Talking Points: Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal

Authors: Nik and Doron

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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as well as Vermalen, Diaby, Song, Gibbs and Sagna (Jenkinson looked timid and unprepared, and perhaps should have been withdrawn long before his red card for a second bookable offence).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, 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.

Balanced wingers

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.

In Summary

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.

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9 Comments on Talking Points: Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal

  1. Interesting points on the central midfielders. It is notable that much of the fluidity is due not only to the abilities of the aforementioned four forwards but the midfield pair of Cleverley and Anderson. If this is part of Fergie’s masterplan to one day take on Barcelona, it appears to have been almost discovered by accident in the second half of the City match. I suspect Fergie intended to start with Carrick and indeed Fletcher but the form of Cleverley and Anderson has made them undroppable for now. That said, I still expect Fletcher to play an important role in the team when fit.

  2. Did all the Modric talk last summer light a fire under Anderson? He’s been lights out 3 matches in a row. He and Cleverley alternated runs beautifully, and one of them always had time to play the killer ball.

  3. Another great article, love this site.

    This team can only get better, the more Clever Tom and Anderson play, the more the positional understanding of each other grows. I’ve really been impressed by Anderson in the last 3 games, it’s like he is growing into the role and believing in himself since he has now stepped out of the shadow of Scholes. Much like Nani when Ronaldo left. After watching Tom come through the academy I haven’t been shocked by the level that he is now playing at. Should we get carried away by this result??? I thought Ramsey, Rosicky, Van Persie, and Arshavin (probably should have walked) all looked lively for them today, I think they could have got a couple more, but with that said so could we, and the scoreline definately didn’t flatter us. It’s hard to judge this result but Liverpool were marginally outplayed by a marginally weaker Arsenal the other week until the sending off, but who knows!!! Bolton away on the 10th, can’t wait 🙂

  4. @dave de gea – thanks for the kind words. Anderson looks so much fitter and appears to really be stepping up. Always liked him and had a soft-spot for him (often meant I’ve backed him when I really shouldn’t have) but pleased he’s reacted this well. Remember, a year ago the rumours were he wanted out and the club wanted rid of him – great turnaround.

    I wouldn’t get too carried away yet, we were great but Arsenal were woeful. Must say I disagree on Arshavin, thought he was useless. A very good Arsenal-supporting friend yesterday told me that he had been awful lately and his work-rate was shocking, I brushed it off but I can see why he said that after today.

    Bolton away should be a good test, I wonder at what point Fergie will opt for a more cautious midfield?!

  5. I really loved the way Ando and Cleverley played against Arsenal. I can definitely see them being our first choice central midfielders. Well, that’s the problem actually. If indeed the Sneijder saga ends with United getting his signature, there is no way he is going to be kept out of the team. Where does that leave our current midfield? Ando has gone from strength to strength, while Cleverley has matured into a great player. Of course, I want Anderson to play more than anyone else because I’ve always been supporting him, even though at times, he was bad (United’s high standards, of course), but they both should play regularly. And when we don’t “need” the speed of our youngsters, you have Giggs to show off his veteran instincts and precision. United’s midfield is excellent this season. Can’t wait for a difficult Bolton away tie.
    Our wingers – Young and Nani are exceptional, and no one can deny that.

    Yes, we can’t judge our team against a woeful Arsenal side, this midfield can hold up against any team in the PL and probably in the UCL.
    Great article, btw. Have just started reading, and will surely continue.

  6. I think Jones’ performances need to be looked at in terms of the midfield performance and shape. If you take a look at the chalkboards on the guardian site, it is clear to see how far up the pitch he is willing to come both with the ball and to get it. He is, a lot of the time, adding himself to the midfield game, which adds an extra player there for us and cuts out some of the space between the midfield players and defence that the oppo strikers may try to exploit – Ando and Cleveley do leave space behind.

    For example – more than 40% of Jones’ passing was in/around the halfway line, 38% of his tackles in the opposing half! 100% of his tackles, according to the chalkboard, vs Spurs were near halfway. Passing stats (from position) similar to the Arsenal game.

    It may be that Jones is simply taking adavantage of the game that is playing out in front of him (we had control of both games for the most part) but I do think his ability to play so high up the pitch is a big reason for the success Cleverley and Anderson (and United) are having, and should not be overlooked.

    (Have a chat about all this on our Forums! Come on people!)

  7. Good points about Cleverley and Anderson midfield partnership.They’ve looked brilliant going forward.there was a little concern that both were too offensive minded against West Brom in the 1st game,but since then in the next 2 games,they’ve ensured at;east one of the stays back.On most occasion it has been Anderson but Cleverley has done his share of defensive duty pretty well.Delighted with the partnership.

    Agree with you about the situation at Arsenal.Always liked watching them play and I respect that club and their manager,all despite them being our main rivals for the last 15 years or so.That’s partly because they are a good club who do things the right way,nurture young talents.It is really sad to see them plummet at the moment.Hope Wenger doesn’t remain stubborn and spends that extra 3-5 million needed to get the player that would make them major forces again.

  8. It’s quite interesting seeing us upturning arsenal to another form of embarrassment, but can’t be satisfied until we meet the title contender like man city(noisy neighbour), Chelsea and liverpool. Also I think the versatility in our midfield has be great with the combination upfront. I hope De Gea silent his critics with an outstanding performance in our upcoming matches. Up manchester united and forever we stand!

  9. Well, that’s the end of opponents playing a high offside line at Old Trafford. The 3-0 and 8-2 scorelines were so emphatic that teams will never play that cavalierly against us again (except possibly Barca or Bayern, who are the only teams that regularly play a higher line than Arsenal). Every visiting team will play a deep line and try to hit us on the counter. Be ready for a lot of 1-0 home victories this season. Then again, Mancini, Villas Boas, and Dalglish were never going to be as naive as Wenger and ‘Arry.

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