Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United: Arsenal start strongly but are unable to maintain early tempo

April 29, 2013

The starting line-ups. Rosicky and Cazorla interchanged position

Despite having little to play for, Manchester United collected a point at the Emirates.

Without Olivier Giroud, Arsene Wenger used Lukas Podolski as his main forward. Jack Wilshere was only on the bench.

Sir Alex Ferguson named a strong starting line-up, with Rio Ferdinand returning to the defence alongside Jonny Evans.

This was all about Arsenal’s strategy – Manchester United weren’t as uninterested as some predicted, but one suspects Ferguson didn’t spend too long working on specific tactics for a relatively meaningless game.

Arsenal pressing

Arsenal’s approach without possession this season has been interesting. Their first victory of the campaign, away at Anfield, was achieved by defending very deep with two banks of four, before breaking sporadically down the flanks. That seemed to suggest a new defensive approach this season (with the appointment of assistant manager Steve Bould supposedly a key factor) but Arsenal’s approach has been unpredictable this season – sometimes they sit deep, sometimes they press in midfield, sometimes they press¬†energetically higher up.

Against a Manchester United side that had spent most of the week taking it easy, and only trained properly on Friday and Saturday, it was logical for the home team to make this a frantic, high-tempo contest. “Arsenal set off at a fantastic pace, very aggressive and a lot of tackles,” said Ferguson.

“They were one of the most aggressive teams I have played against,” agreed Patrice Evra. “It was good to see Arsenal like that. They always get abuse about being a team with good football but not being aggressive enough. This time they were.”

Arsenal went ahead within two minutes through Theo Walcott, and dominated the first 15 minutes. Manchester United were beaten to every tackle, and had no fewer than four players booked by the half hour mark.

Arsenal’s problem was their inability to sustain that tempo over the course of the game. In fact, this is the exact opposite to their usual pattern at home, where they’ve started tentatively before rallying in the second half. The positions of their tackles and interceptions before and after half-time shows the drop-off in intensity.

Battle down Arsenal’s right / Manchester United’s left

The second key feature of the game was the battle down the flank featuring Bacary Sagna, Theo Walcott, Patrice Evra and Nani. Both goals originated from that side – Walcott getting in behind Evra, and Sagna needlessly conceding a penalty that was won, and converted, by Robin van Persie.

From Arsenal’s point of view, this was two sides of the same coin. Their early goal came because Walcott played extremely high up the pitch, attempting to motor in behind the Manchester United defence. However, such advanced positioning meant Sagna was forced to cover a huge amount of space down the flank on his own. He actually got forward reasonably well – he played the higher number of passes into the final third, and his passes to Walcott was the game’s top passing combination.

However, defensively Sagna encountered problems. The goal was a pure mistake and hardly part of United’s strategy (Sagna could argue Walcott, and others, weren’t offering him an obvious pass), but Arsenal had been continually troubled down that side. United’s two best chances in the first half (Phil Jones’ free header and Van Persie’s free header) came from left-wing crosses, while Van Persie increasingly drifted that way into the space behind Sagna, with Per Mertesacker reluctant to be drawn out towards the flank.

At the start of the second half, Van Persie flashed a cross along the six-yard line from the left, then Evra found space to float a cross onto Rooney’s head. Had United’s heading been up to scratch, they would have won this game comfortably – although their crossing became less effective after half-time.


The game’s best performer was probably Laurent Koscielny, playing to the left of Arsenal’s centre-back pairing. Arsenal’s ‘goals conceded’ record has improved significantly since Koscielny returned to the side following Arsenal’s 2-1 defeat at Tottenham.

The interesting thing about the Frenchman’s performance here was that he effectively played the Thomas Vermaelen role – on the front foot, looking to move up the pitch to make interceptions and tackles. He consistently got the decisions spot on, which helped Arsenal as they attempted to play proactively without the ball.

Arsenal changes

Wenger’s three substitutions (Jack Wilshere for Rosicky, Gervinho for Podolski, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Ramsey) all altered the balance of Arsenal’s play, but didn’t significantly change their attacking strategy.

Really, Arsenal’s problem was not their substitutes’ lack of impact, but – to return to an earlier point – the fact Arsenal were now gaining possession in deeper positions. This meant United had more time to get men behind the ball, and at various points in the final 20 minutes, Arsenal find themselves trying to break down two banks of four.


A fairly simple and unremarkable contest simply characterised by a strong start from Arsenal. The pattern of the first half was similar to Dortmund’s 4-1 win over Real Madrid in midweek – a confident beginning from the home side because of pressing, then the tempo dropping before a mistake letting in the opposition for an equaliser. However, whereas Jurgen Klopp’s side upped the tempo for the second period, Arsenal were much more passive and didn’t do enough to win the game.

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