the winner. Ultimately however it was a chance to for the winners reach the FA Cup Semi-final.
- This was a tight game until Arsenal got the upper hand. The game was decided by several key moments when United shot themselves in the foot.
- A 4-1-4-1 with width and a high tempo gave United fans what they have been wanting. But United looked wide open down the spine of the side in the first period; vulnerable to Arsenal’s quick counter thrusts.
- Carrick replaced Herrera at the break and United’s central midfield two sat deeper in the second half allowing Arsenal more space. Despite this Carrick passed the ball forward more and earlier.
- Fellaini can be frustrating and a delight in equal measure; this was a very mixed performance from him.
- Angel di Maria’s performance was generally better than of late, but his sending-off undermined that improvement and United’s chances. A petulant ill-disciplined moment from him. Thereafter United rarely looked like getting back into the game.
- Rooney worked incredibly hard, scored a good goal but his toil was undermined by those key moments.
A 4-1-4-1 formation for United, as in our previous game, with width and a high tempo gave United fans what they have been wanting. Arsenal played a standard 4-2-3-1 with a mobile and fast front four of Welbeck ahead of Chamberlain, Ozil and Sanchez. United dtarted brightly but both United and Arsenal created early chances and this was an open game. Arsenal sat deep generally waiting to try and catch United in a similar fashion to their strategy when they won at Manchester City. The problem for United was that they often looked wide open down the spine of the side in the first period; vulnerable to Arsenal’s quick counter thrusts. Why was this?
In simple terms Blind sat in front of the back four, Herrera was more mobile and played higher. The plan might have been for Fellaini to play alongside Herrera but he was often as high as Rooney leading the line. This created a problem. Herrera tended to press Arsenal in an attempt to win the ball high up the field but with Fellaini also pushing on Arsenal were all too often able to pass around Herrera and get at an isolated Blind. It didn’t help that Valencia was having a poor game tortured by Sanchez pace and movement; was Van Gaal’s post match comment about how well he had played an attempt to take attention away from a poor display?
Most of United’s attacking forays were focused on the wide areas with passing moves usually seeing the ball fed to either Young or di Maria. These two did quite well and fashioned a number of half chances but the ball was generally slow to reach them and so they were rarely one on one with the fullback and they received minimal support from their fullbacks who were slow to push forward and fairly cautious in their movement. When they did manage to get early ball they were more than a handful for Arsenal’s fullbacks with Bellerin receiving a booking after a foul on Young.
Di Maria has struggled in recent weeks but here he was bright and mobile, often cutting in from the right and delivering a series of diagonal crosses toward Rooney or Fellaini. He created real problems for Monreal. The problem in the first half was that his understanding with Valencia is not sufficiently developed. To play wide in this formation he needs a fullback on his wavelength who knows when to overlap, when to stay deep and when to feed him. He didn’t have this in this game.
United’s problems were all illustrated by Arsenal’s opening goal after 25 minutes.
Valencia followed Sanchez as he ran deep with the ball. This left Herrera isolated and out of position too high in the channel on the United right. Arsenal played around Herrera in this position and Ozil played a simple pass across to Chamerlain as Valencia who had recovered his position ran out of shape again tracking Ozil into the centre. Blind was caught out of position, not goal side of the Arsenal man who ran post him and across the face of the central defence without an effective challenge to set up an overlap for Monreal who calmly shot home. Valencia was still out of position.
The other aspect here that is a concern is that once Arsenal had got behind Herrera and Blind their lack of pace prevented them from recovering. In part this was because of the speed of Arsenal’s front four but also because both these players lack pace. Herrera is a positive player who does things quickly, but he is not quick over the ground.
Fortunately for United Arsenal’s lead didn’t last long. Four minutes in fact. If Arsenal’s goal illustrated United’s problems this goal indicated some of the things they were doing well. Rooney’s movement in and around the box was excellent, exemplified by his goal. He found the space in the box between the Arsenal centre-backs with clever movement and Di Maria picked him out with a superb cross, (Di Maria’s high point in the game). Boom!
These two players are quietly developing a very good understanding with the Argentine reading Rooney’s runs expertly. Di Maria’s radar isn’t quite right at the moment, (other than for the goal), but it will come in time. Perhaps Rooney is the only player on Di Maria’s wavelength and vice-versa. The important point is that Rooney has to play ahead of Di Maria.
More often crosses were aimed at Fellaini. He had an interesting half; notionally playing behind Rooney as the number 10 he dropped deep to help retain possession and develop build up play but often pushed on into a very high position alongside Rooney. He did this notably whenever the ball went wide to Young or Di Maria. When Di Maria cut inside most of his crosses were aimed diagonally towards Fellaini who had positioned himself on the far opposite side of the penalty area. From here he attempted to return the ball back across goal changing the angle of the attack. Arsenal struggled with this and with a little more luck this could have been a very productive strategy for United in the first half.
The downside is that Fellaini is a little too clumsy. In the first half his clumsiness saw a good chance go begging when he found himself with space in the area. In that moment it was as though his legs didn’t quite hear what his brain was telling them to do in time.
At halftime the score was 1-1. United had enjoyed more possession (63%) but both the teams looked equally threatening. Arsenal had sat deep in a low block, United had more often taken the initiative but Arsenal had looked particularly threatening on the break.
Since the game a lot of people have asked why van Gaal made his half time substitutions. It has since been reported that Jones was introduced in place of Shaw because it was felt that on his return to the side from injury Shaw was not match sharp enough to stay the pace. The removal of Herrera and his replacement with Carrick appears less easy to explain until you consider the issue raised in the above. It appears that van Gaal has concerns about Herrera who doesn’t seem to suit his requirements. In the second half Carrick sat deep with Blind slightly further forward. Van Gaal was clearly concerned about the lack of pace in the middle of the pitch and wanted two players who would sit deeper and be less mobile. One of Carrick’s great strengths is his positional sense and perhaps the manager felt that this would mean that this would compensate. Carrick wouldn’t have to recover his position if he didn’t get caught out.
Perhaps Herrera was also the player removed as van Gaal tried to stiffen up the spine because he was booked late in the first half.
In one sense this worked in that United didn’t look as open down the middle. In another sense it didn’t work because Arsenal had much more time and space in the middle of the pitch.
Despite this United looked more threatening in the first fifteen minutes of the second half and this was in no small part due to Carrick. Carrick played well, often in tight areas, he kept the ball well and passed forward more often and quickly. He also switched the play more directly with a number of long diagonal passes towards the wings where before half time United had contented themselves with a series of square passes across from player to player to switch play.
Then it all fell apart with Valencia under hitting a back pass which was seized on by Welbeck. 1-2 after 61 minutes. The goal did not immediately change the general pattern of the game although Arsenal replaced Bellerin with Chambers on 65 minutes after he had committed a second bookable foul on Young, (the first being in the first half). Those people who have praised the referees handling of this game as courageous and even handed might like to reflect upon the question why he did not give the Arsenal fullback a second yellow card and dismiss him?
Januzaj then replaced Rojo on 73 minutes with Young dropping back to left fullback. The game as a real contest was then ended on 76 minutes by a moment of madness from Di Maria, or rather two moments.
Firstly he dived in the area having appeared to have beaten Monreal to cut inside. He had probably overrun the ball and as Monreal tugged his arm Di Maria theatrically threw himself to the ground. He was booked for this and in protesting tugged at the referee’s shirt. That was always going to be a red card. Di Maria has to curb these instincts immediately. United were never going to rescue the game from this point on.
Thereafter United reverted to a 4-2-3 shape with Rooney on the left, Fellaini in the middle and Januzaj on the right. Januzaj was also booked for diving late in the game but United never really troubled Arsenal. They resorted to hitting long balls towards Fellaini but most of these were too straight; positioning Fellaini wide on the left and using his presence to change the angle of the attack as the ball was delivered diagonally might have been more effective.
A better Arsenal side might have scored more goals late in the game but they contrived to overcomplicate when they had chances to hit United on the break.
There is a temptation to be overly negative after a game like this. Up until the sending-off United were competitive and the game could easily have gone either way, (although we were losing by this point). After the sending-off we really had little chance against a side as accomplished as Arsenal, with a strong game plan and something to hold onto.
Pressure games like this are the sought of matches where you probably learn most about your team and individual players. The game up until the sending-off suggested that United aren’t that far away. On the other hand United lost out in key moments and the mark of a really good side is that this is when they step up.
So there is still plenty of room for improvement still. The spine of the team is a problem; weakened by the use of width. United fans need to decide whether they want the thrills and spills that come with width or a more solid pedestrian approach which controls the centre. Things will change next season when we have new players in the group, but the signs are there that the thrills and spills approach might work against lesser teams but against those towards the top of the league it might not.