Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal: United start positively then defend extremely narrow

November 13, 2013

The starting line-ups

David Moyes recorded the first major victory of his tenure at Old Trafford.

Moyes selected Phil Jones in the centre of midfield alongside Michael Carrick, and continued with Shinji Kagawa on the left.

Arsene Wenger was without Per Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky due to flu, so Thomas Vermaelen came into the side and Aaron Ramsey moved right.

This was a very narrow United victory, in a match where neither side played at their best.

Both sides play cautiously

The word ‘cagey’ is generally used to describe matches that are slow to get going, but this was an interesting contest because it was simultaneously rather defensive, yet also played at a high tempo. With just one shot in the first half hour, neither side were attacking particularly dangerously, but this was partly because both sides were set up more defensively than usual.

The use of Jones in the centre of midfield gave United tenacity and fight, but also a midfielder who positioned himself more intelligently than Tom Cleverley or Marouane Fellaini might have – he cut off Arsenal’s passing angles and protected the back four, demonstrating that he’s not all about running and tackling. Jones is certainly a versatile player and yet to find a regular role in the side, but his positioning has improved over the last year or so, whether playing at centre-back or in the centre of midfield.

Arsenal, meanwhile, were also more defensive than Wenger would have liked – he indicated he wouldn’t have played two deep midifelders had Rosicky been available, and the Flamini-Arteta axis provided a good screen in front of Arsenal’s (now) relatively unfamiliar centre-back partnership. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie rarely combined in open play, and the lack of invention from United’s central midfield zone meant Arsenal were rarely penetrated when they had men behind the ball.

United dominate opening

But the defensiveness was expected considering the line-ups. What was more surprising, however, was that United started the game dominating possession, with 67% in the opening ten minutes. Although they did relatively little with the possession (in terms of getting it into the final third and creating chances) it was an impressive start considering many expected Arsenal’s band of passing midfielders to retain the ball from the outset and put United under continual pressure.

There’s more on this at ESPN…

Maybe Arsenal were surprised at United’s dominance, because they seemed completely unable to work the ball forward when possession was won. Having expected to control the game in United’s half, they didn’t appear to have a cohesive plan at transitions, and rarely exploited the space United left at the back.

United narrow without possession

Without the ball, United used a tactic Moyes often favoured against Arsenal as Everton boss (and also an approach he used against a wingerless Tottenham last season) – which was to defend extremely narrow, with the full-backs remaining close to the centre-backs, and the wide players tucking inside into the middle.

Clearly, Moyes was concerned about Arsenal’s midfield dominance, and although it took a while for Arsenal to start playing, the away side did eventually dominate possession with both Ramsey and Santi Cazorla darting inside to overload the centre. United’s narrowness, along with Carrick and Jones’ deepness, prevented Arsenal playing intricate passes through the middle, and with Olivier Giroud’s lack of pace and no direct runs from wide, it was difficult to see how Arsenal were going to penetrate the United defence.

Also deserving of a mention is Rooney, who has been very inconsistent with his defensive work over the past couple of years, but essentially became a fifth midfielder at times here. With Rooney deep, plus Kagawa and Antonio Valencia moving inside, United weren’t overrun in the middle. Interestingly, Rooney was generally picking up Mikel Arteta rather than Mathieu Flamini – the Frenchman played higher up the pitch, as if Wenger wanted a combative player to take the fight to United.

The only goal came from a set-piece: Van Persie’s near post header, from the zone Mertesacker would probably have been defending, judging by Arsenal’s format when defending corners against Liverpool.

United reorganisation and Arsenal spread play wider

Two key things happened at the start of the second half. First, Nemanja Vidic went off injured and was replaced by Cleverley, with Jones dropping into centre-back. This caused United problems: Cleverley lacked Jones’ positional sense – almost immediately conceding a free-kick for tripping Giroud, for example – and while Jones is a decent centre-back, he doesn’t have Vidic’s aerial power.

That proved to be particularly crucial because Arsenal realised they needed to exploit the wide open spaces on the flanks, and played a higher proportion of their passes down the wings. Ramsey played as more of a conventional right-sided midfielder in the opening stages of the second half, although Wenger changed to more of a 4-1-4-1 / 4-3-3 by removing Flamini and introducing Wilshere. Now, Arteta, Ramsey and Wilshere played as the midfield trio while Ozil went wide-right.

And while Arsenal didn’t equalise, Wenger deserves credit for the switch – Arsenal quickly showed signs of penetrating the United defence. Wilshere provided a good forward burst to get in behind, and then Ozil’s angled run from the right should have resulted in a fine chance – he seemed to pull out at the last moment.

Sagna dominates

With Arsenal dominating possession and United remaining extremely narrow, the key feature of the final 20 minutes was Bacary Sagna getting space down the right flank, and repeatedly hitting some fantastic balls into the box. His crossing created two chances, but two of his ‘unsuccessful’ balls were actually even better deliveries. Hit into the ‘corridor of uncertainty’ between United’s back four and goalkeeper, they were begging for a touch, but Arsenal somehow failed to convert the chances.

Wenger had replaced Cazorla with Nicolas Bendtner to provide an extra aerial threat in the box, which further encouraged Arsenal to cross the ball. Meanwhile, Moyes was concerned about Sagna’s freedom so introduced Ryan Giggs in place of Kagawa, with instructions to stop the crosses. Sagna still got plenty of room, however, and this showed the fine line (just one Arsenal player providing a touch on a cross) between Moyes’ strategy being regarded as ‘highly successful’ and ‘naive’.


There were two different Manchester United sides here – the positive, possession-orientated side of the first ten minutes, and the increasingly defensive, narrow side that just about dealt with continual Arsenal pressure. United should have created more chances with the former approach, and made more decisive clearances with the latter approach, but there’s reason to be positive about the variation in strategy.

Arsenal were far from their best, with their passing extremely sloppy throughout the game, and penetration only arriving after substitutions. Sagna’s crossing was a positive, and having created goals against Napoli and Liverpool, he has been a key part of Arsenal’s season so far.

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