Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal: Clever Park header sends United back to the top
Manchester United came out on top in a game where neither side played their best football.
Sir Alex Ferguson sacrificed Dimitar Berbatov to go with a 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 formation. Paul Scholes was not fit enough to make the squad, so the side essentially picked itself after the decision about formation.
Arsene Wenger kept the usual 4-2-3-1 shape. Cesc Fabregas was only fit for the bench, and Tomas Rosicky was picked ahead of Robin van Persie in the central attacking midfield role.
The game took a long time to really get going. It was scrappy because of the concession of too many free-kicks in the central midfield zone (Arsenal more at fault than United here) and too many misplaced passes from both sides.
That was the main reason for the lack of goalmouth action, and it’s also worth considering that both managers selected slightly more conservative XIs than they could have done – if Berbatov and van Persie were playing, the midfield battle would have been less congested – instead we had six central midfielders who weren’t really looking to create, though Michael Carrick did well in the first half, and Anderson was good throughout.
With nothing happening in the middle, we had to look wide. Arsenal’s wide players often made diagonal runs into the centre of the pitch (and occasionally to the opposite flank) which allowed the full-backs forward well, though the crossing of Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna was disappointing.
United’s two wide players should get some credit for that – Park was typically hard-working but Nani has also become a good player defensively. There was a stark contrast with Arsenal’s equivalent players – Andrei Arshavin and Samir Nasri played higher up the pitch, and then Arshavin dwelt on the ball to concede an unnecessary free-kick when he did find himself on the edge of his own box.
The energy of Park paid off most obviously going the other way, however, and his stooped backwards header for the only goal of the game was excellent. It came from a (deflected) Nani cross, and Nani was the best of the four wingers in an attacking sense – he also won the penalty in the second half.
The distribution of the goalkeepers was an interesting difference between the sides. Wojciech Szczesny had a good debut overall, but his distribution was wayward throughout – sometimes it looked as if he hadn’t even considered that his side would want to retain possession of the ball, and simply hoofed it high into the air towards no-one in particular.
This was nothing more than inexperience and he improved in this respect after half-time (possibly after a word from his manager) but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Arsenal’s passing, which was amazingly poor by their standards,suffered because they weren’t able to get into a steady rhythm from the back.
Edwin van der Sar had definitely been given instructions what to do with the ball, though – at various points he thumped quick, pinpoint balls downfield for Rooney to pick up and take on Arsenal’s centre-backs, as if United were trying to do what Spurs and Braga have done so well in recent weeks – hit Arsenal with direct attacks from back to front.
Arsenal were scared of Rooney. Although he didn’t turn in a stunning performance and his most notable contribution was a penalty miss, Arsenal defended much deeper than usual – probably because of both (a) his raw pace in behind and (b) the fact that Arsenal’s high line was massacred by Rooney’s brilliant false nine role in the previous fixture between the sides.
Arsenal were better after half-time. They moved the ball more quickly and more ambitiously, and they had a spell when they should have got back into the game. Marouane Chamakh didn’t react quick enough to convert their best chance on 56 minutes, and a double substitution came soon after.
Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas replaced Rosicky and Jack Wilshere (who was Arsenal’s brightest player but had picked up an injury) and Arsenal moved to a more attacking version of their shape, that became 4-4-2 when van Persie moved upfront.
They didn’t look particularly good after this change, however, and throughout the game Arsenal lacked invention on the ball from individual attackers, as well as quality movement in the final third.
United’s back four all had superb games, winning 19 of 28 challenges between them. Rio Ferdinand’s return to the side to replace Jonny Evans has resulted in United’s “average goals conceded per game” statistic being halved.
Neither played as well as their manager would have hoped, but United remain the side more able to get results in this situation.
In various games this season (West Brom, Newcastle, here) Arsenal’s passing ability has completely deserted them. Arshavin was particularly wasteful, Rosicky couldn’t find space to work in, and the substitutes had little influence.
United also lacked invention, with only Nani consistently providing an attacking threat – but after going ahead every member of the side played their role excellently, summed up by the fact that Ferguson only made one change to the side, and that was after 85 minutes.Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal: Clever Park header sends United back to the top