Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United: attacking the full-backs and better substitutions the key

January 23, 2012

The starting line-ups

Danny Welbeck hit the winner as United emerged victorious at the Emirates.

Arsene Wenger left out Andrei Arshavin and is without Gervinho, so Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was handed a surprise start. Mikel Arteta was injured so Tomas Rosicky played in midfield, while Thomas Vermaelen made his comeback from injury out of position at left-back in place of Ignasi Miquel, who struggled at Swansea last weeend.

Sir Alex Ferguson went with a 4-4-1-1ish shape, with Wayne Rooney dropping off Welbeck. Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick was the midfield combination – basically a duo of two passers, which might not be ideal away at Arsenal without a more combative player, but then Ferguson had few other options. That said, Phil Jones could have played in midfield with one of the Brazilian twins at right-back, but instead he started at right-back. Anders Lindegaard started over David De Gea in goal.

The first half was slow with little incident, the second was much more open.

Arsenal approach

In big games, Arsene Wenger often asks his wingers to play deeper and form a second bank of four in front of the defence, with the most attacking midfielder pushed up alongside the striker. That’s broadly how Arsenal started here, with Aaron Ramsey close to Robin van Persie, then Theo Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain either side of the two central midfielders.

For long spells of the first half it was difficult to understand what Arsenal were trying to do. They generally play a little more direct this season, with the pace of the wingers an obvious threat, and no chief playmaker in the mould Cesc Fabregas. But with the wingers deeper, Arsenal had no promising attacking combinations – van Persie was tracked well by the opposition centre-backs and had saw little of the ball, while the balls into wide areas (particularly into Oxlade-Chamberlain) were poor and slowed down moves. Too often, Arsenal shied away from a direct pass and allowed United to get men behind the ball.

United approach

Arsenal had no recognised full-back on the pitch, and as against Fulham and Swansea, were always going to look vulnerable in that position. United always play with width anyway, but they put a particular emphasis upon attacking down the flanks. “We tried to ask a lot of questions of the left-back and the right-back, and that’s what we did,” said Patrice Evra after the game. “That’s been one of their problems for a few weeks…so it is difficult for them,” added Ferguson.

That was demonstrated in the selection of the wide players – Park Ji-Sung often starts away at Arsenal, but there was no need for a defensive winger with Arsenal’s full-backs so weak on the ball. The priority was to attack them at speed.

Midfield duo

The emphasis on playing the ball out wide also meant the midfield combination of Giggs and Carrick was largely acceptable (with one caveat, explained later). Terrorised away at Newcastle, that duo didn’t particularly need to be mobile or combative here. They simply helped direct the side towards attacking from wide positions, although they did so in different ways.

Carrick spread the play there with diagonal passes (one in particular in the first half for Nani, such a deliberate, casual ball that perfectly summed up United’s approach – they literally just chucked the ball into the wide areas to see what happened) while Giggs, as a natural winger, contributed to the attacks from wide himself by moving out to the left for the first goal.

That helped work a 2 v 1 and allowed Giggs an incredible amount of time to cross for the first goal, with Djourou standing off and too central. By this stage, Arsenal’s wide players had started to play much higher up, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain came inside and other players were often slow to fill the gaps. Arsenal didn’t help ease their problems in the full-back areas by switching the wide players at times, breaking partnerships down the flanks in the defensive phase of play.

The one area where Arsenal threatened in the first half was long-range shots – Ramsey and Walcott had half-decent efforts, maybe partly because of the Giggs-Carrick combination, which doesn’t possess great tackling ability.

Second half

At half-time Wenger replaced Djourou with Nicolas Yennaris, who had more pace up against Nani, although the Portuguese winger continued to be a threat.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s brightest sparks were Oxlade-Chamberlain and Laurent Koscielny, who United didn’t really close down when he moved forward on the ball. He set up Oxlade-Chamberlain for a decent chance, and then after Koscielny’s excellent tackle on Rafael (on for Jones) and an intelligent forward pass into midfield, Oxlade-Chamberlain teed up van Persie for the equaliser.

Arsenal scored having been direct and forward-thinking with their passes for once – hitting United when they were out of position (particularly with Rafael forward), rather than when they were back in shape with two banks of four.


Substitutions, however, were key. Wenger made the odd decision to remove Oxlade-Chamberlain and introduce Andrei Arshavin, which prompted a huge chorus of boos from around the Emirates. Wenger’s explanation that “Oxlade-Chamberlain was fatigued” is plausible (although it wasn’t obvious considering the player produced a couple of great moments shortly before going off) while his excuse that the booing “showed I made the right decision (to start Oxlade-Chamberlain) in the first place” is admirably positive yet a strange victory to claim.

Ferguson, meanwhile, took off Nani and brought on Scholes – meaning Giggs went out to the left. He also replaced Rafael (who often doesn’t finish games, and in this one neither started nor finished it) with Park, and Valencia moved to right-back.

United winner

It’s not certain what Ferguson’s thinking was here, but if he wanted to strengthen United’s crossing potential, it worked excellently. Giggs provided a better left foot for crosses than Nani, and Valencia, having been tracked well by Vermaelen throughout the game (it’s odd that Vermaelen, a centre-back out of position, dealt well with Valencia on the floor but was beaten by him in the air for the goal) was now away from Vermaelen and instead attacking against Arshavin.

Arshavin is poor defensively and allowed Valencia past him amazingly easily for United’s winner, and the ball out to that flank also came from a cool, measured lofted pass from Scholes – United now had two holding players spreading play to the wings.

Wenger tried to get back into the game with the use of Park Ju-Young (who played behind van Persie rather than the Dutchman dropping into a number ten role) and then shoved Per Mertesacker upfront for some long balls. That was arguably the style of football that would cause Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans more problems – they’re better against ‘clever’ centre-forwards than physical ones, but United held on.

United dominated in the air


Arsenal’s full-backs problems are no secret, United’s quality on the flanks is equally obvious. Valencia and Nani running at Vermaelen and Djourou was always likely to be a prosperous approach, although in the end it turned out to be Giggs running at Djourou and Valencia running past Arshavin that proved crucial.

It was less predictable that use of the bench would be key, but if it were to come down to substitutions, one would always have backed United. In addition to Rafael, Scholes and Park, they could have also chosen the guile of Dimitar Berbatov or the pace of Javier Hernandez.

Arsenal’s options were much less enticing – Arshavin is dreadfully out of form, Park hasn’t scored a Premier League goal, Benayoun doesn’t seem to interest Wenger, while Yennaris and Miquel are promising but a couple of years away from being truly valuable. Arsenal have injuries, of course, but this was a demonstration that football is a squad game – and Ferguson managed his squad better over the 90 minutes.

Man City v Tottenham to come…

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