Arsenal – Manchester United: Solskjær stays flawless with smash and grab FA Cup win at Arsenal (1-3)
Sturdy defending and quickfire counterattacks allowed Manchester United to take a commanding lead despite Arsenal pressure. From there it was all about careful game management, a test which the new manager passed with flying colors. Arsenal were subsequently sent crashing out of the FA Cup, but a promising performance means there are positives to take for both sides.
Tactical analysis and match report by Martyn Davis.
A recent downturn in results — combined with injuries, transfer rumors and controversy — has made for a turbulent last few months at Arsenal. But if you look past the noise and sensationalist journalism, they appear to have made steady, if not entirely tangible, improvements under Unai Emery. Arsenal have continued to be a strong team going forward while beginning to smooth over some of their defensive problems. This was on full display against Chelsea who they beat 2-0 at the weekend. Emery sent out a strong lineup against United with both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette starting.
Manchester United have become England’s team to beat in an incredible turnaround following Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s appointment as manager. An attacking style of play combined with a more positive atmosphere has created a degree of momentum at Old Trafford. The Norwegian coach made some interesting selections for this game. While the defense and midfield set up largely as expected, Romelu Lukaku found himself playing on the right of a front three — with Jesse Lingard through the middle and Alexis Sánchez on the left.
Arsenal start brightly
The home side’s 4-2-3-1 formation allowed for a number of attacking plays. Aaron Ramsey was the most prominent figure among these. He had a tendency to drift over to whatever side the ball was on and help to overload the zone to find a breakthrough. If Arsenal could not penetrate, Granit Xhaka was able to switch the point of attack with raking cross-field passes to attack exposed spaces on the far side.
Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 formation in possession against United’s defense in a 4-3-3 shape.
This overload-based attacking strategy was primarily focused on the left side. Here Alex Iwobi would stay relatively close to the touchline before picking up the ball and dribbling forward immediately. Sead Kolašinac would respond by making a supporting run, often to the inside, while Ramsey either made a movement in behind or offered a short passing option. Xhaka hung back, prepared to switch the play if it was needed. This collection of interconnected attacking roles gave United a constant headache down that side of the pitch.
Arsenal also offered some effective patterns of play on the right. Aubameyang could drop deep and drag out Luke Shaw which would open space for the run in behind from Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Alternatively, Ramsey or Lacazette could move out to the right and free up Aubameyang to move into the box, an area he is quite comfortable operating in.
The one phase Arsenal looked uncomfortable in during the first twenty minutes was when they were playing out from the back. Perhaps unsettled by the knowledge that Petr Cech is not the most technically skilful goalkeeper, Manchester United’s pressing gave them quite a bit of trouble. Arsenal played out with six key buildup players, the back four and the two midfielders. United were able to cover five of those six, leaving only the far side fullback free. This was because the two attacking midfielders, Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera stepped out liberally to cover any free men and support the front three in their pressing endeavours. This led to some dangerous turnovers and awkward moments for Arsenal.
The goal that Arsenal did manage to score came right at the end of the first half, when they were already 2-0 down — but it was a good illustration of their tactics. Iwobi had the ball at his feet on the edge of the box, Kolašinac showed for a pass and attracted two defenders. This allowed Ramsey to be the free man with a run in behind, getting on the end of a through ball and squaring it for Aubameyang to finish. This showed Ramsey’s capacity to create a spare man in a particular zone to allow for a breakthrough.
United struggle at first, but grow into the game as Arsenal suffer more injuries
One of the more interesting aspects of the first half was when United, who have in recent weeks become a counterattacking juggernaut, struggled to get past the sturdy defensive transition of Arsenal, supposedly one of the defensively shakier teams in England. The defensive line snapped up into tackles and interceptions the moment any threatening ball was played into the forwards, preventing dangerous attacks from materializing. This extreme focus is what allowed Arsenal to stay on top for most of the early part of the match.
However, in the 21st minute, Sokratis Papastathopoulos was brought off injured and Shkodran Mustafi came on as a replacement. This led to a shift in momentum that allowed United to start creating more attacking threat.
For the first time in the game, their intended possession structure became clear. During buildup, Lingard dropped slightly deeper while Sánchez and Lukaku came more centrally. This allowed Lukaku to play in a more natural position, peeling off to make runs in behind or taking part in linkup play from a more central position. It also led to a more narrow formation – a 4-4-2 diamond to be specific. Solskjær likes United to be horizontally compact in possession, with closer connections between players making tight combination play easier.
Arsenal defended in a 4-4-2 shape against United’s formation that had been adjusted to a 4-4-2 diamond.
Lingard also pulled wide to the right at times, creating a more orthodox 4-3-3 formation with wing occupation allowing for delivery into Lukaku. Combine these movements and interchanging of positions between the front three with aggressive support from midfield and attacking fullbacks and United ended up with an extremely dynamic and offensive set up in possession.
One of these attacking sequences ended in the opening goal in the 31st minute. Lingard was positioned on the right wing with Herrera pushing up to support and Pogba making a run into the box. Lukaku received the ball centrally and threatened to shoot, drawing out several defenders, before slipping a through ball into Sánchez who finished from a tight angle. Two minutes later that lead was doubled as a run from Shaw during a counterattack drew out Arsenal’s transition defense and opened space for the ball to be played over the top to Lukaku out wide. A three versus two opened up which was clinically finished by Lingard.
Attacking changes from both sides
The second half started very openly as Arsenal’s attempts to equalise were countered by rapid transition attacks from United. Ramsey continued to be a key figure for the home side, both with his linkup play and movement into the box. The latter got him one of the best chances of the game, a close range header that drew an excellent save from Sergio Romero.
The two players that made United’s counterattacks work were Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku. Pogba used his strong ball carrying abilities to progress the ball to the extreme end of the pitch, taking advantage of an open field. Lukaku offered an unusual variation on traditional striker holdup play. Playing on the right wing, he would receive aerial balls up the line and control with his back to goal before bringing other players into the game.
It was one of these pieces of holdup play that led to the injury of Laurent Koscielny who was attempting to contest the ball on the back of the Belgian striker. This prompted a double substitution, with Matteo Guendouzi and Mesut Özil coming on. The injured Koscielny, along with Iwobi, came off. Guendouzi took the place of Xhaka who slotted in as a makeshift center-back, while Özil was (in theory) a direct replacement for Iwobi.
In actuality, Arsenal’s system looked quite different. Aubameyang started playing more like a second striker, sitting on the shoulder alongside Lacazette. Özil dropped deeper and used the added playmaking scope of deeper areas to send pinpoint passes in various directions and Ramsey stayed in a more traditional advanced playmaking role, between the lines. In buildup, the formation therefore resembled a 4-3-1-2 — but as the ball progressed, most structural aspects dissolved. The aim seemed to become more about making runs and offering different passing options rather than adhering to any particular tactical roles. The left side remained the primary area for combination play, with Guendouzi adding a new dimension with his ball carrying in the left halfspace and overlapping runs.
Solskjær also made some key systemic changes in the 72nd minute. Knowing that Arsenal would be opening themselves up in search of a goal, he introduced both Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford to play in a front three with Lingard. The slightly less quick duo of Sánchez and Lukaku made way. This three pronged attack, filled with pace, had given United great success against Tottenham and it seemed the right time to unleash it again.
The change was vindicated in the 82nd minute as Pogba strode forward with the ball at his feet, Martial and Rashford making runs to either side. As the Arsenal defense was stretched open by the various threats, Pogba was able to take the shot on himself. Cech parried, but only as far as Martial who scored to restore the visitors’ two goal advantage.
United close out game with ease
Minutes after the goal, Solskjær made his final change with the introduction of Phil Jones for Lingard. He slotted in at right-back and Ashley Young filled Lingard’s place on the right wing. United dropped into a compact 4-5-1 block. Doubling up two defenders on Arsenal’s strongest side was an astute change.
Ten minutes of stoppage time made for a long holding on process, but Arsenal offered very little going forward. A mix of the hopeless scoreline and United’s bulked up defensive solidity prevented them from creating a dramatic finale.
Arsenal were, any which way you look at it, quite good. They were dangerous going forward for pretty much the entirety of the match and even had a few lengthy periods of defensive control in which they gave United no offensive outlets. The FA Cup was one of Arsenal’s best shots at a trophy, so this will be a disappointing result — but the goal of the season was always to adjust to the new manager so another decent performance can only be a good thing.
Manchester United offered another glimpse of the Solskjær project, with their counterattacking approach making another successful appearance. An eighth straight win at the start of the new managerial regime will only strengthen rumors about the interim coach being offered a permanent position. The truth remains though, United are an imperfect side and there will almost certainly be road bumps between now and the end of the season. Only then can we make a true verdict.