Talking Points: Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United

Authors: Doron and Nik

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With the players knowing that City had beaten Spurs, United took to the field knowing they had to match their rivals and beat Arsenal. Arsenal were hoping to avoid a third straight league defeat and importantly put some pressure on Chelsea in the Champions League positions. Ferdinand missed out due to a back injury whilst Giggs partnered Carrick in the middle. For Arsenal, Oxlade-Chamberlain was handed a Premier League debut and Vermaelen was passed fit to start.

Below, we discuss the talking points and invite Arsenal fans as well as United fans to join in the discussion.

Park for Rafael

Rafael looked disillusioned and dejected as he warbled off down the tunnel having been subbed for Park with 12 minutes to go, and it is hard not to have sympathy for the young Brazilian. Gradually finding his match fitness of late, Rafael is getting more minutes on the pitch, and was even mooted to start today, with Arsenal having to resort to playing Vermalen (a centreback) at fullback. In fact he probably should have done, in place of the slightly erratic (possibly lacking match sharpness) Phil Jones. When the latter got injured early on in the first half, Rafael’s introduction gave United more of a balance and the away team quickly exerted their control on the game. Rafael and Valencia worked well in synergy down the right side, despite the majority of United’s ambition very much being down the left with Evra and Nani in the first half.

Chalkboard 1: Valencia pulled back deep

Then two things happened: Firstly Rafael was harshly cautioned by Mike Dean for slightly tugging at Van Persie’s shirt as the forward pounced on a loose ball and drove forward. (It was Dean, who has perhaps ‘categorised’ the Brazilian who cautioned, and sent him off, in a fixture away at Spurs two seasons ago for a similar offence, but this one was even harsher.) And secondly, the fullback later went on a marauding and opportunist run on the counter, as Arsenal were left short at the back. Rooney slid him in perfectly, only for Koscielny to execute a perfectly timed tackle and distribute up field. Because Arsenal had already committed numbers to the attack, United’s three-man defence was overwhelmed and Oxlade-Chambers laid in Van Persie to finish. He was subbed shortly after by the aggrieved Ferguson (for Park), and United can think themselves lucky to have snatched the game in the manner they did. Valencia was moved to right back to counter Arshavin, but as Park drifted infield, the Ecuadorian did exactly what Rafael attempted and seized the initiative; scoring from the position he knows best, wide right. The manager may well tell us that the substitute was in fear of second caution or injury, but the truth is Rafael was intelligent in his defensive display throughout. This slightly defensive substitution aside (see chalkboard), United won away again, and hopefully the fit again Rafa can challenge Sagna as the league’s best in the months and years to come.

Nani’s wizardry

If it were a boxing match, the ref would have ended the fight much earlier than half time, something Arsene Wenger did for Johan Djourou. Wenger may have made a daft substitution later on in the match, however he had no choice in taking off Djourou as he was terrorised all afternoon by United’s number seventeen.

Whether it was a dummy, step over or burst of pace – Nani had the beating of Djourou all day long. To be fair to the make shift Arsenal fullback, he had little support from Theo Walcott or Alex Song – who was no doubt more occupied with Wayne Rooney (more on that in a bit). Many reds may have been critical with Nani’s final ball or his hesitance at certain times when he got in behind the Arsenal defence, but his build up play and constant threat down the left hand side no doubt shook Djourou. The chalkboard below highlights how Michael Carrick tried to shift play to the left hand side for Nani to latch on to:

Chalkboard 2: Carrick passing

The goal may have come from a sublime Ryan Giggs cross, however Djourou’s awful defending – where he failed to cross down United’s number eleven and made himself as narrow as possible to block the cross – was due to his nightmare first half up against the Portuguese winger. Valencia, for me, was MOTM – but Nani was a joy to watch at times against Arsenal.

Appreciating Rooney

After strange form and missed penalties, Rooney decided to put in one of his most selfless displays of the season. Playing behind Welbeck, Rooney not only occupied Alex Song but also stopped him. Song is somewhat under-appreciated by non-Arsenal fans, he’s not just a player who breaks up play but he’s a ball carrier too. In the past, Anderson has been deployed as the destroyer but on this occasion it was Rooney.

Chalkboard 3: Rooney tackling and Song passing

Rooney won an impressive nine out of eleven tackles and forced Song not only to play higher but to play more horizontally than usual. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but considering Arsenal like to play through the middle, it forced them to change their tactics. Rooney’s own passing may have been inaccurate but he didn’t have a shot all game and constantly played for the team both defensively and offensively.

Strong at the back

Rafael’s contribution has already been touched upon but I think in general it’s worth stating just how impressive United were defensively. Evra was awarded man of the match and he had some swagger back in his game as he marauded forward down the left. On the other side Rafael showed how good it is to have a natural right back play in that position. Between them they won an impressive 16 tackles:

Chalkboard 4: Evra and Rafael tackles

The real bonus for United though came in the middle. With Ferdinand missing due to yet another back injury (he could be back for Liverpool), Evans and Smalling were paired together. As per many performances this season, they were imperious. Smalling is a natural and scarily may well be our second best centre back already, behind Vidic. Despite one slip he showed his calmness in possession and cleverness when defending. He seems to compliment Evans well – Jonny’s equally as comfortable with the ball at his feet but seems to enjoy contact that bit sooner than Smalling. Not only did they keep Van Persie quiet for most of the game, but they reduced him to a minimal involvement and played a big part in his poor 44% passing accuracy. It seems hard to look beyond the Smalling-Evans pairing as the long-term option.

United’s away support

It may seem a bias point to make, but I make it sincerely nonetheless. Having been part of the ‘away crowd’ for a large part of the 90’s and a lot of the noughties, I can safely say that United’s away following is always absolutely superb, if not the best in the country (however you measure that). Not only do they (we) have an unequalled array of songs across the land, often singing heartily throughout any given game, but they also seem to have a unique telepathic understanding at times, more so when the chips are down. This can often translate into spontaneous vocal support for the team, differing from the general revelry shared in games where the result is less ‘meaningful’ or at risk. Today, after a brief period of stunned silence after Arsenal’s equaliser, United’s following sprung into action. The clock read nine minutes to go, and with Valencia receiving the ball in an advanced position on the right, testosterone-infused shouts of ‘United’ were heard echoing around the stadium. The group just ‘knew’ that this was their moment, United’s moment; a crucial juncture in the title race had been reached, with City clinching a late winner versus Spurs only two hours earlier. The team sensed it too, and more to the point, Valencia did. Buoyed by the crowd his dribble was opportunism and direct wing-play at its best. While Arshavin was harshly criticised in the aftermath, there was only ever going to be one outcome with the Ecuadorian in this kind of mood. Valencia even had the panache and concentration to pull the ball back for Welbeck, who subsequently stroked the ball into an empty net. Cue wild celebrations from the players and Fergie alike; but more importantly, cue frenzied outpouring of emotion from the little section away in the far left corner of the Emirates. They had sensed the 3 points was there for the taking, but more importantly, they had impelled it to happen.


United made sure they matched Man City by winning 2-1 at Arsenal. A hard game took its toll though as yet more players picked up injuries and knocks – Rooney, Rafael, Jones, Nani and Carrick all could face some time out.

Arsenal started both halves strongly, lead by Oxlade-Chamberlain on his debut. In the middle, Rosicky had his most effective game in a long time but his performance was bettered by Carrick for United who was and his controlling-best. United always looked dangerous on the counter-attack and regularly got joy out wide through Nani. Right on half time they got what they deserved as Valencia powerfully headed in a perfect Giggs cross.

Arsenal’s response was positive and various efforts from outside the penalty area were fired in on goal but Lindegaard was untroubled. Welbeck lead the line well for United and could well have scored a few goals on the break but good defending from Mertesacker and Koscielny denied him. Arsenal drew level late on through Van Persie. His finish was instinctive and deadly after a clever through ball from Oxlade-Chamberlain. The goal stemmed from a quick break after United had committed men forward.

Arsenal’s fans turned from delirious to grumpy soon after though as Arshavin replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain. Boos rang around the Emirates and a chorus of “you don’t know what you’re doing” could be heard. Sure enough, United went on to score a winner which Arshavin maybe could have done better on. Valencia’s surging run into the area saw him exchange passes with Park before he had the presence of mind to lay the ball back to Welbeck who scored but was incredibly left unmarked.

United’s walking-wounded collapsed at the full time whistle but most still found the energy to go and applaud the away fans. An exhausting day in London may have taken its toll injury-wise but United showed an incredible amount of character to win such a hard-fought game. Next up is a trip to Anfield in the FA Cup. With the league looking increasingly tight, Fergie’s team selection and possible prioritising of the league should make for an interesting weekend.

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9 Comments on Talking Points: Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United

  1. Good read, have to point out Djourou is swiss though!

    Also like to mention how much stronger Rafael looked, clearly been in the gym.

    Also want to highlight Linde’s lack of composure and poor distribution in the game. Wouldnt have noticed this last season but compared to de geas improvement is needed.

    Finally, Gigg’s position in the first half. He had a deep free role which excused him from defensive worl allowed him to roam and added fluidity to our play. Think this is the exact role Clev will play when hes back.

  2. Great piece, as always.

    Just pointing out – of those 9 ‘tackles’ won, two were take-ons i.e. dribbles, six (!!) were aerial challenges (lost two) and only one was a ground tackle. So a more accurate picture of Rooney’s display was that he put his aerial ability to fantastic use in a defensive sense.

    Have to be careful when using the Guardian Chalkboards for tackling stats, as the definitions are strange, and the raw numbers don’t disaggregate from tackles, aerial battles, and dribbles. Which gives you nonsense results like Nani winning 10/13 ‘tackles’ on Sunday.

    For stat work, FourFourTwo’s StatsZone app for iOS and are good complements to the Chalkboards, at least in my experience.

  3. Good stuff as ever chaps.

    I was surprised to see Rafael subbed like you and if we had not gone on to win the game then it may well have been the substitution we were all talking about rather than AOC/Arshavin. Nani had just gone off so to replace our other wing threat with the more defensive Park could be viewed as negative and may have drawn Arsenal onto us and led to them scoring a winner. I would suggest that Rafael was subbed due to being carded and not risking a 2nd from his old friend Mr Dean but harsh on the youngster who has looked lively in last couple of games.

    Pleased for Welbeck after not converting his other chances during the game, he really stretches defences and leaves space for the likes of Rooney et al to blossom. He is an England international and thus deserves his bumper new contract. Him and Rooney could be first choice for club and country for years.

    Although he played well, I was not as impressed with Nani as you were. So many times Djourou was showing him down the left and he did not take the bait and cut back in too many times. He is much better on the right but Valencia deserves first crack there based on recent form. Too often the final ball or decision from Nani is flawed but his unpredictably is still a massive asset and I may be being overly harsh!

    Agree with comments about Smalling – really mature, commanding performance and would love to see him alongside Vidic next season. Evans solid once more and kept RVP quiet for most of the game. Evra had another fine match and good to see him back to his best. He always produces against Arsenal. Carrick was at times majestic, spraying passes and making interceptions. Must be forcing his way back into the plans of Mr Capello for the summer.

    Roll on Anfield on Saturday – hopefully the walking wounded are not as bad as first feared.

  4. Subbing Rafael made perfect sense. Bringing Park on added a more central threat coming from the wings also enabling further protection in the centre of midfield where like you say Arsenal like to play. Rafael on a yellow card is certainly a worry against the pace of Walcott and the Ox as well, so taking him off once important, as long as the young player understands this and isn’t too disheartened. He played well, but it was the right decision by Fergie. Also, I think his yellow card was for a rather reckless tackle (that fortunately didn’t make contact) as opposed to the shirt-tug…

  5. Hi Tom thanks for your comment.

    Lets break this down.

    “Made perfect sense” = Sense as in bringing Park on to play a central right role as you suggest, yes, absolutely.

    “Rafael on a yellow card is certainly a worry against the pace of Walcott and the Ox as well” = Walcott played on the right so this isnt applicable. Oxlade departed the field minutes earlier for the more defensive Arshavin, and somebody who played more of a left-central position rather than wide left as the former did with some success.

    The game that we executed to near perfection (dominating the fullback position etc) was tied precariously at 1-1. The game that we ‘needed’ to win in order not to lose ground on City and give them the psych edge. And Fergie puts his most in-form attacking threat to right back and puts the horizonatal Park on the field, in essence settling for a draw. He even confirms as much here:

    “I just thought it was best to get an experienced player like Valencia back in there [at right-back] and bring on the experience of Park and Scholes to try and see the game out.”

    He bottled it. Raf was playing just fine, Valencia was causing many problems. He was angry with Raf’s indiscipline and couldn’t trust him – unfounded IMO. Tony’s chalk says it all, the goal was the only time he got into an attacking position, and this was only due to a deflection that landed his way.

    Sense for a draw yes. To win the game, absolutely not. Fergie got lucky.

  6. @Nik – as you know, I think if Fergie wanted a draw he’d have brought on Fabio for Rafael. Park never stays wide and whilst he didn’t play centrally, he did naturally drift inside to allow Valencia space in behind Arshavin. This, as we saw, lead to the winning goal; Park had come inside, Vermaelen had followed and so Valencia was left to take on Arshavin – there’s only ever one winner in that battle.

    I believe it was an attacking, not defensive move from Fergie; but I guess unless we ask him, we’ll never really know despite Fergie saying he made the sub to “see the game out”. It was certainly more attacking than bringing Fabio on.

  7. My view is that the Rafael substitution was intended to be an attacking change. If the score had remained at 1-0 Sir Alex may not have made a change to the teams shape, but after the equaliser and needing the win I think he did this for three reasons. Firstly Park does drift in and in this game he played very narrow. That gave United a notional three in the centre of the field which matched the Arsenal three and so stopped them taking the initiative. If Sir Alex did not do this he ran the risk of Arsenal overloading Carrick and Scholes centrally and becoming the more likely team to get the winner. Secondly he knows that Valencia is a highly effective attacking right back. Park playing narrow allowed Valencia space to run into and with Arsenals most effective attacking player on the day, (Oxlade-Chamberlain), removed I think he saw less of a threat on that side. Valencia was always unlikely to be effectively tracked by Arshavin, and the Arsenal left back, was likely to get dragged away by Park. Sir Alex has played three at the back for long periods of two games recently with Valencia sitting deep on the right and surging forward from that deep position. If it stayed as 1-1 for any length of time he may have chosen to make that adjustment. Thirdly Park adding an additional body in the centre allowed Rooney to push further forward. Count the number of bodies in the box when United scored. If there were less in the box somebody would probably have stopped Wellbeck. In view of this I think Sir Alex needs to be given credit for this substitution.

    On Nani, (and Evra) – if their crossing matched their approach play on United’s left in the first half the game would have been over by half time. United’s delivery from wide positions has been poor now for a long time. On the two occasions here when United players picked people out with their delivery we scored. This has been a noticeable problem, particularly at OT in several games this season, especially when we don’t get an early goal. We have plenty of possession on the edge of the oppositions box, re-circulate the ball to wide positions when we can’t find a way through the middle, create space wide but then fail to deliver a quality ball into the box. Nani is the worst in his respect, but he isn’t the only one.

  8. But my original theory was that by keeping Rafael on, United would have more chance than not, of finding the victory. Valencia was terrorising TV, and despite your theory sounding fine ‘on paper’, the chalky tells us everything we need to know. That was Valencia’s only forray into the Arsenal half.

    And anyway, if it were about ‘attacking vs. defensive substitute’, why on earth did he not bring on Hernandez for him?

    He got angry, I’ve seen it countless times mate :p

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