United thundered home to a 8-2 win versus a bewildered Arsenal side this afternoon at Old Trafford as Fergie’s men continued their (atypical) fantastic early season form. If somebody had predicted that United would score 11 with only 2 in reply against the two North London sides in the opening two home fixtures, you would quite easily have thought them crazy. Ferguson has talked up his young side (averaging 23.1 years today) since early on in the pre-season tour of the US, and so it was no surprise that he chose to select the same 11 that performed so admirably versus Spurs last week, something he has not done in the league since the consecutive selections for Bolton and then Liverpool early last season. Fergie has always been one to select according to form, and with fitness levels getting back to optimum, he saw no reason to change a winning formula here.
Despite dominating from start to finish however it is worth noting that Arsenal have lost two of their strongest assets in Fabregas and Nasri, and were without the highly influential youngster Jack Wilshere – as well as Vermalen, Diaby, Song, Gibbs and Sagna (Jenkinson looked timid and unprepared, and perhaps should have been withdrawn long before his red card for a second bookable offence). In fact it is nigh on impossible to read too much into the emphatic win given the lack of cohesion in the Arsenal side, and thus system at present. United were at their rampant best, and exploited Arsenal’s every weakness, but tougher times lie ahead for the Champions. Here we discuss some of the key talking points from the game.
4-4-2 becomes 4-2-4
We have discussed formations here on Stretford-End.com, and how Fergie is seemingly moving towards a more fluent and fluid attacking approach, in contrast to the past two seasons in which he has relied on the tried and tested 4-4-2 approach with his wide men hugging the touch-line, and either Berbatov or Rooney dropping the deeper of the two forwards. With two holding midfielders, the approach is usually that of ‘4-2-3-1’, but given the role of Rooney the back end of last season, and Welbeck to some extent this, it could quite easily be argued that United are moving towards a ‘4-2-1-3’ template, with Nani and Young pushing high up the pitch to join the striker allowing for the smooth interchanging of positions in the final third. Either way, we will settle for the description of 4-2-4 for now, noting a clear change of direction from Sir Alex as he has seemingly taken a personal affront to the dominance of Barcelona on that fateful day at Wembley in May.
For sure, Ferguson was not happy with the way his team were unable to counter-attack with any kind of penetration in the aforementioned Final, and it is noticeable this term that greater onus has been placed on getting the ball from back to front in the shortest possible time frame. As soon as the ball is intercepted in the defensive half, United seek to break in numbers, with the first pass often to one of the deep lying forward players, either receiving wide or central. This was evident on numerous occasions today, albeit it was two defenders who initiated proceedings with Evans’ penetrating pass to Evra down the left in the build-up to the first goal.
Chalkboard 1. Welbeck and Rooney positioning
Another benefit of this system of course is the ability of the deeper lying striker (Welbeck predominantly thus far) to press the opposing deep central midfield player, enticing him into defensive errors; we can see from the chalkboard above that both Welbeck and Rooney take it in turns to drop deeper to create – with the onus then on the wide players to join the other in the penalty area. It is no secret that Fergie gave Rooney a dressing down at half time in the Champions League Final for continually allowing Busquets time on the ball, failing to stick to pre-match instructions. This season, it is notable how each of the ‘front four’ is working hard to close down and tackle the opposition at every opportunity (Nani, Rooney and Young attempted 16 tackles alone today), which of course allows United to regain possession in dangerous areas on the field.
Each of the ‘fantastic four’ went on to score in the match, with Welbeck netting a poacher’s header, Young two pearlers from outside the area; Nani chipping deftly over the advancing Polish keeper and Rooney scoring a hat-trick of set pieces – his first a superbly worked freekick to make it 150 United goals for the Englishman, adding perhaps an even better one in the second half with shades of David Beckham with a ‘deceiver’ from right to left from 20 yards – before converting a penalty late in the game to ensure the match ball was his.
Anderson and Cleverley: the unlikely duo
Carrick’s injury in the Community Shield, and Fletcher’s prolonged absence has been somewhat of a blessing for both of these midfield youngsters. Since the two came together earlier this month, United’s midfield has looked compact, tidy, creative and ambitious. Aided of course by the fantastic 4’s behind and ahead of them, Anderson and Cleverley have combined almost in perfect synchrony, a central midfield partnership which on paper at least looked destined to fall short. It has been a tough journey for the 23-year-old Brazilian, having started his United career very well, the central midfielder has found the last 2-3 seasons a struggle as he has failed to reach the consistency that Fergie has demanded of him. Injuries haven’t helped but neither has his attitude, having looked unfit for most of this time and more likely to be found at an all-night party rather than in possession of a football. Today, Anderson carried on his superb early season form which started at Wembley versus City, and has quickly took the mantle as the deeper lying midfielder of the pair (finally reverting to a position in which he has had prolonged success!), allowing Cleverley to receive the ball in areas further up the pitch. Today Anderson was quick to intercept the danger, but was also keen to support the attack, and it was his quick thinking and scooped pass which enabled Welbeck to capitalise early on with a fine goal.
Chalkboard 2. Anderson: Deep lying
The ten minute period between 50 and 60 minutes typified his performance (from today and since the start of the season); the Brazilian astutely positioned to foresee the danger, tracked a penetrating run by Arshavin, tackling the Russian just as he was about to let fly with his trust left foot. Then at the other end, Anderson calmly took the ball forward from a central position and slotted Cleverley through on goal with a perfectly weighted ball – the youngster electing to open his body, aiming to the far post when perhaps the better option was to go near. Cleverley attempted 69 passes (and completed 89%), and his close control and one touch football has been equally fundamental to United’s direct approach this term. He was heavily involved in much of the play, and used the ball well in the final third. It was also noteworthy in how Cleverley was continually holding his defensive shape, and tracking back when relieved of possession. The chalkboard below shows how both he and Nani attempted 14 tackles between them in central areas. The season has barely started, and there will be times when Cleverley will have to be content to play second fiddle, but this has been a fantastic start for the lad, and long may it continue.
Chalkboard 3. Cleverley and Nani tackles
Mixed emotions for the strikers
On the day when Wayne Rooney scored goal(s) number 150 (and 151 and 152) for Man United it’s odd to suggest not everything went to plan. Rooney was outstanding once again, revelling in a role just off his strike partner and being the perfect link-man in the periods of intricate play, often between Cleverley, Anderson and the wingers. His goals were well taken – all set pieces and all with a touch of class. He was unlucky not to score more either – a deftly chip from 25 yards beat Szczesny but not the post; whilst an audacious long range shot from 60+ yards had the young Arsenal keeper scrambling backwards.
Rooney broke into the top 10 all time scorers for United with his goals today, moving 9th ahead of Ruud and Scholes who are joint 10th on 150; he’s now less than a hundred away from Sir Bobby’s 249 and he aims to beat it. He does top one list though, he became United’s leading Premier League scorer, his 107 goals scored now sees him move two ahead of Giggs. Seeing Rooney hungry, happy and scoring is a joy to behold and a total contrast from a year ago. He truly is a world class footballer and United are lucky to have him.
Whilst it was joy for Rooney, Danny Welbeck’s afternoon had a premature ending. Pre-season form followed by positive displays in early games including a key role in the win over Spurs, saw him keep his place in the United XI today. He opened the scoring by showing incredible determination to beat two Arsenal defenders to the ball and nod it in the goal but just over 10 minutes later he pulled up chasing a long ball and appears to have pulled or torn his hamstring. Either way, he’s likely to be out for at least 5 weeks. Aged only 20 still, Welbeck was almost certain to be in the latest England squad and now his injury will mean a chance for another striker to come into the side and find both rhythm and form. When Welbeck is eventually fit again he’ll have to start all over to win his place back. Harsh on the young man, he was starting to look at home in the starting line-up.
Since Giggs has moved almost permanently infield to become a central player, United have struggled to find someone to play wide left with the right amount of ‘leftability’ – someone who stays wide left rather than cuts in all the time. Nani and Park both did well but the former invariably comes infield whilst the latter generally just drifts. Ashley Young’s signing has so far proved a master-stroke. Whilst he’s right footed, he likes to stay wide and is happy coming on the inside of a defender or going outside him.
Up against Jenkinson and Traore, Nani and Young had a field-day. Both came infield at times but generally they stuck out wide, allowing Rooney to drop deep and giving Cleverley and Anderson space to work in. Right now they’re providing a wonderful balance to the United side – not to mention that they’re contributions are superb too. It’s worth noting just how disciplined they were today in sticking to their wings (see below). When a side is so on top and dominating, the temptation is to come in and seek the ball out to try and be as involved as possible. Yet all game they worked tirelessly to exploit the space that Arsenal’s full backs and wingers were leaving – particularly Walcott whose tracking-back was non-existent.
Chalkboard 4. Nani and Young heatmap
It’s worth noting how well assisted the two wingers have been by the fullbacks so far this season. Whilst we’re used to seeing Evra bombing up and down, creating overlaps, his link-up play with Young has taken off remarkably quickly – they seem to already have an excellent understanding of each others game. On the other side, Smalling has been a revelation at right back. He is simply a natural footballer, the game comes easy to him and right back suits so many of his attributes. He’s pacey, so elegant on the ball, feisty and direct. Right now he shouldn’t be removed from that fullback spot and it should be of interest to Fabio Capello too, England could do with someone like him.
Arsenal – what next?
I’ve (Doron, not Nik) often taken great pride in watching Arsenal throw away games and competitions; I’ve found some of their fans on social networking sites to be some of the most arrogant and I enjoyed being told numerous times last year that Arsenal were going to win a quadruple. However I’ve always respected them, their club and their manager – excellent adversaries for many years now. Tonight though, I have so much sympathy for them – their club has had the spirit sucked out of it and appears to be in a mess.
Whilst a United win seemed likely today given the line-ups, 8-2 is an annihilation and an embarrassment. Yet, having 7 or so players out should never force a manager into giving a debut to a youngster or picking a bench with minimal experience. The truth is, Wenger’s vision of buying cheap, selling at a profit, and attempting to win playing only one style with kids hasn’t worked. He’s allowed his squad to shrink so much that they have only 7 players over the age of 25 – two of which are goalkeepers (neither first choice) and one is the incredibly out of favour Squillaci. Having kids as back-up is never a good option, a squad needs depth to it. The Arsenal back-up kids are too young and inexperienced – they need nurturing and loans before they’re thrust into the first team, that can only work if there is a squad to act as the depth beyond the first XI first. At United, Cleverley and Welbeck have learnt their trade elsewhere as United have had the numbers to allow them to be loaned out – now they’re back and ready to perform because of their footballing education despite being young.
Arsenal’s need for experience, squad players and players for the first XI in various areas has been evident to footballing fans for a few months, yet Wenger hasn’t acted upon the need for more players. Now with just days left in the transfer window he’s under real pressure to deliver. His naivity stretches beyond the transfer window though – he still only has a ‘plan a’ and essentially sent his lambs to the slaughter today. I have huge respect for what Wenger has achieved but he appears to be dragging Arsenal deeper and deeper into murky waters right now; it’s hard to know what’s next for them and I have total sympathy with their supporters.
Fergie will be extremely satisfied with the way his team has started the season for once, and despite the poor opposition today will take heart from the desire, thrust and penetration that his side espoused at times today. More importantly, he will relish the selection dilemmas ahead (Smalling, Evans and Jones carried on their fantastic form) and thrive on the opportunities he has to make this his next (and possibly last) great side.