Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal: United attack down the right

November 3, 2012

The starting line-ups

Manchester United won comfortably without having to play well.

Sir Alex Ferguson named the same side that started last weekend’s win over Chelsea – Tom Cleverley retained his place in the centre of midfield.

Arsene Wenger also named an unchanged side from Arsenal’s last league fixture, so Theo Walcott was on the bench despite his midweek hat-trick.

Manchester United raced into an early lead and Arsenal never looked likely to get back in the game, failing to record a shot on target until they were 2-0 down, and reduced to ten men after Jack Wilshere’s dismissal.

Manchester United right v Arsenal left

On paper, the key battleground was obvious. Arsenal were without first-choice left-back Kieran Gibbs, while his deputy, Brazilian Andre Santos, is unconvincing defensively and looked particularly poor against Schalke in the Champions League recently.

Furthermore, Manchester United play the majority of their passing down the right flank (this has been the case for a few years), and started strongly in last weekend’s victory at Stamford Bridge by pushing Rafael forward to link up with Antonio Valencia, overloading Ashley Cole for the second goal.

Therefore, United’s first goal was rather predictable. Rafael stormed past Podolski, Valencia drifted inside slightly and helped the ball on towards the overlapping full-back, and his cross – via a missed Thomas Vermaelen clearance- was steered into the far post by ex-Arsenal captain Robin van Persie, which only added to the inevitability of the opener. In fairness, Santos didn’t have a particularly terrible game and Valencia didn’t play at his best, but United did focus their play down that side, helped by Michael Carrick constantly trying to play the ball there with diagonal passes.

With Santos moving up the pitch to get tight to his man, Vermaelen’s impetuousness doesn’t work well alongside him. Arsenal looked too open on that side – later in the first half Tom Cleverley stormed forward from midfield into acres of space, while Vermaelen made another error in the second half when under pressure.

As demonstrated below, United generally worked the ball down the right, and van Persie’s shots were taken from an inside-right position.

Van Persie also positioned himself near Vermaelen (the better passer of Arsenal’s two centre-backs) when United didn’t have the ball – so Arsenal had to play through Per Mertesacker instead (101 passes compared to 73).

Arsenal approach

The early goal was a huge blow to Arsenal, because their starting strategy suggested they were attempting to contain United. The use of Ramsey rather than Walcott gave discipline rather than attacking drive, while Santi Cazorla was positioned so deep that Arsenal’s formation looked more like 4-1-4-1 than the 4-2-3-1 (4-4-1-1 in the defensive phase) they’ve generally used so far this season, particularly against Liverpool.

Previously this season Arsenal have sat deep in two banks of four away from home – here they pushed higher up the pitch, which was a surprising strategy if they were trying to keep things tight, as it exposed the (left of the) defence to pace and movement.

Cazorla and Jack Wilshere picked up Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick, with Mikel Arteta in behind Rooney. It changed the way Arsenal defended, and while it gave them an extra player behind the ball, it meant they struggled to transfer the ball forward quickly when they won possession. At Anfield, Cazorla stayed high up between the lines and prompted counter-attacks. Here, he was much further from Olivier Giroud, who was isolated upfront.

Rooney did an exceptional defensive job on Arteta throughout the first half, before tiring later in the second. He completed more tackles and interceptions (combined) than any other player.

Even though the away side dominated possession, their most frequent passers were the centre-backs – the possession wasn’t in promising positions. They also failed to involve Podolski, who was pushed towards his own goal by Rafael (even if his actual tracking wasn’t great). He was the only Arsenal player with exceptional pace and in theory offered a counter-attacking threat, but this was barely noticeable.

Second half

Arsenal moved Cazorla higher after half-time, and Wenger’s first change came early in the second half, with Walcott replacing Ramsey to give more attacking potential down the right.

But it was the change Wenger didn’t make that was the key tactical feature of the second period. Both Cleverley and Wilshere were already on a booking and had committed a subsequent foul, but while Ferguson replaced Cleverley with Anderson, Wenger kept Wilshere on the pitch. Granted, Wilshere was having a decent game and Arsenal were chasing the victory (so the natural alternative, the more defensive-minded Francis Coquelin, wasn’t a great option in the circumstances) but when Wilshere was dismissed, Ferguson’s cautious decision seemed particularly wise.

“Jack Wilshere had been warned for his third foul on Robin,” said Ferguson. “And then Thomas had a foul on Wilshere, and he got a warning from from Mike Dean, and I wasn’t prepared to take a chance – and Anderson actually changed the game for us.” The Brazilian always seems to play well against Arsenal, and he forms a more natural partnership with Carrick – providing physical presence and verticality alongside Carrick’s calm passing. Cleverley, by virtue of being an all-rounder, is difficult to find a natural partner for.

Along with the goals conceded against Chelsea and Manchester City, Patrice Evra’s header was another Arsenal concession from set-piece. Cazorla pulled a goal back in stoppage time, but the final 20 minutes was a non-event.

Conclusion

Despite nine bookings (including one second yellow), this was a tame, subdued affair. United went ahead extremely early, and Arsenal only recovered after half-time. In the 15-minute spell between Walcott’s introduction and Evra’s goal, Arsenal played some decent football and created a couple of half-chances – Giroud hit the post, for example. Either side of that, they were constrained by Giroud’s lack of support, then by going down to ten.

Nothing new to note about United. They attacked down the right, they had a clinical finisher in van Persie, Rooney was happy to play a defensive role, and they had to remove Cleverley to protect the defence – all features in common with the 3-2 victory over Chelsea.


Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal: United attack down the right

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