Tactics Talk: Arsenal uninspired as Manchester United coast to win
If Arsenal needed motivation ahead of their trip to Old Trafford for the early Premier League kick off on Saturday then they need only remember the 8-2 embarrassment suffered in the exact same fixture last season. If that wasn’t enough, then a glance at Manchester United’s line up should have been. There’s a lingering anger and frustration at the untimely exit of Robin Van Persie to their bitter rivals and Saturday represented their first chance to prove things have improved at a club so often criticised for a lack of ambition. The motivation was there, but would the performance be?
Sir Alex Ferguson quite rightly stuck with the same eleven which started and beat Chelsea 3-2 at Stamford Bridge last weekend. David De Gea continued in goal behind a defence of Rafael, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra. Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley continued a starting partnership which hasn’t lost since March last season. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia started on the wings – the latter of who was in fine form after taking on Ashley Cole more times last weekend than anyone has all season. Wayne Rooney began behind Van Persie and anyone expecting the Englishmen to play second fiddle to his striking partner better think again.
Arsenal were similarly unchanged from the side which beat QPR 1-0 at home last Saturday. Vito Mannone started in goals with Bacary Sagna alongside Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen and Andre Santos. For only the second time this season, Wenger could call on his best three midfielders in Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla who were expected to dominate play. Aaron Ramsey, quite surprisingly, continued at right wing with Lukasz Podolski on the left and Olivier Giroud led the line looking to add to the one goal he has this season.
First half – Van Persie shows Arsenal what they’re missing
Much of the pre-match focus surrounded Van Persie making his first appearance against his former club and you’d think the Dutchman’s 36 goals last season would be enough warning of his threat, but Arsenal’s defence operated like they were scared of their ex-team mate. First Young, then Rafael got in behind the Arsenal full-backs and a combination of terrible defending and clinical striking resulted in the opening goal.
Starting the move, Rafael spun off a lazy Podolski before receiving the ball behind Santos who had come short with Valencia at right wing – that was mistake one. With time and space to cross, his poor delivery looked easy for Vermaelen, but his miskick led to mistake number two which Van Persie had no problem punishing to make it 1-0 after two minutes.
On paper, both teams were matched up with a 4-3-3 formation, but Rooney operated more as a partner for Van Persie rather than an extra midfield man. This occupied the space Arteta is normally so dominant in and Arsenal ultimately had just Wilshere and Cazorla free to build attacks and create opportunities.
Arsenal had one shot the whole first half, while United had five – three of which came from Van Persie who gave a masterclass in holding the ball up, linking with the midfield and running in behind a static defence. Contrastingly, Giroud had no shots on goal, touched the ball once in the box and played only one forward pass all afternoon. That maybe had more to do with the minimal influence of the Arsenal midfield though.
When Cazorla then handballed Young’s cross just before half-time it looked like Arsenal’s abject first-half would be compounded by going in two goals down, but Rooney missed the resultant spot-kick. Would this signal an Arsenal resurgence? Not quite.
Second Half – Arsenal uninspired as United coast to win
Perhaps the half-time whistle came at the wrong time for an Arsenal team buoyed by the Rooney penalty miss, but for whatever reason they emerged in the second half devoid of new ideas and insistent on playing through a stern United defence.
The best teams play to their strengths and while Cazorla, Wilshere and Arteta are Arsenal’s strongest players, Giroud represents the best opportunity for scoring goals. Impressive for Montpellier last season, Giroud has already shown his ability in the air – something Ferdinand seems to struggle with – so why do Arsenal never deliver the ball in to the box? Podolski and Ramsey attempted just three unsuccessful crosses. There was no directness or penetration from Arsenal.
Evra nodded in a second for United after zonal marking went haywire in the Arsenal box on 67 minutes. The smallest player on the park scoring a header is simply embarrassing for a defence which boasts one of the Premier League’s tallest players. Not the only frustrated player, Wilshere let it get the better of him as his studs up tackle led to a second booking and a sending off which had looked inevitable all afternoon.
From there, Arsenal dropped Cazorla, Podolski and Arteta in to a three man midfield with Theo Walcott, a 50-minute substitute, and Giroud left to forage for a goal. United dominated however and had it not been for a last minute lapse of concentration which led to Cazorla’s fine consolation goal, they would have kept a deserved clean sheet.
Full-time – It should have been more
The most damning statistic of Arsenal’s performance was the 98 passes of 101 attempted by none other than Per Mertesacker. Much is made of Cazorla’s ingenuity, Arteta’s patient approach and Wilshere’s diminutive class, but it says a lot about the display of the team when their central defender has the most possession of the ball.
United had the industry and invention that Arsenal lacked and the presence of Van Persie was significant to their win.
Sir Alex Ferguson perfectly concluded, “People read the scoreline, you’d think it was a close game. It was never a close game.” United should have punished Arsenal by more, but they have the three points and, regardless of how it’s achieved, that’s all that matters.Tagged in: Arsenal, football, manchester united, Tactics Talk
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