Man Utd 2-0 Arsenal: United counter excellently

March 12, 2011

The starting line-ups

Both sides had their chances, but Manchester United were more clinical.

Sir Alex Ferguson had an injury crisis in midfield, so used Rafael and Fabio da Silva on either flank, with John O’Shea alongside Darron Gibson in midfield.

Arsene Wenger was without Cesc Fabregas, so Denilson came into the side and Abou Diaby played further forward. Kieran Gibbs started at left-back, andAndrei Arshavin replaced Tomas Rosicky.

The pattern of the first half was fairly simple – Arsenal dominated possession and territory, whilst Manchester United looked to play on the break.

Twins on the wing

In that respect, despite Manchester United’s highly unusual team selection, this was a battle we’ve seen many times before. United have overcome Arsenal in each of the previous two campaigns by playing almost exclusively on the counter-attack – think of Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal on the break at the Emirates in the 2008/09 Champions League final, or Wayne Rooney’s similarly devastating goal in the Premier League last year.

Rooney tended to take more of a back seat role in United’s breaks here, however. He dropped deep into midfield when Manchester United were without the ball, generally picking up Denilson so United weren’t outnumbered in the centre of midfield. When United won the ball, the two twins would scamper down the flanks and form a front three with Javier Hernandez, and United sometimes looked like a 4-2-1-3. This is rather like how Benfica play when Jorge Jesus fields Carlos Martins as an additional holding player, and when Javier Saviola drops off into deep positions – see the game against Schalke. Interestingly, one of the wide runners in that game was also a converted full-back, Fabio Coentrao.

The use of full-backs in wide positions also benefited Manchester United defensively. Not simply because their natural defensive qualities provided a shield ahead of their back four, but because they had the energy and positional awareness to track back and cover the wide zones. This afforded United’s full-backs license to stick to their respective men when they came inside – Patrice Evra stuck tightly to Samir Nasri and got a couple of hard tackles in, whilst Wes Brown did a similar job on Andrei Arshavin.

Arsenal strategy

Arsenal played very nicely in the first half. Their movement was excellent, their passing crisp, but they suffered their old problem of not being able to create genuine goalscoring chances. Robin van Persie played right-of-centre and pulled Nemanja Vidic out of the defence – the Serb is superb when in the penalty box, but when dragged up the pitch he becomes vulnerable to pace and players going past him. Diaby provided that running, but was a little too clumsy and ponderous on the ball.

Another possible area of creativity came down Arsenal’s left. Gibbs frequently got time on the ball but his crossing was poor. Arsenal’s best chances came from a corner kick that van Persie headed wide, and from a Nasri shot that nearly caught Edwin van der Sar by surprise. Their ‘prettier’ moves came to nothing.

Second half

The line-ups for the start of the second half

Ferguson made a change for the second half, giving Antonio Valencia his comeback, with the goalscorer Fabio departing. This meant Rooney on the left, Rafael into the centre and United going 4-1-4-1, with John O’Shea ahead of the back four. Considering how well they’d played in the first half, it was a surprise to see Ferguson change his shape, but if anything he was simply playing a more extreme version of the initial strategy.

United immediately sat deeper. Their central midfielders were sometimes in amongst Arsenal’s midfielders in the first half, but here they were firmly behind play. O’Shea occupied the space between the lines and denied Arsenal time on the ball in that area.

The home side extended their advantage with another direct attack. Van der Sar passed to Valencia, who ran 50 yards with the ball, and a couple of seconds later Rooney headed home. It was not a ‘classic’ counter-attack, not one dependent on pace – but United took advantage of Arsenal being slow to get back, and Valencia’s run was more direct than anything Arsenal offered all game – he had the time on the ball Arsenal’s players weren’t afforded.


Wenger’s changes were attack-minded. The deepest midfielder, Denilson, was replaced by a striker, in Marouane Chamakh. Wenger hasn’t been afraid to gamble this way in recent weeks – against Everton and against Barcelona he made a similar change and turned the game around on both occasions. It allowed van Persie to play in a permanently deeper role where he threatened straight away, winning a free-kick, but after that O’Shea played closer to him (almost a third centre-back at times) and Arsenal’s best chances came when they crossed the ball – Chamakh and substitute Tomas Rosicky should have scored from right-wing crosses.

Arsenal looked better when Denilson and Diaby were both withdrawn. There’s a time and a place for Denilson’s solid, reliable passing, but it’s when Arsenal are ahead and want to slow the game down, keeping possession. He wasn’t needed in the second half. Diaby continued to be cumbersome with the ball, and the return of Aaron Ramsey saw a Ramsey-Wilshere partnership in midfield – which might be something we see more frequently in years to come. Those two offered direct forward passing from midfield, and Arsenal had several half-chances (and better) – the finishing simply wasn’t there. Chamakh was introduced to get on the end of moves, but with one goal since November (and that was against Leyton Orient) he hardly provides the potency the rest of the team lacked.

Johan Djourou’s late injury meant Arsenal played the final ten minutes with ten men, which effectively ended the game – a shame, as it was an interesting contest throughout.


On first glance United’s starting line-up was bizarre – seven defenders – but Ferguson managed to assemble them into a cohesive side with a clear gameplan – sit relatively deep, and use the pace of Hernandez and the da Silva twins on the break. It worked: Arsenal were always going to dominate possession, but United produced chances and could have had more than two goals, although the same could be said of Arsenal’s none.

The positioning of the twins was interesting. Brazilian full-backs are stereotypically attacking and therefore can often convert to playing as wingers with little problem, but it’s not always as simple as that. When Dani Alves has played as a winger, for example, he’s looked poor because his game is about making unspotted off the ball runs from deep.

However, Rafael and Fabio both adapted very well. They showed the expected energy and pace, but also good decision-making in the final third and a habit of getting into goalscoring positions. As Tom Williams has mentioned, there might well be a case for fielding pacey (young?) full-backs on the flanks in certain situations – it certainly worked for United here.

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