Manchester United – Arsenal: Counterattacks and mistakes open up a dull affair (1-1)
A match so painfully short of effective attacking mechanisms that neither team pushed on to be the dominant force, as both sides mostly mirrored each other’s defensive shape. The most that could be said on the invention front was Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s various tweaks throughout, which were positively reactive but equally limiting at times.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
An unsteady start to the 2019/20 league campaign has seen Solskjær’s United win just two of their first six fixtures. Now eight days on from their 2-0 defeat to West Ham United, they welcome Unai Emery’s Arsenal to Old Trafford, who have their sights set on finishing this round of fixtures in the top four.
Whilst the Norwegian made three changes to his side, the Spaniard only withdrew Ainsley Maitland-Niles, through suspension, and Dani Ceballos from his eleven. In their place came Calum Chambers at right back and Lucas Torreira on the right of a midfield three.
The hosts had changes in all three sections of their team, as Axel Tuanzebe stepped up in place of the injured Aaron Wan-Bissaka; Paul Pogba returned to take his starting spot; and Jesse Lingard – a player who has a knack for bagging goals against Arsenal – replaced Juan Mata in the number ten spot.
A lifeless beginning
There are plenty of times where teams man-mark each other and they get caught out by individual moments of quality or movement, but that was far from the case here. As such, it quickly defaulted to a fairly unlethal showing from both sides.
The home side held the ball for the majority of the opening period, with Emery’s men happy to press in a 4-1-4-1 shape against United’s 4-2-3-1 formation, which essentially saw the Arsenal midfielders shape themselves around the positions of their opposite numbers. For a good while, this did well to limit what United could do to progress the ball through the middle. It also meant that they were forced into recycling it through short passes.
Arsenal were not exactly incisive themselves, either. The little time they did have with the ball was spent circulating it timidly. The best chance the visitors had was in the thirtieth minute when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang popped up wide to receive before playing a give-and-go with Bukayo Saka to get inside of Scott McTominay. Saka picked up a loose ball after the center forward failed to take the return in his stride, and then used Torreira’s run diagonally inside to find Nicolas Pépé across from him and open in space. Unfortunately, the Ivorian international failed to make clean contact as he blazed it over the bar.
The game begins to open up
One more significant change Solskjær made towards the end of the half was to have Marcus Rashford switch positions with James. Almost instantly, the impact could be seen when Rashford was sent through on goal.
Beginning with an incessant problem Arsenal have bared all season – which has been through Emery’s use of Torreira as a forward option, constantly ahead of the ball, rather than a deep midfielder – Mattéo Guendouzi shifted it inside, looking for options on the right side. With Torreira too high up, Pogba was able to intervene and muscle his French compatriot off the ball. Then Rashford used a smart double movement that completely caught Chambers out, allowing him to be played through. However, he disappointingly did not manage to get a clear shot off before Sokratis Papastathopoulos blocked his attempt.
The situation before Rashford’s chance.
What also allowed for the game to open up were the various set pieces each side was being awarded. When you think about marginal gains, this is exactly where a game can be won and lost, and that almost proved to be the case, were it not for a lack of quality in both sides’ deliveries.
On so many occasions would a cross be too flat, too high, too far, or too wide. Everything but a well-placed one. However, what came following was key, as both sides appeared to be awfully under-prepared for the dealing of counterattacks from them.
First, in the forty-fourth minute, Arsenal had their chance when Saka and Pépé split the two players on the edge of the box with their runs wide of each. Then easily cutting in, Pépé managed to slide a ball into the direction of Saka’s central run, which fortuitously found its way through to the youngster. He proceeded to charge towards goal where his dragged and drilled effort fell for Guendouzi on the rebound but at a narrow angle.
Then, from the resulting corner, United boasted the most dangerous transition of all, as the two bunched-up Arsenal defenders on the edge of the box failed to communicate for the loose aerial ball. Consequently, James was able to head it past them and launch a blisteringly fast attack. Rashford’s rampaging run at the back-post was then so nearly found, but all was not lost, as his simple pass back into the path of McTominay saw the Scot dig out an absolute sensational finish from the outside of the box to put the hosts in front just before the break.
Arsenal respond well in the second half
Having had a break to recompose themselves, Arsenal appeared to be the much stronger side in the second period. Their most notable threat came down the right-hand side, where they were persistently getting the better of James and Tuanzebe as the wide duo, largely because they did not communicate to each other which one should drop and which one would press up. This resulted in both bunching themselves up around the ball, but also leaving enough of a gap for the forward option to receive behind them.
This first happened in the fifty-second minute when Aubameyang came wide to support Chambers and received it back in space, before drilling it across to find Torreira for a good chance, but he snatched at the half-volley as it bounced up from his hit into the ground.
The away side’s sustained pressure did pay off though. Five minutes later, when pressing high up, man-for-man still, Tuanzebe, with his back-to-goal, was forced to make a simple-yet-risky pass inside. A marginal error would have been costly, and it was, as his pass went narrowly wide of the recipient to find Saka in space. The winger then played it first time for Aubameyang, where his dinked finish was initially ruled as being offside, but was quickly corrected by the Video Assistant Referee.
1-1 now, and Emery’s side were not done piling the pressure on just yet. They had another golden opportunity a minute later following a move replicating that of the one for Torreira’s chance. What else helped this one specifically to come about was the change in midfield. Since Dani Ceballos had come on, and Guendouzi had shifted to the right, the midfield base was much flatter but for the better. Before, Torreira was constantly being positioned in a way that could not create good links for circulation down that side; now with the Frenchman, who was entitled to sit deeper like he tends to, he could give more balance to his side’s focus on playing down either side rather than just one.
Here, specifically, Ceballos’ switch to Chambers was supported by Guendouzi positioning himself deep of the fullback. With Tuanzebe then having narrowed against Pépé too early, it left James completely overloaded as Chambers received it back in acres of space. And, as Aubameyang and Pépé made splitting runs forward, it enabled Saka to peel off the back of them into space, where a glorious chance on the end of another drilled cross was narrowly deflected over the bar.
Solskjær’s tweak lacks incision
Following a fiery middle third of the match, play quickly settled down again with the home side looking for ways to retake the lead. The one idea their manager had was to pack out the central space between the lines, which he did by bringing James inside to partner Rashford.
United’s changed, narrower setup, with no width.
While this did facilitate for a lot of pretty combinations between the now box midfield, it was never going to force an opening – every attacking move involved simple layoffs that never looked to pull apart the opposition’s defensive line, so Arsenal were unharmed and happy to face, and block, as many pot shots as they wish. So, with no width and no organized movements that could look to open spaces in behind, United were becoming the architects of their own downfall.
They did manage to create one chance, though, and it was the first time in the game where either side had managed to find a teammate from a set piece. McTominay was left to his own resources from this corner, as David Luiz held his own ground, waiting to judge the location of the ball. As the ball floated towards him, he did not move, which allowed McTominay to move in off the back of him. Thanks to the Brazilian’s missing of the ball, the midfielder was gifted a free header from point-blank range, but he could not keep it down as the chance went begging.
Arsenal saw out the final period of the match quite comfortably, facing up to every new strategic Solskjær tweak with ease, as the host’s one-dimensional, improvised changes unsurprisingly did not reap any rewards.
Despite it being a quite fair result, it is still quite hard to gauge from this where these two sides truly lay in terms of the race for places at the top and, even in the larger picture, just how good or bad they might be under their respective managers.
The fate of these two will have to wait. In the meantime, both sides face Europa League fixtures on Thursday, with Arsenal hosting Standard Liège and United traveling to Alkmaar to take on Dutch side AZ.
Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots. Click to enlarge.
Check the match plots page for plots of other matches.