Robin van Persie celebrates with his team mates following a superb header against Arsenal.
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In the aftermath of United’s win over Arsenal yesterday there’s been a lot of attention on a variety of things but maybe not enough on United as a team, a group of players. Arsenal underperformed, resorted to playing long balls more than they’d liked to and didn’t test de Gea – but why?
Arsenal are an expansive side who try to play entertaining football that their fans can be proud of. They’re hard to play against not just because of their speed and movement but because they thrive in different scenarios: give them space and they’ll exploit it but get too tight and a few quick passes can leave opponents bamboozled and on the back foot. With their impressive start to the season, they’re rightly confident particularly given that they were heading into this game off the back of two important wins.
However, United’s record at home to Arsenal in the league over the last 20 years has been good – just the three defeats, the last of which came seven years ago thanks to Adebayor. With the exception of the freak 8-2 scoreline, these games have been tight and cagey with both sides often discovering there’s little between them. Trying to outplay Arsenal only falls into their hands and Fergie had sussed that out. He found an alternative way to beat them at Old Trafford and it was up to David Moyes to try and replicate the tactics that have worked nearly every year.
The first sign that Moyes was onto something was that he’d selected a team to slot into a 4-4-2 system. Of course it wouldn’t look exactly like that as both Rooney and van Persie would offer their full support to the midfielders and get back to help out but crucially he’d not matched Arsenal’s three in the middle. A strange thing to say you might think particularly because there are countless occasions already this season of our midfield being overrun when outnumbered; but Arsenal are different.
Flamini’s role in this Arsenal side upon returning has been hailed as a mini-masterstroke by Wenger. His experience has helped lead younger players around him and he’s protected his back four well. Against United though he’d be rendered almost pointless – sitting deep he was performing a role that didn’t need doing. United are a team that plays down the wings rather than through the middle so the midfield battle became two against two and instead of having an extra man either in there or up front, Flamini sat deep with little to do, winning just one tackle (out of a meagre two) in the opening hour.
Recognising the opportunity for an even battle in the middle, Moyes bravely opted for Carrick (who we’d later discover was playing patched up or with “one leg” as his brother described) and Jones (who has put in big performances in the middle but still is inconsistent there). The pair worked well together – Carrick wasn’t as influential in the first half as he might have been but Jones stepped up to and worked tirelessly to close down Arsenal’s players and win the ball back. In the second half it was Carrick’s turn to put in a very strong performance whilst Cleverley buzzed about the centre to again close down space. The trick though is not to pressure Arsenal too high up the pitch – let them have the ball 30-40 yards from goal because from there they can’t hurt you. And that’s what United did hence stats about possession and territory favoured Arsenal and yet de Gea had just two saves to make, both of which were from more than 20 yards and were routine stops.
It took Wenger an hour to make the change that would really start to give Arsenal a bit more of an edge. Flamini really should have been subbed earlier because Arsenal needed the extra man in attack – there was never a spare one – and he brought on Wilshere. By this point United had a lead to defend and yes it might have been a negative move, but they decided to retreat a bit deeper to squeeze Arsenal even more. Despite having Giroud as their lone striker, a player who’s adept in the air and is enjoying the physical battle against defenders more and more, Arsenal are still not a team who want to go wide and put in aerial crosses. And so it was exactly that that United made them do – the result of which was Giroud winning just one header in the United penalty area all game.
Smalling, Jones and Evans have all been singled out for individual praise, and rightly so. If we’re going down that route though then most United players are worthy, particularly Evra, who only seems to get talked about when his ridiculously consistent level of performances drops off. However the bigger picture here was that the collective group of players, including the substitutes who came on got it right. The shape of the team, commitment to the tactics, defensive discipline and general work rate were spot on. Maybe they’re unfashionable things that we tend to take for granted – they’re not as obvious as a great cross for a goal or a clever piece of skill but they’re as important and against a confident and free-scoring Arsenal side they were vital. This includes de Gea (dominant in the air, again) as well as the wingers and the forwards too: Valencia, Kagawa, Rooney and van Persie all worked tirelessly to nullify Arsenal. Maybe that was why the win was so satisfying – sure, van Persie got the goal but we weren’t reliant on just one player to step up and play well – everyone did.
Arsenal may have been tired and fatigued from a testing week. They may have lost Mertesacker to an illness and had other players who weren’t quite feeling perfect either but they were pressed and out of their comfort zone. They were at times careless in possession and forced into rushing passes due to being closed down and never having a spare man. The lack of pace in their side was telling as were the lack of game-changing substitutes (they do have players to come back still). I’m not on a crusade to slap them down at all because they’ve been superb this season but it’s funny how football works – it took a defeat for people to actually take note of how quiet Ozil has been lately (something Arsenal fans on the train had, with admirable honesty, pointed out to us pre-match).
As noted, the post-match narrative has been that Arsenal were poor, United were average with some good individuals and that’s why they won. However anyone claiming that Arsenal were merely below bar is doing United’s players and David Moyes’ tactics a huge disservice. Perhaps the most intriguing take-out from the game showing just how much Arsenal struggled with United’s tactics was that they played 59 long balls in the game – the most they’ve played in the league all season (previous highest was 38) and more than United have played in any game despite supposedly having a negative long-ball manager. Long balls are everything present day Arsenal aren’t and yet this was what they were forced into.
Arsenal may still go on to win the title and they thoroughly deserve to be top at present but yesterday was a big moment for both sides. The international break will stop Arsenal bouncing back quickly and stop United getting any momentum but the buzz returned to Old Trafford and the atmosphere was as good as it’s been in years. Of course, it was just one game and United remain behind Arsenal who stay top, but the belittling of what happened, particularly by Arsenal fans is somewhat negligent. For the first real time this season they were bereft of ideas and they were out-thought. From United’s point of view, Moyes finally got a response from his players who were alert to everything he’d asked of them and more. This was the real story, it may not have been pretty but Arsenal had been stifled and there was much to admire about how it was done.
Further reading: Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal – van Persie header closes gap