Manchester United claimed their first away win of the season in a tense, slow burning showdown at the Emirates Stadium.
With United’s long list of sidelined players, Louis van Gaal reverted to a back three with Tyler Blackett, Chris Smalling and Paddy McNair forming a centre-back trio.
Arsene Wenger was also coping with defensive issues, but the Arsenal manager stuck with his preferred 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape as Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain led the frontline.
Arsenal dominated possession for large portions of the match, but with a bit of fortune and clinical finishing, United enjoyed a comfortable victory over Wenger’s side.
In recent years Manchester United – Arsenal fixtures have followed similar patterns – Arsenal dominate possession, whereas United contain their threat and prevail without producing remarkable performances.
Van Gaal’s decision to revert back to a 3-4-1-2 – the system he implemented with Holland at the World Cup – ensured that the match was likely to follow this theme. Various subplots and definitive factors altered with personnel over the years, but the general pattern highlighted United’s ability to exploit Arsenal’s physical and mental frailties.
However, Wenger’s inaugural clash with Van Gaal as United manager was similar to Sir Alex Ferguson’s final match against Arsenal. Arsenal’s pressing posed several issues for United, but the Gunners were unable to sustain that tempo for the entire match.
The key feature in the opening half, though, was Arsenal’s pressing. Recently, Arsenal have dropped into their 4-1-4-1 shape and opted to press in midfield, but considering Van Gaal reverted to a back three, Wenger instructed his attacking trio to close down United’s centre backs.
Arsenal’s pressure forced David De Gea and his centre-backs into nervy clearances, but it also placed the home side into key positions to take the lead. First, Oxlade-Chamberlain dispossessed Luke Shaw and Welbeck picked up the loose ball and fired a shot at De Gea. Then, Alexis’ pressure forced De Gea into a poor clearance, thus leading to Welbeck sliding in Wilshere free on goal. However, the United keeper comfortably stopped the England international’s tame effort.
United found it difficult to play through midfield for large portions of the first half, as Arsenal’s pressure forced Van Gaal’s men into daft mistakes, and they also conceded possession cheaply in key areas. Had Wenger’s side maintained their pressing throughout the match, and converted the numerous first half chances into goals, perhaps the result may have been different.
Where Arsenal focused on energetically pressing higher up the pitch, United stuck to a variation of the man-marking that was effective against Chelsea, and key to Holland’s success at the World Cup. For the most part, Arsenal always held a man advantage in midfield with Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain moving into central areas, thus explaining why Arsenal bypassed United’s midfield on a few occasions.
Still, Blackett and McNair followed Arsenal’s wide players when they dropped deeper into midfield, Wayne Rooney contained Mikel Arteta’s threat from deep positions, while Di Maria and Van Persie cut off the passing lanes to the full backs.
United’s lack of numbers in midfield and defenders being caught out of position left the away side vulnerable, and from an attacking perspective, their productivity in wide areas was severely underwhelming in the opening half. Van Gaal’s men lacked the creativity to unlock Arsenal’s back four, and similar to Holland at the World Cup, United resorted to sideways passes and hopeless crosses into the box when they surged into advanced areas.
Although United’s defensive approach impeded Arsenal’s buildup play from the back, whilst attempting to limit Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez’s threat, the away side was fairly average on both ends of the field prior to the opener. More so, it’s difficult to determine whether the approach was successful – United was bypassed in midfield on several occasions, and their attack was considerably underwhelming
Fellaini – Oxlade-Chamberlain
Neither side was enjoyed a consistent spell of success from open play, and it was no coincidence that the star performers in the first half offered contrasting elements of directness. Both sides were comfortable when they packed players ahead of the ball, but they displayed signs of vulnerability on the break, and direct attacks.
Fellaini operated in advanced positions in midfield, and apart from Di Maria’s wonderful run from half that nearly resulted in a Rooney opener, the Belgian utilized his physical and aerial presence to steer United into key areas. The Belgian was always free to receive the ball in mixed positions on the right, and he towered over Nacho Monreal, Kieran Gibbs and Mikel Arteta to link play by chesting and nodding the ball down to his teammates.
Equally, Fellaini was influential breaking up play in midfield – making key tackles around his box – and igniting swift counters on the break. He combined with Di Maria on two occasions in the match, and his second half ball to the Argentine was pivotal to Rooney’s winner.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the other hand, relied on his powerful running to evade challenges and steer Arsenal forward.
- 8th min: Oxlade-Chamberlain powered past Rooney down the right flank, but Welbeck nodded his venomous cross over the net.
- 21st min: Sanchez dropped deeper to receive the ball and instantly played a lovely pass behind the defence to Oxlade-Chamberlain, but De Gea quickly moved off his line to cut of the Arsenal winger’s shooting angle to make a key save.
- 41st min: Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanchez combine to ignite a quick Arsenal counter, but Smalling comfortably dealt with Welbeck’s cross into the box.
- 48th min: Arteta dispossessed Van Persie and quickly played a pass to Oxlade-Chamberlain, and the Arsenal wide man delivered an exceptional ball into the left channel for Welbeck, but De Gea stopped the 23-year-old’s shot.
- 62nd min: Oxlade Chamberlain flew past Michael Carrick and delivered a lofted cross into the box but Sanchez tamely nodded the ball at De Gea.
It was evident that Oxlade-Chamberlain was Arsenal’s most proactive player against United through the various methods of direct attacking utilized to torment the away side’s defence.
Although many will classify United’s opening goal as fortuitous, it’s key to note that it was one of the few times Arsenal cheaply conceded possession in their own half.
Ramsey’s tame header not only enabled Rooney to recover the ball in Arsenal’s third, but presented an opportunity for the away side to attack with numbers. Fellaini freely attacked space towards the back post, while both wingbacks stormed into Arsenal’s box. It was a goal made by the wing-backs – that rarely pushed forward prior to the goal – as Young’s cross and Valencia’s powerful strike pushed United into the lead.
Well-worked moves from open play were scarce at the Emirates, which further exemplifies the significance of Ramsey’s lapse, and United’s clinical finishing.
United go 5-4-1/sit deep
In regards to United’s shape, Gibbs’ own goal ultimately led to an immediate Van Gaal alteration. The Dutchman was aware that Arsenal were forced to push forward, which explains why he was keen to push his side deeper than usual.
United transitioned into a 5-4-1 with Van Persie moving to the flank with Di Maria, while Rooney persisted with his pressure on Arteta. Without Mesut Ozil, or any other through ball specialists, Arsenal’s buildup play was laboured and predictable. Likewise, as Arsenal pushed more men forward, Fellaini, Rooney and Di Maria received ample space to exploit on the counter.
Wenger’s decision to introduce Olivier Giroud pushed Arsenal to a 4-1-3-2 as they continuously pushed for a goal, but the tactical alteration lead to three breaks stemmed by Di Maria, ultimately leading to Rooney’s winner. Van Gaal’s decision to move players into wide areas was logical following the opener, as Arsenal offered no offensive threat in open play, whereas United possessed players capable of exploiting space on the break.
The easy thing to do here is blame Wenger for another disappointing result against a top rival – and although the scrutiny is merited, it’s difficult to solely place the blame on the Arsenal manager.
Arsenal’s pressing was effective in the opening half, with only extremely poor finishing preventing the Gunners from building a commanding lead. Likewise, Arsenal prevented United from testing Wojciech Szczesny, as Rooney’s 84th minute goal was their lone recorded shot on target.
Van Gaal didn’t outwit Wenger, as his three-man defensive system still remains flat from an attacking perspective, but here, a defensive mistake from Ramsey and Gibbs sealed their fate. Nevertheless, Arsenal’s pressing decreased in the second half, thus preventing Wenger’s side from winning the ball higher up the pitch and creating legitimate chances to win the game.