Arsenal – Manchester United: Arteta’s Transformed Arsenal Claim First Win (2-0)

Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal side once again showed a fluid and relatively well-structured possession game which allowed them to dominate the first half against Manchester United. Goals from Nicolas Pépé and Sokratis Papastathopoulos gave Arsenal a 2-0 lead at half-time. Similarly to the loss against Chelsea, Arsenal were nowhere near as dominant in the second half. However they were facing a United side which lacks creativity against organized defensive blocks, and the home side were able to see out a 2-0 win. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

Despite not winning either of his first two games in charge, Mikel Arteta has received praise in his short time as Arsenal manager for observable improvements in the team’s performance. The team now appears to have a clear playing idea, with an improved structure and cohesiveness in possession, and an impressive level of intensity without the ball. 

Manchester United meanwhile were doing their best to make up ground on the top four, as Chelsea’s recent poor run of results had helped the teams behind them to catch up slightly. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side had won two in a row prior to this game, having bounced back from their defeat away at Watford with a commanding home win over Newcastle and a win away at Burnley. 

For this game, Arsenal again lined up the 4-2-3-1 system implemented by Arteta. There were three changes from the side that started against Chelsea at the weekend. At left back, Sead Kolašinac replaced Bukayo Saka, while in midfield Matteo Guendouzi dropped to the bench as Granit Xhaka returned to the starting eleven. Finally, Nicolas Pépé was handed his first start under Arteta, replacing Reiss Nelson on the right wing. 

United meanwhile lined up in their own usual 4-2-3-1 shape. Both Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay were absent through injury, meaning Nemanja Matić once again started in midfield alongside Fred. Ahead of them, Jesse Lingard played as the number ten, while Dan James and Marcus Rashford occupied the wings. Antony Martial started as the lone striker. 

Arsenal in possession.

Arsenal in possession.

Arsenal outplay United pressing 

Arteta’s side were again able to demonstrate some impressive qualities in their possession game in the first half of the game as they got the upper hand against United’s pressing. The home side’s tactical setup followed on from that seen in Arteta’s previous two games.

United defended in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 shape and looked to pressure Arsenal’s buildup from the goalkeeper when possible. Arsenal’s structure in these situations was somewhat like a 4-2-4 shape. the fullbacks held the width, while Lucas Torreira and Xhaka were usually slightly tilted to the left, so Torreira would appear between the two center-backs and Xhaka would be shifted slightly closer to Kolašinac. 

Mesut Özil would play from the right halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. and look to drop deeper to give an extra connection on the right side when it was needed. Alexandre Lacazette would then stay in the center or towards the left halfspace. Pépé and Aubameyang would look to offer width and depth to stretch United’s defensive line. 

Arsenal circulated the ball very competently between the backline and two holding midfielders, as well as making good use of Leno’s ball-playing abilities. When United formed 4-4-1-1 structures in pressing, Arsenal were able to find an easy overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. in the second line with Torreira and Xhaka versus Lingard. 

They also made good use of width, especially when one of United’s wingers looked to indent and move forward to pressure one of Arsenal’s center-backs. When this happened, Arsenal could simply seek the fullbacks as outlets and break out of their half or continue circulating the ball with less pressure. 

When necessary, Arsenal could also use more direct passes into the forward players, where their structure for claiming second balls was relatively decent. More often though, they were able to break through the press or at least retain possession. 

Arsenal’s improved attack

The home side got their first goal just eight minutes in thanks to Pépé’s finish from inside the box after Kolašinac’s cutback. The role of Kolašinac driving forward from left back was a prominent part of Arsenal’s attacking game in the first half. 

Kolašinac generally played a more aggressive role than his right sided counterpart Ainsley Maitland-Niles, as has also been the case for Saka in the previous two games as left back. These forward movements are balanced by the deeper role of Xhaka as the left central midfielder. 

Aubameyang would tend to drift inside from the left as attacks developed, moving closer to Lacazette on the last line. This movement could draw United’s right back Aaron Wan-Bissaka into narrower positions, clearing more space for the overlaps When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. of Kolašinac on that side. James would also not tend to strictly track Kolašinac when running into these positions. 

On the right side, Özil again occupied the right halfspace, but was usually not able to find such large spaces between the lines to receive vertical passes as he has done in previous games, as Matić tended to track him in these areas. On the couple of occasions where he could receive in these positions, it was from switches from the left side where Matić had been drawn across to that side of the pitch to support Fred. 

Arsenal got their second goal of the game just before half-time. This time it was courtesy of some questionable set-piece defending from United, as Lacazette was easily able to flick-on Pépé’s near post delivery, which David De Gea could only parry into the six-yard box for Sokratis to score from close range. 

Arsenal surrender possession but see out the win

Arsenal had the majority of possession in the first half and were good value for their lead having controlled the game. United meanwhile ended the first half with just two shots. In the second half, this pattern reversed as United had the majority of possession and Arsenal had less attacking impetus. 

United’s issues with creating chances against organized defensive blocks are already documented though, and this game again saw them struggle to create clear breakthroughs. In the first half they had tried to use direct passes to beat a relatively high defensive line from Arsenal with their speedy forwards. 

However, as they did in the previous game against Chelsea, Arsenal were now sitting deeper in their 4-4-2 defensive block, and offered up less space in behind. 

Manchester United in possession

United in possession.

United’s possession game was similar to how it has been all season. A 4-2-4 shape in attack, and a dependance on progressing the ball through the wings before trying to move the ball inside to the feet of the forwards to make breakthroughs in restricted spaces at the corners of the penalty box. Some of their better moments came with Martial dribbling from these positions on the left. 

Arsenal once again defended with an impressive intensity despite some players clearly struggling with fatigue as the half progressed. For all the impressive tactical aspects, what is also clear is the effort and commitment that Arteta has been able to draw out of these players in his early days as coach. 

Solskjær made a double change just before the hour mark as a disappointing Lingard was replaced by Andreas Pereira at number ten, and James was replaced by Mason Greenwood on the right. Arteta made his own like-for-like change shortly after, as Nelson replaced Pépé. 

Arsenal continued to repel United’s attacks without too much trouble. In the final ten minutes the midfield was reinforced with Guendouzi replacing Lacazette, as Arsenal were now in a 4-5-1 formation with Özil as the striker. United meanwhile introduced Juan Mata in search of a creative spark, but ultimately were unable to build anything. The game ended 2-0 to Arsenal, giving Arteta his first win as manager. 


For Arsenal the game followed much the same pattern as it did against Chelsea, as they dominated the first half with an impressive display of possession football, before dropping off and conceding possession in the second half. The difference was that in this case they avoided individual errors and were playing against a team which struggles to create from organized possession. The signs going forward look encouraging for Arsenal as Arteta has already demonstrated tactical nous and an ability to motivate players in his short time in charge. 

United meanwhile demonstrated familiar issues with being unable to create in possession as previously mentioned. This problem has existed for a while and does not seem to be improving significantly despite recent wins. Aside from tactical issues, the team lacks playmaking presence in midfield, which will need to be addressed either in the current January transfer window or in the summer. 

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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