2018-12-05 - Man Utd - Arsenal 2-2

Manchester United – Arsenal: United bounce back twice to narrowly seal a point in an enthralling clash with Unai Emery’s Arsenal (2-2)

Old Trafford was the stage for a decaffeinated clash of the titans, as José Mourinho’s turbulent United hosted Emery’s resilient reds. Despite the expectations that both sides would mirror each other’s formation, Manchester United and Arsenal each came op with variants of their own that slightly differed from the other team. This made for a fascinating tactical battle, even though that story got lost somewhat in this game full of chaos.

Tactical analysis by Peter M.

Mourinho made a staggering seven changes compared to the side that started in the game against Southampton on Saturday, where they came from behind to salvage a point and collected a 2-2 draw. Not a single member of the back-five on that day survived to start in the backline for this encounter, which now consisted of Matteo Darmian, Chris Smalling, returns for Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly as well as a full debut for summer signing Diogo Dalot.

Emery only made one unforced change from the side that dramatically beat their North London rivals on Sunday – Aaron Ramsey stepped in for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Granit Xhaka’s suspension saw Mattéo Guendouzi return to the eleven alongside Lucas Torreira.

Jesse Lingard gives United control in the early phase of the match

What looked to be a 3-4-2-1 formation for Manchester United actually turned out to be a 3-4-1-2 shape, and could even be labelled as a 3-5-2. The key was that Lingard was given freedom in the middle, whilst Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford occupied the inside channels on either side of Arsenal’s back-five. The formation was further characterized by the role of Ander Herrera, who played around Nemanja Matić, with Lingard playing further ahead.


United’s 3-5-2 formation with freed up roles for Herrera and LingardUnited’s varied possession shape with freed up roles for Herrera and Lingard.

Helped by his side’s energetic start, Lingard was a constant cause of agony for the Arsenal midfield, constantly moving around and finding space to play in. However, it was not always plain sailing in terms of progressing the ball for United. Despite their team’s structure placing them in good positions by default, their tendencies to focus their attacks on the left side seemed to be causing them more harm than good.

Although it enabled them to close down the ball efficiently after a loss of possession, it somewhat stifled their attacking play. A testament to that being that their first shot inside their opponent’s box came after more than thirty minutes of play.

On the defensive side of the ball, from an Arsenal perspective, they displayed the  familiar 5-4-1 defensive block. A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. The only tinge was Emery’s instruction to tuck in the attacker that was not on the side of the ball, to hinder United playing passes into Matić. This did not do a lot in the way of preventing complete access into the Serbian, though, as Herrera was good at occupying the surrounding pressers, meaning that Matić had more space to receive in.  

United initially frustrate Arsenal in their buildup phase

In the first twenty minutes or so, Arsenal were struggling to find solutions, energizing the home crowd and Manchester United’s players. Emery’s side had to deal with a press that consisted of the two strikers funneling play to the left, Lingard blocking access to the midfield and Herrera sweeping in front of the dropping forwards.

After that initial period, Arsenal did manage to settle into a stride of buildup play thanks to their free-flowing attacking players. Aaron Ramsey and Alex Iwobi were given plenty of freedom to roam the pitch. With spare men popping up in midfield, Emery’s side were finding more ways to recycle the ball past the United press and now were not so limited by them now. Arsenal could now play down the side they wanted to play down. With this, the away side rode the early tide and seized the outright control their opponents had.

United’s 5-2-3 shape is easily exposed by Arsenal’s emphasis on Sead Kolašinac

Mourinho kept his side’s backline and his two holding midfielders incredibly deep when Arsenal had the ball, but the three forwards pushed up quite high. The latter would only contribute every so often if the ball was circulated near them. This meant they had a very large gap between their defensive block and their attacking line. Presumably, the forward line was positioned for dangerous counterattacks, although nothing too dangerous materialized.

Arsenal's left-sided approach against United’s vertically stretched 5-2-3 defensive formationArsenal’s left-sided setup against United’s vertically stretched 5-2-3 defensive formation.

Where United’s plan seemed to be falling through was with the amount of space Arsenal were being afforded on the sides of the midfield pairing. Particularly down the away side’s left, where they were having an easy time feeding through balls down the channel in-between Dalot and Bailly for Kolašinac to run onto.

However, Emery’s men could isolate the wing all they wanted, they still had to face a very congested center of defense in the end. Despite Kolašinac being worked into numerous great positions, he had just one target to pick out against four defenders, all of whom were moving in accordance to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s position. As a result, they comfortably dealt with the threat on every occasion.

The corner that resulted from one of these crosses saw Arsenal’s center-back Shkodran Mustafi free himself of his marker. His powerful header into the ground saw De Gea miscue his attempt to catch the ball as it flinged back up over his head with Herrera unable to stop the ball from crossing the line.

The hosts did not waste any time responding. Lingard, the orchestrator of United’s attacking plays for most of the match, once again popped up in a dangerous position centrally. Upon receiving, Lingard laid it off for Martial and his driving run resulted in a foul on the edge of the box. Rojo’s eventual free kick forced a good stop from Bernd Leno but Herrera kept the play alive and cut it back for Martial to a tap-in.

The second half takes a chaotic turn

After an uneventful opening fifteen minutes to the second half, Unai Emery made the decision to bring on Alexandre Lacazette for Iwobi. Having made the smart decision – albeit a forced one – to bring on Mkhitaryan for Ramsey at half-time, Arsenal now had the players in force to provide a greater threat in and out of the box.

Four minutes after coming on, having forced a mistake from Rojo in United’s buildup, Lacazette combined with Mkhitaryan in United’s penalty area. Rojo did the honors himself, by putting it into his own net. Just like that, Arsenal were back ahead.

Their bubble, however, had burst before it had even been blown this time. Merely thirteen seconds (!) after the resuming kick-off, United were back level again. A long ball in the general direction of substitute Romelu Lukaku found its way to Kolašinac. The Bosnian defender horribly dealt with the situation, allowing Lingard to nick the ball from him and slide it through the legs of Arsenal’s goalkeeper Leno.

Mourinho’s ignorance gives Arsenal the upper-hand

The game now being level with a little over fifteen minutes to play, it was Arsenal that grabbed the initiative. Emery’s side manufactured two big chances in quick succession. Aubameyang moved in from the left and found himself on the end of a one-versus-one chance that he squandered by firing at De Gea.

Half a minute later, Kolašinac all too easily worked it onto his left foot to cross without any pressure from Dalot. His delivery towards the keeper managed to find the sneaky foot of Mkhitaryan, but his skyward effort went begging in front of a big opening in the goal at the near post.

Mourinho eventually adjusts and the tempo dies down

Immediately after those chances, Mourinho swapped on Marouane Fellaini for Rojo. United subsequently shifted to what appeared to be a 4-4-2 diamond formation, but also consisted of Matić and Herrera rotating in and out of the defensive line to restore it to a back-five again.

The main point was that Fellaini provided better defensive cover and that more of United’s midfielders were focusing their efforts towards defending that side. He did also provide an outlet up top at the end but nothing came of it. A half chance for Torreira on the cutback in the ninetieth minute was the last time on of the two teams came close to scoring.


This really was a mess of a game, but an entertaining mess nonetheless. Which manager will be happier with this result? It could well be Unai Emery. Old Trafford has plagued Arsenal for many years, so to come here and maybe even deserve to win this game, is a testament to what the Basque manager is doing. Despite still not having led at halftime in a single Premier League game this season, Arsenal look like a more coherent side in and out of possession than in the late years of Arsène Wenger’s reign.

United are still well adrift from the top four now. Even further so now, in fact, as the gap is now eight points. In the past, you could always trust these things to fall into place for Mourinho. It does not seem likely to happen anywhere soon this season.

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Peter (20), lives just outside of London. He’s been writing about tactics and such for over a year now, contributing to a couple of sites during that time. His main club is Arsenal but he’s also followed Real Betis quite heavily since Quique Setién took over last year. This form of writing has become a great passion of his and, although he’s unsure of what his end aim is, he’s enjoying being given new opportunities to continue doing so. [ View all posts ]


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