Arsenal – Manchester United: Emery’s Gamble Pays Off In Open Match (2-0)
Arsenal’s victory over Manchester United opened up the race for the top-four once again, thanks to Unai Emery’s team selection and a committed performance from his side. While United did not play badly by any stretch of the imagination, a number of missed chances alongside Arsenal’s comparative ruthlessness in front of goal gave the Gunners a vital victory.
Tactical analysis and match report by Carl Carpenter.
Heading into Sunday’s game at the Emirates Stadium, the moods hanging around Arsenal and Manchester United were quite different. Arsenal, having been shocked away at Rennes on Thursday in the Europa League, had a number of questions to answer in this match. The Gunners have been terribly inconsistent throughout this season, and manager Unai Emery has seen his selections constantly critiqued by a disgruntled fanbase.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær and his Manchester United side, on the other hand, were riding high: an incredibly improbable second-leg comeback against Paris Saint-Germain leaving supporters in relative dreamland. Making the most of chances certainly has been one of the key themes of Solskjær’s reign, as PSG were arguably the far better team in both matches, but still lost the tie.
When the team selections were unveiled an hour before kick-off, there was a bit of a shock when the Gunners eleven was released. Many of the questions throughout the season have been regarding two areas: the Mesut Özil saga and his lack of playing time, and whether or not Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can play up front together. Arsenal opted to start all three. In terms of shape, it still meant Arsenal stuck with their 3-4-1-2 formation: Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielny, and Sokratis Papastathopoulos provided a strong spine through the center of defense, while wing-backs Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Sead Kolašinac were given tons of license to get forward.
Solskjær opted to start in a classic 4-4-2 formation, aimed at utilizing the strong form of Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku. In the wider positions, Paul Pogba’s return to the lineup was welcomed: the Frenchman’s ability to come inside and combine dovetailing nicely with the attacking mentality of young Diogo Dalot on the right. Furthermore, to provide coverage against an Arsenal side which would likely seek to maintain the majority of possession on their home-patch, Nemanja Matić and Fred in the center of the pitch would sit deeper tighter to their back four.
The first half shape of Arsenal (3-4-1-2) which saw them dominate United (4-4-2) and gain the critical advantage.
Arsenal start strongly and force United to change
As has been the case for home games against other top sides this season, Arsenal started the game with a brilliant tempo, winning every second ball, creating chances and pressing the opposition back. While United often had moments on the counterattack to create danger of their own, Arsenal were certainly the protagonists.
Arsenal’s two center-forwards were working in a tandem, with the ball and without it. Whenever one of United’s center-backs had possession, Lacazette and Aubameyang cut off passing angles and forced them into hurried balls long or into midfield, which the midfield of Arsenal often intercepted. Özil dropped in to join Aaron Ramsey and Granit Xhaka to form a midfield three and overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. the two central players of United. Because of this, United struggled early on. When possession was gained by Arsenal, they were quick and direct to break lines and go towards De Gea’s goal. The pace of Aubameyang in behind, Özil’s considerable threat in the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. as well as the overlapping runs of the wing-backs gave United plenty of issues.
Arsenal’s start was rewarded after twenty minutes, as Granit Xhaka’s swerving shot from the edge of the area went in. Even though it may have been a goalkeeping error from David de Gea, it was deserved. Solskjær’s team had largely been restricted to brief glimmers on the break and apart from a Lukaku chance which clipped the bar, the Gunner’s resolute defending (blocks, clearances, etc.) had foiled them.
In order to gain a grip in the match, after going a goal down, United matched up with Arsenal’s 3-4-1-2 formation, Paul Pogba moving to the ten position and Ashley Young joining Victor Lindelöf and Chris Smalling as one of three center-backs. As the half-time break approached, this switch clearly benefited the Red Devils. Many of the overloads seen in the first thirty minutes or so were sparser and Kolašinac and Maitland-Niles were pinned back more often.
Arsenal remain resolute as United miss their chances
The second half saw the match turn in regards to territorially advantage. The switch to match Arsenal’s formation clearly had an effect on proceedings, and United’s left-hand side were starting to see more and more influence. Shaw, Pogba (who tends to drift left) and Rashford started to link up against the inexperienced Maintland-Niles and were able to create danger on the edge of the area. The Gunners were forced deeper and deeper, making blocks on shots and cutbacks and trying to regain possession once danger had been cleared.
Because of this lack of control, Arsenal became reliant on Aaron Ramsey’s dynamism in the center of the pitch and their two forwards to hold up possession and take pressure off the rest of the team. As well, Xhaka’s passing ability and selection to relieve pressure with switches of play, and changes in tempo to cool proceedings aided in keeping the opposition at arm’s length. If United were not wasteful in the final third in terms of the ‘final pass’, and Bernd Leno had not made a terrific one-versus-one save on Lukaku, however, the story of this match could have been very different.
As it turned out, however, Arsenal were given a penalty in the 66th minute. Lacazette – who was arguably Arsenal’s man of the match – drove superbly into the penalty area and was clipped from behind by Fred. Aubameyang (given the chance to score from the spot by Lacazette to regain confidence) converted and the home team had a much stronger lead to defend. It may have been a relatively soft penalty, but Arsenal had battled and competed put themselves in such a position regardless.
United were desperate now and the mercurial Anthony Martial was brought on to join the other forwards up front in a bid to somehow regain the points. Diogo Dalot was removed, Martial went to the wide left position and Pogba sat alongside Matić back in a 4-4-2 shape. Emery, seeking the opportunity to solidify his team further (and keep the players fresh) removed Özil, and put on Alex Iwobi to press and harry United as well give them an option on the counter.
Because of this (as well as Aubameyang’s later substitution for Suárez) Arsenal’s shape more closely resembled a 3-4-3 formation for the remaining stages. While Manchester United spent the rest of the match a huge danger to Arsenal, they were unable to do any palpable damage to the Gunner’s goal and they left the Emirates empty handed.
While Unai Emery has been criticized heavily this season thanks to his apparent feud with Özil and many of his in-game substitutions. It is hard to argue that the Arsenal manager’s gamble on Sunday worked a treat. Thanks to a collective team effort to press and snuff out danger, bad finishing by United as well as take their own chances in the oppositions third, three points were added to the total. Whether or not Emery is bold enough to keep this policy going for the rest of the season remains to be seen, but it should give the club a massive lift as they battle for the right to play Champions League football again next season.
For Manchester United, the defeat (Solsjkaer’s first in the league) will be a bit of a return to reality. Following the highs and return to form that United have seen since the Norwegian manager’s appointment, particularly in the past week, it will act as a major disappointment. However, United played quite well throughout the match following their tactical switch early in the first half, and on another day, they likely would have gained something from the match. This serves as an ironic juxtaposition to most of Solsjkær’s matches, which were won because of better finishing.
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