International break over and United were back in action with a home game against Arsenal. Arsenal have started the season well and this was likely to be a tough challenge, but one United really needed to rise to if they hope to stay in touch with the challengers.


In: Valencia, Herrera, Martial and Rashford.
Out: Young, Fellaini, Rooney and Ibrahimovic.


  • Another two home points dropped. United really need to start winning home games when they are on top. Here United didn’t dominate possession and they didn’t ‘destroy’ Arsenal but were generally in control and had the better and more numerous chances. We have to start making this count.
  • This was a scrappy game in the most part with both sides pressing each other and forcing errors. When a side kept the ball they looked far more accomplished and created chances. United did this better and more frequently than Arsenal but much of the game was riddled by sloppy passing and mistakes.
  • Did Arsenal take the initiative in the last fifteen minutes or did United surrender it. Probably a bit of both and United paid a price for whichever it was. For the rest of the match the game was played to United’s tune with Mourinho’s strategy restricting Arsenal more than Wenger’s hurt United.
  • The match was as much about the missing players as those on the pitch for whilst United were a better balanced side here, especially in midfield, but they missed Ibrahimovic physicality and presence. United used longer earlier passes behind Arsenal for Rashford to chase and this cause problems for the visitors, but how do you reintegrate Zlatan.
  • Arsenal missed Bellerin allowing Martial opportunities to attack Jenkinson; he didn’t make the most of this. With Monreal struggling to contain Valencia on the other side Arsenal lacked forward thrust in wide areas until their late reorganisation.


Jose Mourinho made four changes here and chose a 4-3-3 shape with a single holding midfield player in Michael Carrick. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic suspended Marcus Rashford was played as th central forward with Mata and Martial either side. Bellerin was missing for Arsenal with Jenkinson coming in to face Martial. Arsenal set up as a 4-2-3-1 with Ozil as the number 10 behind a very mobile Sanchez.

1st-half  carrick

United’s first half shape and Carrick, a calming influence helping to retain United’s shape

At the start both sides pressed each other and space was at a premium. United tended to have the better of the early chances and soon got on top. This was largely because they, and Pogba in particular showed the ability to retain possession despite the press. At this point Pogba showed great strength and composure when pressed, turning away from and out manoeuvring several players trying to swarm him and Rob him of the ball. He also showed great physical strength and a turn of pace. The consequence of this was that if the Arsenal players trying to press Pogba, (often as many as three players) did not win the ball Arsenal were out of shape leaving space and time for other United players when Pogba moved the ball on. Herrera also contributed in the same respect but he doesn’t have the physical Suze or strength of Pogba so was usually forced to move the ball on quicker.

Unfortunately this pattern didn’t last. It often said that goals change games, and they do but other events can also have a significant impact too. There were two examples of an event changing a game in this first half. Up to the first event the pattern was as described, United were marginally on top. Then inexplicably Pogba gave the ball away in his own half through a piece of careless play which almost saw Sanchez score but for a wayward header. Thereafter for whatever reason he looked less confident and the game looked more equal. Pogba looked far less press resistant.

United gave the ball away far too often, especially in the first half. United's midfield three achieved an 85% pass completion rate

United gave the ball away far too often, especially in the first half. United’s midfield three achieved an 85% pass completion rate

The middle of the half then became if not a scrappy affair then a fairly low quality one. Arsenal’s passing was slow and cautious, they often gained territory but rarely threatened United’s goal. There was no final pass, Ozil and Sanchez were busy but busy doing nothing. United failed to hold the ball; won it, lost it, won it back then lost it again. This undermined their ability to make any impact.

When United didn’t have the ball there was one key aspect of United’s play to consider. Generally United’s midfield three worked well and looked to have good balance. This was a big part of the reason Arsenal achieved so little in an attacking sense. Carrick provided the security in front of the defence and ensured United kept their team shape. Ahead of him was Herrera positioned to the right and Pogba to the left. In theory their task was to press Arsenal’s double pivot. Herrera on the right usually had to pick up Coquelin and he did this very well, often moving very high to do so. He was ably abetted by Mata coming inside from the wide right. On the other side Pogba had less success. It seemed here as if after the incident where he lost the ball in his own half he wasn’t sure whether to press high or drop off and often found himself caught in no man’s land with the game by passing him. This put extra pressure on Darmian who picked up a booking and might have received a second. Herrera also snapped into a couple of rash challenges. Pogba had a really difficult 20 minutes in the middle of the half. Arsenal played around him when they had the ball and he often lost it in the tackle or via a poor pass when he had it. It seemed as if he wasn’t sure whether to press or drop off and did neither.

Pogba - struggled in the middle of the first half

Pogba – struggled in the middle of the first half

When United had the ball in this period of the game they did look strong, especially then managed to get into the final third. Unfortunately this didn’t happen often enough and on their own half they looked less confident. It was a clear deliberate tactic here to hit the ball forward quickly behind Monreal or towards Rashford. He looked vulnerable to Rashford’s pace in the space vacated by Mata’s movement inside. Valencia often also threatened this space.

Then came the next event which changed the game and meant that United ended the half well creating a number of good chances. The event was a penalty decision that went against us with Monreal wrestling Valencia down as he burst past him into the box. The penalty wasn’t given but the decision seemed to galvanise United providing seeming increased belief that they could hurt Arsenal.




Thereafter in the last fifteen minutes of the half United stepped higher, pressed Arsenal with greater conviction and winning the ball in high areas created three good chances which Cech did well to deal with. As in the period of the game when United weren’t so on top United continues to look more threatening on the right but with shooting chances coming after pressure on that side followed by a quick switch of play to the other side. The shooting chances came to Martial who was more effective in this scenario than when the play was built up on the left; his side.

Martial shooting

Martial shooting

Half time 0-0.


The pattern at the end of the first half continued at the start of the second with United taking the initiative. Perhaps as a consequence Arsenal sat quite deep. United were again tending to focus their forward thrusts on the right with Mata coming inside and Valencia overlapping outside to run against Monreal. Unfortunately all too often Valencia tended to stop short of taking Monreal on and would double back to triangulate passes with Mata and Herrera and all too often this allowed Arsenal to cover with Coquelin and Elneny covering the space inside.

Then on 63 minute Mourinho made a change introducing Rooney in place of Martial; Rashford moved to the wide left position and Rooney led the line. A minute later on 64 minutes United’s second substitution saw Blind introduced for Darmian at left back. This did bring more balance to United’s attack thereafter with Blind feeding Rashford to run at Jenkinson who looked uncomfortable.

mid-second-half      late-second-half

United’s shape in the middle of the second half and then late in the match as Arsenal chased the game

Perhaps it was this re-balancing that resulted in the goal, but it came from the right. The goal came from a throw in with Pogba feeding the ball to Herrera who was running to the bye-line in a fairly narrow position on the right. He had no option but to play a ball into the centre from the position in which he received the ball. This was unlike on other occasions where United had often doubled back. Instead Herrera pulled a deliberate firm pass back across goal towards the edge of the penalty area to where Mata was arriving unmarked. Timing was everything, Boom! He passed the ball firmly into the goal. 1-0 after 69 minutes.

Mata - Boom!

Mata – Boom!

United continued to play well and take the game to Arsenal after this goal and had a couple of other chances to double their lead, notably via a Rojo header. Arsenal had to respond as their pedestrian performance would clearly not be enough to gain an equalizer. Had they actually come for a draw; just a though?

So on 73 minutes Arsenal introduced Giroud in place of Elneny. Sanchez now moved over to the left with Giroud operating as a target man in the centre. Walcott who had been fairly anonymous continued on the right. The difference for Arsenal now was that whereas previously they had seemed reluctant to deliver the final pass into the box they now seemed more focused on this aim. To this point in the game Arsenal had failed to have a single shot on target. Then on 80 minutes Xhaka replaced Coquelin and on 83 minutes Oxlade-Chamberlain replaced Jenkinson.

The effect of these changes was that Arsenal appeared more prepared to move the ball forward quickly towards Giroud and so the game became stretched. United adjusted by now sitting deeper and with a goal lead looking to take fewer risks. In effect they surrendered the initiative to Arsenal. With at target man Arsenal were now able to either hit early passes to Giroud or thrust in wide areas relying on the liveliness of Sanchez on the left or with Oxlade Chamberlain forcing overloads in tandem with Walcott on the left. In response United introduced Schneiderlin for Mata in the 85th minute. With Pogba and Herrera both dropping deep Schneiderlin effectively took up a position at the tip of a midfield diamond. United had done something similar in the recent League Cup tie against Manchester City. Here it didn’t work; the midfield was too narrow and this allowed Arsenal space in wide areas.

Arsenal equaliser

Arsenal equaliser

Arsenal’s equalizer in the 89th minute predictably came from a thrust in a wide area with Oxlade-Chamberlain catching Rashford flat footed. He lifted a chipped cross to the far post, (something which was a feature of Arsenal’s play in the last fifteen minutes). This was met with a towering header by Giroud out jumping Jones at the far post. United snatched a draw from a winning position.


This was a disappointing result, but not necessarily a disappointing performance. United have outplayed the opposition in each of their last three home league games but have drawn all three. At Swansea United were more clinical in their finishing  and won and here, as one would expect against a more accomplished opponent, chances were fewer so a more clinical edge was necessary. It is something to work on.

United shots, 5 on target from 12

United shots, 5 on target from 12

This selection, particularly in midfield looks more balanced. Post-match Mourinho said as much and praised Paul Pogba’s display. felt that he had a difficult game so we either got that wrong or this can be taken as a Mourinho smokescreen. Carrick screening the defence and helping to maintain team shape with Herrera and Pogba ahead of him looks good. Mata usually comes inside effectively becoming an auxiliary number 10. Mata had another great game here knitting the forward play together and with a little more time and a developing understanding this selection could be very effective. But United have to keep the ball better than they did here.

Match Statistics

Match Statistics

The addition of Rashford’s pace in a central area in the first half gave United the option of an early pass forward behind the Arsenal defence. At times this troubled Arsenal but United did not make the most of this. But United did miss Ibrahimovic physical presence leading the line. A couple of weeks ago Mourinho made the point that Ibrahimovic offers far more than just goals. He is absolutely right in this. In the last ten minutes his presence could have provided the option of moving the ball forward quickly to someone with the physical strength to hold the ball up and provide some rest bite. Ibrahimovic has also shown on several occasions that he is capable of dropping deeper and hurrying the opponents defence or defensive midfield stopping them from having time and stopping them from pushing higher as Arsenal did in the last fifteen minutes.