MANCHESTER UNITED vs ARSENAL
The result at Anfield on the day before this game meant that United were now secure in fourth place. A win here though would see them leapfrog their opponents and put pressure on them, ensuring that to avoid an early season Champions League qualifying round Arsenal would have to get something from their game in hand.
In: Rojo and Falcao.
Out: Shaw and Rooney.
- United should have won this game. After the early skirmishes they took control, took the lead and should have gone on from there. They didn’t allowing Arsenal back into the game to salvage a point.
- United lack a cutting edge. This game was an opportunity for Falcao playing as the lone central striker; he didn’t take it. He worked hard, dropping deep to try to help develop play but had little impact.
- United were at their best in the first half when they moved the ball quickly. At times their play was ponderous, but when they circulated the ball with more urgency in midfield areas they were able to control the game.
- In the second half United seemed to lose focus. Why? In some ways their performance was that of an end of season game where United had little to play for, but that wasn’t the case here. They may have had only a slim chance of achieving third place but a win would have been a psychological marker for next season.
- In the last half hour Arsenal rallied and at that point United looked wide open. This was especially so after the Arsenal equalizer when United chased the winning goal and pushed too many men forward. If Arsenal were as good a team as they think they are they would have punished United and won the game.
- Blind and Coquelin, compare and contrast. Blind had one of his better games at defensive midfield after a difficult start. Coquelin was excellent.
For the last home game of the season United started in their now usual 4-3-3 in attack 4-1-4-1 in defence. Blind sat in front of the two centre-backs, Smalling and Jones with Rojo returning at left-back. Falcao led the line as the sole central striker with Fellaini pushing close to him when United attacked.
The opening exchanges were fairly scrappy with both teams full of energy and keen to close the opposition down quickly. At this stage United’s passing was a little ponderous in the deep. Arsenal sat Giroud on Blind and this stopped him making much of an early contribution. When the ball went wide Arsenal were quick to press Valencia and Rojo but they sat off Smalling and Jones seemingly confident that they could control United if this pair had most of the ball. One consequence of this was that United tended to hit the ball longer than they would have liked. Unfortunately the ball tended to bounce off Falcao as he dropped deep to receive these passes and was mopped up by the Arsenal midfield who outnumbered him. The other long pass option was towards Fellaini and initially he struggled with the ball often not even reaching him.
This initial phase of the game lasted about 10-15 minutes after which United gradually got on top and they were able to do so because of a number of factors.
The first factor was that the centre-backs, but notably Smalling had the confidence to move forward with the ball and engage the space in front of them. Perhaps Arsenal had miscalculated. This has been an area where United have improved during the season with Smalling looking confident to make a more significant contribution on the ball. Along with Young and Fellaini, Smalling is perhaps United’s most improved player through the season. Jones was a little more circumspect.
Another factor was that Rojo and Valencia stayed wide when United had the ball and tended to move wide and pass wide to Mata and Young or to Herrera and Fellaini when they dropped into these areas to link play. The direct running of Young on the left was a particular asset here.
The other significant factor was the tempo of United’s passing in the midfield areas. This was excellent at times. Mata was fluid in his movements tending to come inside with Valencia pushing beyond him on the outside. Herrera was all over Cazorla and worked hard to circulate the ball quickly and Fellaini dropped deeper to receive a shorter out ball. But the problem for United was that so did Falcao.
This meant that much of United’s good play was in front of Arsenal who were able to limit United to a minimal number of clear cut chances. For all their possession they lacked a cutting edge. United were controlling the game but weren’t hurting Arsenal in the central areas where Coquelin and Cazorla patrolled. Coquelin especially had a good game and stopped United threatening the ‘D’ at the edge of the penalty area. United had much more fun attacking in wide areas, but the delivery into the box rarely picked out a red shirt. United pressed the ball well in the Arsenal half, winning the ball back early when they lost it. Arsenal had to content themselves with attempted breakaways via Ramsey and Sanchez, but these didn’t come off.
United did take the lead however after 30 minutes when good work on the left between Rojo and Young resulted in a cross by Young which did pick out a United man. Herrera who was positioned beyond the far post, volleyed precisely first time past Ospina at his near post. Boom!
United could and perhaps should have gone on to score more from here as they continued to control the game. They still lacked a cutting edge however and even at this point in the game seemed to be settling for what they had. As such the half ended with the score at 1-0, which was a meagre return for their dominance of the play after the initial exchanges.
United’s continued to show a lack of urgency at the start of the second half although now the danger signs were there with Arsenal showing more energy and application. This meant that the game was more even and perhaps it was Arsenal who seemed to carry more threat with United still looking toothless.
Predictably in view of this Van Gaal then made his first change in the 61st minute replacing Falcao with Van Persie. Van Persie tended to stay higher than Falcao, but to no greater effect. Arsenal were slowly taking over the game know with Ozil, who had been fairly anonymous in the first half causing problems with his movement and feeding of Sanchez and Monreal on the Arsenal left. On the right Ramsey tended to stay narrow with Bellerin pushing forward along the touchline. De Gea had to be alert on a couple of occasions and needed to be helped out by Jones after Giroud had lifted the ball over him. The difference in this half was that Arsenal were playing higher and with more energy and so were engaging United more in their own half. Whereas in the first half they were passive, now they had evened up the contest by being more proactive. Their shape was still their preferred 4-2-3-1, but they had woken up.
The point about Arsenal that we would make is that their strength currently is their attacking play. They are at their best when they assert themselves in this. If they have to defend then their defence is not that strong. In the first half they were too passive and so allowed United to ask the questions. United didn’t take advantage of this to the extent that they should have done and know Arsenal woke up.
Then came the changes which allowed Arsenal to take control of the game and should have seen them go on to win it. De Gea pulled his hamstring and was replaced by Valdes making his debut. Van Gaal also chose to replace Rojo with Blackett at left full-back, stating afterwards that this was as on returning from injury Rojo lacked match rhythm. At the same time Wenger replaced Bellerin and Cazorla with Wilshire and Walcott. This change put Arsenal on the front foot. Ramsey now tended to stay deeper and was moved centrally alongside Wilshire. Coquelin moved to right back allowing Walcott to stay high and run forward towards Balckett. Blackett was stretched to cope with this and Young and Fellaini had to drop deeper to help out. Wilshire helped feed Ozil and Sanchez as they looked to double up on Valencia. This dragged Smalling across.
From this point on Arsenal looked stronger and stronger. It was Walcott who did the damage when his cross was deflected off Blackett past Valdes for the equalizer. The nature of this goal was perhaps unlucky, but it had been coming for about ten minutes. There should be no blame on Blackett for this as operating as a makeshift left-back he had done okay, but Arsenal certainly targeted him.
Having conceded United seemed to lose discipline throwing men forward with increased urgency. Where had this been when they were on top earlier in the game? They were in fact over urgent now and Arsenal should have punished United further by scoring a winning goal. United were now looking wide open with the defence pushing high and Young and Fellaini no longer protecting Blackett. On the other side Valencia was far too high and Herrera chased the ball. United were lucky to escape.
United should have won this game but in the end were lucky not to lose. In every respect it was a game about two things. Tempo and assertiveness.
In terms of tempo it was a case of slow quick slow. United tended to be slow and ponderous at the back, quick through the midfield and then slow at the front where they lacked punch. Fellaini and Falcao were the culprits slowing play down as the ball entered the final third.
In terms of assertiveness United weren’t assertive enough after they had taken control of the game and this lethargy allowed an opportunity for Arsenal to be more assertive themselves after their lethargic first half. Perhaps Arsenal were happy with a point and only woke up after going behind, perhaps United were in a comfort zone and relaxed after securing a place in the Champions League qualifying round. The game had an end of season, nothing to play for feel about it but what this game clearly demonstrated was that both teams are actually at their best when they take the initiative and attack the opposition, both are weaker in defence and both lack a killer instinct up front.
There is plenty for both teams to work on before a title challenge can be made next season.