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Manchester United vs Arsenal: Tactical Review and In-depth Match Analysis

Manchester United vs Arsenal, Manchester United v Arsenal

The Gunners crashed to a 3-2 loss to United away from home. A Cristiano Ronaldo brace and another goal from Bruno Fernandes ensured all 3 points for the Red Devils. Strikes from Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard kept the visitors in contention for large parts of the Manchester United v Arsenal game, but they ultimately fell short. Let us take an in-depth look at how the game unfolded:

Manchester United v Arsenal
Image Obtained via Evening Standard

Formations and Starting XIs:

Arsenal made 2 changes from their 2-0 win against Newcastle United. Arteta deployed a 4-4-1-1 set-up again. Mohamed Elneny replaced Sambi Lokonga in midfield, and Gabriel Martinelli came on for Bukayo Saka on the right-wing.

Manchester United lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Three changes were made from their 1-1 draw to Chelsea away from home. Diogo Dalot took over the RB role, Harry Maguire replaced Eric Bailly in central defence and Cristiano Ronaldo came back into the starting XI, at the expense of Nemanja Matic.

Manchester United vs Arsenal
Image via: fbref.com

First Half:

The Gunners made a strong start to the Manchester United v Arsenal game. Aubameyang had a shot blocked in the first minute. They won 2 corners in the first 90 seconds.

In possession, the Gunners took a 4-4-2 shape. Elneny and Partey remained deep in possession, shielding the centre-backs. Smith Rowe and Odegaard played as two 8s, while Tavares and Tomiyasu advanced from their full-back positions. Martinelli joined Aubameyang to form a two-pronged attack.

Manchester United v Arsenal
4-4-2 Shape – Arsenal

Arsenal also looked to press higher up, in a 4-4-2 shape. Odegaard joined Aubameyang as the second forward in this situation. However, the press was faulty and did not cause United enough problems while playing out of the back. This was mainly down to:

  1. Arsenal did not aim to create side overloads. Aubameyang and Odegaard were drawn to opposite sides, opening up central passing lanes for David De Gea.

    Space allowed to progress centrally
  2. Arsenal did not compress the field enough defensively. The forwards were caught far too high up the field. Elneny and Partey did not compliment this press by stepping higher up. This opened spaces in between the lines.

    Passive mid-field press allows space between the lines
  3. As Emile Smith-Rowe dropped deeper to cover Bruno between the lines, Dalot and Telles were offered space to progress down the wings. Dalot and Telles, unsurprisingly, had among the highest pass progression distances in the game. Similarly, forwards Marcus Rashford and Ronaldo had 15 progressive passes received between both of them.
As wingers move narrow to close the space, United full backs can progress down the flanks

Manchester United, however, struggled to effectively progress down the middle. This was because McTominay regularly took up sub-optimal positions in midfield. He was often caught behind the cover shadow of an Arsenal forward, making him inaccessible as a passing option. Fred also looked shaky in possession, making a few cheap passes and giveaways. This forced the Red Devils to use the wings as a progressive outlet.

Manchester United: Attacking Zones (Image via: WhoScored.com)

United also looked to press Arsenal higher up. They displayed hints of what may come under Ralf Rangnick, who watched from the stands. United used a 4-1-3-2 shape in defence. This could be with Fred advancing as an 8 while Bruno pressed forward. But the recurring theme was Rashford pressing as a centre-forward while Dalot remained higher up too. Mctominay could then join the backline to cover the space left by the Portuguese full-back.

Manchester United vs Arsenal
Manchester United pressing variations

The Red Devils too struggled to press effectively in the Manchester United v Arsenal game. Minimal effort from the front 2 often allowed Arsenal to progress down the centre. The Red Devils also looked slightly out of sync in the new set-up. Thomas Partey, however, had a poor game in the midfield. The former Atletico man had several misplaced passes and heavy touches. Usually one of Arsenal’s most reliable players, Partey struggled to impose himself. This meant Mikel Arteta’s men struggled to transition effectively despite beating United’s first line of pressure.

Arsenal did score, under unusual circumstances. From a corner, De Gea lay on the ground, writhing in pain after being taken down by his own teammate. As Manchester United failed to clear the ball, Smith Rowe lodged the ball into the net with a sweetly struck swing from 24 yards out.

Manchester United responded immediately. They pressed high and tried to restrict play into Arsenal’s own half. United switched to a 4-3-3 in attack, with Fred and Bruno occupying the half-spaces as 8s. Arsenal defended well. Thomas Partey and Elneny sat deep, just in front of the centre-backs. This meant United had very little opportunity to attack down the middle.

The hosts continued to use the wings, largely focusing their attacks down their left side. Telles, Sancho, Ronaldo, Fred and even Rashford continuously switched positions on the left-wing, trying to force an error out of Tomiyasu. The Japanese full-back, however, put together a solid performance and allowed little to get past him. Manchester United struggled to create clear cut chances for the following reasons:

  1. Manchester United’s right-wing setup had many flaws. Marcus Rashford tried to move higher up or central to occupy the spaces Ronaldo vacated. Dalot provided an option on the overlap. McTominay was forced to decide between covering the spaces behind Dalot, or occupying the spaces opened up by Rashford. Bruno Fernandes found himself too close to Partey or Elneny. A lack of cohesion on the right meant United created little on this flank.
  2. United also took several wayward shots from poor positions. With better players around them, Ronaldo and Maguire had 2 shots each from over 20 yards, which caused little problems for Ramsdale.
  3. On the left, Jadon Sancho and Alex Telles often drew Tomiyasu wide, creating spaces in the half-space. However, Harry Maguire made a few awkward runs forward and occupied the said space. This meant Partey often followed the English centre-back, resulting in congestion on the left-wing.
Poor space orientation by Maguire

Arsenal completely lost the plot in these 20 minutes. Aubameyang often found himself on the left-wing, to provide a passing option. However, Mctominay and Lindelof did well to ensure the Gabonese forward did not receive the ball. Aubameyang lost all 3 of the aerial duels he contested. Arsenal also struggled to string attacks together after regaining possession. This could be traced down to 2 problems:

  1. Arsenal lacked a centre-forward who could hold up play while the other teammates joined the attack. The Gabonese forward was isolated on the left, while Martinelli, Smith Rowe, Tavares and Odegaard constantly ran into traffic.
  2. Arsenal did not prepare themselves to attack while in defence. The players were too deep and too far apart from each other to string meaningful attacks together. The goal finally did come for Manchester United. After regaining possession in Arsenal’s half, Jadon Sancho drew Tomiyasu wide. Fred made an unmarked run into the space behind the Japanese defender, before laying off a pass to Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese made no mistake with his shot. At the end of the first half, both teams went out leaving a lot left to be desired. United dominated but struggled to create quality attacks, while Arsenal’s structure needed major improvements.
Manchester United vs Arsenal
Left: First Half Heat Map for United, Right: First Half Heat Map for Arsenal (Images Obtained via: WhoScored.com)

Second Half:

Both teams started the second half of the Manchester United v Arsenal game with intent. Martinelli and Ronaldo drew excellent saves of the opposition keepers within 5 minutes. Ronaldo did get his name on the scoresheet. Rashford found himself in acres of space behind Tavares and picked out Ronaldo in the box. Arsenal responded immediately. Partey picked out Martinelli behind Alex Telles, and the Brazilian’s cross was turned in by Odegaard.

As Manchester United’s press weakened, Arsenal began to settle in. Tomiyasu dropped back as an auxiliary centre-back in the build-up to help the North London outfit retain possession. The low work rates of United’s front 3 turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

As Ronaldo, Sancho and Rashford remained in fairly advanced positions during defence, there was a constant threat of counter-attacking. This meant that Arsenal midfielders Elneny and Partey were restricted from stepping higher up, to track the opposition front 3.

This development mostly affected Nuno Tavares. Against Newcastle, Tavares had Smith Rowe and Lokonga as constant passing options. At Old Trafford however, the former Benfica full-back had a different issue. Elneny hesitated to move forward into the left half-space.

Smith Rowe was tracked by McTominay constantly. This left acres of space on the left flank, but Tavares had no one to pick out. Furthermore, United full-back Dalot put up a solid performance. Dalot recorded 3 successful tackles, 9 recoveries and 2 interceptions. The Portuguese also won all 3 of his aerial duels.

Nuno Tavares isolated

After their goal, Manchester United failed to register a single shot for over 15 minutes. However, they fashioned a move similar to the first goal. Sancho picked put Fred running into the half-space. Before the Brazilian took a touch, his legs were cleared out by Odegaard from behind. Referee Martin Atkinson awarded the penalty after a short VAR check, and Ronaldo put the Manchester outfit ahead for the second time in the game.

Arsenal made all 3 of their changes between the 71″ and 80″ minute of the Manchester United v Arsenal game. Saka came on for Smith-Rowe first, switching Martinelli over to the left. Lacazette and Nketiah then replaced Aubameyang and Odegaard.

Manchester United retreated deep into their half. They defended in a compact 4-5-1 or 4-4-2. Arsenal initially started with Lacazette in the centre and Nketiah out wide, but then switched to a more orthodox 4-2-3-1. Martinelli and Saka provided width, while Lacazette played as an SS behind Nketiah. Martinelli looked bright and tried to create opportunities from the left. Tavares too had a couple of good crosses to Saka, but nothing came off it.

In fact, Manchester United came closest to scoring towards the end. A lighting counter saw Sancho pick out Bruno Fernandes, and only a frantic block from Tomiyasu ensured the margin remained just one goal.

xG flow indicates that Manchester United created better shots in the second half as compared to the first (Image Obtained via Understat.com)

Arsenal pushed centre-back Gabriel into the box in search of an equalizer, but failed to create anything major, as United held on for a precious 3 points.

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Key Notes and Lessons Learnt:

  1. Defence: Arsenal have a solid defensive unit. Tomiyasu, White and Gabriel rarely put a foot wrong. Ramsdale too made 7 saves amounting to a PsxG of 2.3, and was excellent in finding players in advanced positions with his distribution. Tavares again struggled against quality opposition. In his defence, Arteta’s set-up often isolated the full-back and coming up against Rashford and Bruno is no easy task. But with Tierney also available, Arteta has big decisions to make.
  2. Mid-field: Easily Arsenal’s biggest reason for the downfall. While individually putting up average performances, Arsenal’s midfield lacked the cohesiveness to work well together. Lokonga was sorely missed, while Partey had a poor game. Outside of his goal, Odegaard struggled too. Smith Rowe will also have to learn to play under close watch by the opposition. Opponents are singling out the Englishman as a crucial part of Arsenal’s attack. Even Liverpool marked Smith Rowe well and cut him out of the game.
  3. Attack: Aubameyang cut out a forlorn figure in attack. Arsenal’s top scorer this season was often isolated or simply not given enough support. The Manchester United v Arsenal game again highlighted the need for a more classic centre-forward profile, a player who is comfortable in tight spaces and can play with his back to the goal. Given Arteta’s apprehension in giving minutes to Lacazette, could Folarin Balogun receive the first-team call-up?

What are your thoughts on the Manchester United v Arsenal game? Did the result fairly reflect the team’s performance? What should Arteta change in the future?

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Adithya Ravi
Football enthusiast. Stat enthusiast

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