Arsenal – Manchester United: Gunners’ Pressure Eventually Pays Off (3-2)

Manchester United took the lead through some individual brilliance from Marcus Rashford, but their inability to control Arsenal’s wide threats meant that they eventually conceded twice before Lisandro Martínez drew them level. In the last twenty minutes, Arsenal piled on the attacking pressure and were eventually rewarded through Eddie Nketiah’s winner.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

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Arsenal’s title charge continued in the North London Derby last weekend as they dealt comfortably with Tottenham Hotspur. Mikel Arteta lined his side up in their usual 4-2-3-1 shape for this match, with a back four of Ben White, William Saliba, Gabriel Magalhães, and Oleksandr Zinchenko. Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka partnered in midfield, while Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli were wide. Up front, Eddie Nketiah was supported by Martin Ødegaard in the number ten role.

Manchester United had a derby win of their own to celebrate last weekend, as they made a strong statement against Manchester City. Erik ten Hag also went with his 4-2-3-1 system here, with a defense consisting of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphaël Varane, Lisandro Martínez, and Luke Shaw. With Casemiro suspended, Ten Hag went with Scott McTominay as the partner to Christian Eriksen in midfield, with Bruno Fernandes ahead of them in the number ten role. Antony and Marcus Rashford were the wingers either side of loanee striker Wout Weghorst.

United strike first

The game started with a high tempo, and initially it was Arsenal who had the better of this. They forced United into some uncomfortable defensive situations in the first few minutes and it looked as if United were not quite in the game yet.

However, after some minutes United began generating some decent possession phases and looking competitive again. Eriksen was one of the key men in possession for United, especially since he was playing alongside McTominay who is more limited than Casemiro in what he brings to the buildup.

Often then, Eriksen went into the number six zone and McTominay vacated the second line to give presence higher up. As usual, the distribution of Martínez was also key for United’s possession game, and he was nearly able to put Fernandes through on goal on one occasion early on. Another important player for United in many attacks was Weghorst, who showed good ability to facilitate third man combinations with his back to goal in order for United to progress behind the Arsenal midfield.

Wan-Bissaka struggled somewhat in all phases of the possession game for United, and offered little in his interior role from right back. The United attack from the left looked most promising, and it was through this side that their goal arrived just before twenty minutes, as Rashford cut inside and unleashed a vicious shot past Aaron Ramsdale.

Arsenal control the wings

Despite gaining the lead, there were already issues emerging for United against the ball. Throughout the match, their inability to defend the wing attacks of Arsenal became a trend, and was ultimately one that ended up costing them.

On United’s right side, there were issues in dealing with Arsenal’s wing dynamics, especially with Zinchenko’s indenting. Initially though, Zinchenko actually stayed wide, as he was able to offer them an outlet past the first line of United pressing.

Antony would often try to step up onto Gabriel during United’s pressure, while Fernandes and Weghorst focused more on screening the central lanes. Wan-Bissaka’s involvement here was limited by Martinelli, who pinned him back on the wing and made it difficult for him to step onto Zinchenko when Antony advanced, meaning that the Ukrainian was often free for switches of play from which Arsenal could dissolve pressure and push United back.

Zinchenko found himself as the free man in Arsenal’s buildup when United tried to bring Antony into their first line of pressing. 

The final phases of buildup when United were pushed deeper were when Zinchenko would usually move inside. This also presented an issue for United as McTominay and Eriksen already acted quite man-oriented against Ødegaard and Xhaka. Zinchenko’s presence therefore created an issue for McTominay in particular, who had Zinchnko and Xhaka both in his channel.

The problem on the left side for United was also difficult difficult to deal with. The root of it was Saka’s one-versus-one prowess against Shaw, who played quite a passive game against the winger in these situations and often allowed Saka to put him back quite far before engaging. White and Ødegaard could also offer overlapping or underlapping runs at times, or just allowed Saka to play in isolation.

Arsenal’s equalizer arrived just seven minutes after United’s goal via Nketiah’s back post header after a corner situation. The teams therefore went in level at half time, having had roughly equal possession but Arsenal having significantly more attempts at goal.

United unable to hold on

Arteta made a personnel change at half time, bringing off White who had picked up a booking against the dangerous dribbling of Rashford in the first half. He was replaced at right back by Takehiro Tomiyasu.

Apart from this, many of the trends of the first half continued. Arsenal’s attacks over the wings were proving hard for United to deal with, and Ten Hag’s side paid the price early in the half as Saka cut inside from the right and rifled into the bottom corner from outside the box to put Arsenal 2-1 up.

This lead did not last long however, as United were able to find another goal against the run of play. This time it was Martínez scoring his first goal for the club with a brave header which looped over Ramsdale after the goalkeeper had fumbled when trying to catch Eriksen’s corner delivery.  

This was about as good as things would get for United from this point on though. Going forward into the final twenty minutes of the game, United would find themselves increasingly pushed into a deep block by Arsenal as they could not control Arsenal’s buildup.

United’s defensive issues on their right side in particular are well illustrated by the halfspace plot. 

The attacks over the wings continued, and the pressure on United’s defense in this final period was relentless. United were surviving almost entirely through emergency defensive actions in the penalty box, something which is rarely sustainable.

Fred had been introduced in place of Antony to add defensive stability as he went into the double pivot alongside McTominay, with Eriksen moving into the number ten role and Fernandes wide right. This perhaps helped Shaw slightly on the left, but did not change the wider picture of the game which was one of United struggling to hold onto the point.

Arsenal also brought Leandro Trossard into the game late on, and he showed some skilful moments after replacing Martinelli. It was Nketiah who finally got the crucial goal for Arsenal though, as he diverted Zinchenko’s attempt goalwards to put Arsenal 3-2 up. There was little time for a United response, and Arsenal ultimately ran out winners.


Arsenal were once again very impressive here. Their attacking game was slick, especially over the wings. Against the ball, their pressing and counterpressing game gave them a good basic control over the bulk of this match. There’s a long way to go yet, but Arteta’s side have been good value for their fifty points in the Premier League so far.

For United, the game was a reminder that they are in a different, earlier stage of their process under Ten Hag than Arsenal are under Arteta. The standards at United are certainly higher than they have been in recent seasons, but they were outplayed for much of this game. They struggled to adapt to Arsenal’s wing attacks, and their possession game is still a work in progress despite clear improvements over previous seasons.

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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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