Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United: second half Ramsey goal gives Arsenal the points

May 1, 2011

The starting line-ups

Arsenal’s recent poor run against Manchester United came to an end, thanks to Aaron Ramsey’s cool finish.

Ramsey was only playing because Arsenal were without Cesc Fabregas through injury. Otherwise, Arsene Wenger’s side was as expected.

Sir Alex Ferguson brought Nani into the side in place of Antonio Valencia, whilst Anderson also played in the centre of midfield.

Arsenal were dominant throughout much of the match here – in possession terms that’s what we’ve come to accept from battles between these two, but whilst usually United are threatening on the counter, they were blunt today.

Arsenal system / attacks

The use of Ramsey gave Arsenal’s midfield trio a slightly different tilt. Fabregas usually plays clearly at the head, with Alex Song and Jack Wilshere deeper in a double pivot. Ramsey played deeper than Fabregas does (especially in big games), in closer proximity to his midfield colleagues. Wilshere was also slightly higher up than usual, with Alex Song in a more clearly-defined holding role. He and Wayne Rooney spent the game picking up each other.

Ramsey in a deeper role meant Arsenal retained possession very nicely. No change there, you might say, but Arsenal’s passing at the Emirates actually hasn’t been very good on various occasions this season. Ramsey was key in this, coming short to collect the ball and playing passes to the flanks – Fabregas is generally keener to play the killer forward pass.

Ramsey’s natural tendencies mean Arsenal had to vary their attacking play. Robin van Persie often drops deep with Fabregas exploiting the space he creates, but this rarely happened. Instead, Ramsey hung back, and Arsenal’s main danger came when they got the ball wide in the first half. The crossing from the full-backs was not much better than usual, but Theo Walcott sent an excellent cross in, and Arsenal worked some good situations down the flanks.

by Guardian Chalkboards

Manchester United tactics / counters

United have been brilliant on the counter-attack on their last two visits to the Emirates. In 2008/09 in the Champions League, a move involving Rooney, Park Ji-Sung and Ronaldo produced a beautiful goal on the break, whilst in 2009/10 a similar move with Rooney and Nani – with Park making an important decoy run – resulted in a similar strike. Both goals involved three players darting forward in a 4-3-3 system.

United’s formation changed for this match. Whereas Ferguson insisted on 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 in big games until recently, now he’s comfortable with his 4-4-1-1 formation, with Rooney playing as an additional midfielder without the ball, dropping on Song. This changes the way United defend in the centre of midfield – last season with a central midfield trio, they played with one player deeper than the other two. Now, they rely on a duo at the base of the midfield, Michael Carrick and Anderson.

This also changes the role of the wide players. In a 4-3-3, their main job was simply to focus on stopping Arsenal’s full-backs. In a 4-4-1-1 like this, the main task is instead to drop level with the midfield players and form a second bank of four. Arsenal’s full-backs were given all the time on the ball they liked.

This meant that the United wide players were in a deeper position at transitions, and found it more difficult to become involved in breaks. Granted, United didn’t have any problems breaking against Arsenal when they played a similar formation in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, with the Brazilian twins on the flank. The difference there was that Rooney dropped into midfield unattended, and United became a 4-2-1-3.

With Song playing deeper and more specifically told to pick up Rooney (and doing a great job, see the chalkboard below, that also demonstrates how he ’swept’ across the pitch, rather than remaining in a duo with Wilshere), United couldn’t use their number ten to distribute the ball wide for breaks. In summary, a combination of the two factors made United less of a threat – the wingers were deeper than they’ve been used to at the Emirates, and Rooney wasn’t allowed time to play as he was at Old Trafford.

by Guardian Chalkboards

United substitutions

Ferguson has successfully turned various games around this season, but here his substitutions didn’t have much of a positive impact on the match. In fact, the first substitution came one minute before Arsenal’s goal. Anderson was removed in favour of Antonio Valencia, with Nani going left and Park coming into the middle of the midfield four. Park, not used to that position by any means, stood and watched as Ramsey had space on the edge of the box to play the ball into the far corner. Carrick was the man eventually closing the Welshman down, but he had tracked Wilshere’s run into the box – someone else had to be aware of the space on the edge of the penalty area, and Park wasn’t contributing anything to United’s defence.

Dimitar Berbatov on for Hernandez made sense – Arsenal were sitting deeper, Hernandez’s pace was less of a threat and he hadn’t enjoyed the best game – but Michael Owen on for Carrick deprived United of the man who was passing to the flanks and contributing to many of United’s better moves. United ended with Park and Rooney broadly in central midfield, and were prone to breaks down the centre – Arsenal’s decision-making on the break was erratic.


In this fixture last season, United targeted Gael Clichy (indeed, it was really the first major game where right-winger Nani announced his step up to becoming a truly dangerous player) and the Arsenal left-back struggled, especially in the air.

There seemed to be a similar strategy here – United were more threatening when they worked the ball down the right (think of Fabio’s dart forward in the first half, and the cross that Hernandez almost got on the end of in the second). Arsenal needed to make much more interceptions in their left-back zone than in their right-back zone, but Clichy had a good game.

by Guardian Chalkboards


Arsenal were the better side here. They kept the ball well and defended resiliently when they had to – Laurent Koscielny had a good game at the back, and Song was excellent. Song was the key tactical factor in preventing United creating – he stayed on Rooney well, whilst the use of Ramsey gave Arsenal guile and balance in midfield. His deeper role (compared to Fabregas) was less of a direct goal threat, but ironically his tendency to hang back resulted in the goal.

United were poor – the transitions from defence to attack were lacking, Rooney was quiet and Hernandez was barely involved. The use of substitutions didn’t seem to help.

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