When two teams are separated by a solitary set-piece goal after a tense and tightly fought encounter, it’s hard to accurately identify just how much of the football was good and what exactly went wrong.
I thought it was very similar to many of the big games Arsenal have played in recent years, particularly against United, but also noticeably different in certain very significant details.
Muscle memory is important in sport but soon, at least in football, we might even see a term called tactical memory. The whole point of training is to make players familiar with certain patterns so they can deal with game situations of similar mould in a desirable and efficient manner. But sometimes players have to be very specific in their functions when dealing with a certain kind of opponent and I thought United played this game just as they’ve done under Ferguson’s successful formula.
I haven’t seen the Red Devils play with this intensity while maintaining such structural solidity for most of this season but it was as if they knew just how to close the Gunners down. The basic idea is to compress play in the central third. Deny opportunities to pass through the middle through clever and precise positioning, channel the ball towards the flanks, use the touchline, and press the players on and off the ball to force turnovers.
One could argue that the Gunners were below par and were physically weakened by their battles against Liverpool and Dortmund earlier in the week. But that argument doesn’t hold water when you consider that almost all Arsene Wenger sides have struggled to score at Old Trafford. The Gunners haven’t scored more than 1 goal at this ground in the League under the Frenchman except in that entirely forgettable game. It’s not a matter of chance or details like form, fitness, or the quality of individuals available to each manager.
In recent years, Ferguson was able to identify how Arsenal wanted to build their attacks and found a way to negate that by having his players track runners. In this game many of the Arsenal midfielders were below par with numerous technical mistakes that were seemingly avoidable. But we must not ignore the intensity of United’s pressure in the early part of the game that partly forced these mistakes, as did their ability to channel play into areas they wanted to defend, which were away from the open central zones and more towards the touchline that is a defender’s friend.
Notice how United’s tackles, interceptions, and recoveries are mostly concentrated in the central portion of the pitch. Furthermore, the defensive actions – tackles and interceptions – are more concentrated towards the flanks than they are in the centre.
Most managers at this level can understand the theory but the crux for United has been their ability to execute it on a consistent basis from a defensive point of view and having players who provide a constant attacking threat.
The Gunners simply did not have the time to look up and pick out their passes and they didn’t have enough predetermined ideas that they could execute using their strengths. United were better in individual duels too which made a big difference. The Gunners only succeeded with 5 of their 22 attempts at taking players on. The hosts won over 85 percent of their tackles while the visitors only succeeded with 73 percent. Even in the air, Moyes’ side won 24 duels compared to 17.
While aerial duels are largely individual battles, most of United’s defensive strength was down to their ability to defend the right spaces and manipulate the play into tightly controlled zones where they helped each other out.
Arsenal weren’t far behind in this regard either, and this is one area where the team has improved significantly over the last couple of years. In the past, United might have created a lot more chances once they switched to the counter-attacking mode in the second half or when they had moments of persistent pressure in the first half. The Gunners were able to retain their defensive shape for large periods and limited clear chances.
The difference between the two sides was in the manner in which the defensive phase ended. United were more assured positionally and tactically. This meant that they were able to turn defence into attack more often. It would not appear to be the case if you weren’t watching closely but Arsenal actually had to limit the bodies they could send forward because of this threat and their limitations in terms of the depth and consistency of defensive thought throughout the unit.
Secondly, the Gunners were pushed back deep into their own half more than they should be. But this is the new Arsenal defence as has evolved over the last couple of seasons or so. In fact, if you remember reading, a lot of the analysis from last season covered the lack of balance between Arsenal’s defence and attack. The positioning of the players plays a big part in that. If eight or nine players are drawn into the defensive third, it will always be hard for the team to break forward in numbers. It has a direct bearing on the number and quality of chances that can be created.
I’m fairly certain Wenger doesn’t like his team defending that deep and won’t be surprised if that is an area of contention between him and Bould but going in depth on the subject is a digression this article cannot indulge.
Think about it and you’ll recognize that even this season the Gunners haven’t created that many chances in many of their games. The big wins that have come, barring an exception or two that can be explained by other tactical factors – Like Liverpool’s formation or Napoli’s inability to deal with that tempo, have generally been down to solid defending and goals scored from limited attacking opportunities.
In that sense, Arsenal have been very efficient in most of their games. On another day they might have managed to put one of Sagna’s crosses into the net or the moments they created on the edge of the United box might have resulted in a goal. Sunday was different. Their efficiency was back down to normal levels. In contrast, their opponents had that one moment which worked perfectly for them. Or you could say the hosts were impeccable defensively while the Gunners made little but decisive mistakes in defence. United would not have been able to sustain their pressing for the duration of the game so avoiding mistakes in the first half was always going to be vital.
I did want to see how the team reacts to conceding the first goal and while the result wasn’t a good one there were promising signs in the performance. The team created more threatening moments – albeit not enough in number or potency – than they have against the likes of United and Chelsea in the past where it seemed like a bunch of talented youngsters were trying hard but senior professionals were handling them with ease while creating chances on the counter as the technicians ran out of ideas and left gaps at the back. There was a palpable lack of ideas in this game too, and there remains an undeniable need for developing wing play, set-pieces, and other aspects of the attacking game, but on the whole this felt like a much more closely fought game.
In the upcoming fixtures, the Gunners will need greater attacking diversity and the struggle in the search for balance will not end any time soon as they won’t always be able to rely on efficiency in attack. But performances like this one show they will be in with a fighting chance as long as the work rate, concentration, and discipline are sustained from a defensive point of view.
Szczesny: Had a fairly uneventful game, which is strange considering how close it was, but also understandable given the recent defensive stability.
Sagna: Put in a couple of sumptuous crosses in the second half and looked like a threat once United dropped back and he started receiving the ball in some space. Defensive work was reliable as usual but Kagawa was hardly going to be a big threat. Did well when their strikers pulled towards the flanks.
Koscielny: Made a number of important interventions in and around the box. Chased the strikers deep when he had to. Good to see he didn’t get turned when he went tight and higher up the pitch. More composure before shooting would have helped when he got the time to chest the ball down on the edge of the United box.
Vermaelen: Was even more involved than Koscielny with tackles and clearances at vital moments. Another player who has history of faltering when chasing strikers up the pitch so reliability on that front was appreciable. I would have liked him to join the attack more often, particularly in the final 20 minutes or so but by then Wenger had removed other players who could have covered for his movement. Why was he taking that free-kick!?
Gibbs: Much better after a tough time against Dortmund. Did lack composure in possession on occasion, which added to the team’s inefficiency. Hopefully, with experience his decision making should get sharper as he learns to pick his moments. Strong game defensively against Valencia who has shown the ability to get past full-backs.
The central defenders worked hard and avoided errors in their attempts to keep the goal protected. It was a pleasure to see them knock the ball out when under pressure instead of trying suicidal reverse clearances and what not. The full-backs also did well in terms of their positioning and concentration but the manager has to find a way to extract more from them when going forward in such games.
Arteta: The only midfielder who was consistently reliable in possession. The role in front of the central defenders is a vital one for a possession oriented side and almost all of his teammates are liable to the odd fatal error if they have to take on the mantle in pressure situations. Defensive work was again excellent.
Özil: Started centrally but drifted to the wings quite often as he found no space in the middle of the park. Some people have expressed surprise or disappointment at his performance in a big game but it’s worth remembering the German is the ultimate team player. His game is reliant on what his cohorts can or cannot do. His level will usually drop when that of the team drops. Can always create something out of nothing but even then a runner/finisher is needed.
Flamini: Decent defensive work in terms of chasing the ball and getting into useful areas. Very limited quality in possession.
Ramsey: Saw a lot of the ball and was trying to do a lot at times, which was another thing that contributed to the team’s inefficiency. As discussed on this blog, he’s made poor choices in a few games this season but when the match is won it’s not something everyone notices. These tendencies tend to stick out in adverse results. Lacks maturity at the moment and the calmness to pick and choose the right options in certain game situations. That won’t come overnight. On the positive side, work rate was again excellent, particularly from a defensive point of view.
Cazorla: Was the player who could have made a bigger difference than the others because he can take individuals on. But Arsenal weren’t able to isolate him one-v-one against a defender. Doesn’t have the tendency to join up with the striker or run in behind which limited the contribution he could make in tight spaces.
The midfield was below par and that was the primary source of Arsenal’s problem. Part of that was forced by United’s tactics and their ability to execute them with such diligence. Another linked aspect was Arsenal’s inability to develop predetermined plays for certain situations and their tendency to drop deep for defending. But individuals also have to take responsibility and there is room for improvement in everyone’s performance.
Giroud: This was another game that highlighted his technical limitations. He’s improved this season but a lot of his one-touch passes and flicks still result in turnovers. He’s quite good at holding the ball up once he has it under control but doesn’t control it as consistently as a top level striker should. Inability to get behind the defence remains a big weakness. It’s surprising/annoying that Arsenal can’t use his physicality and aerial presence to greater effect in the opposition box.
Subs: Wilshere was energetic, bringing Gnabry on earlier might have been interesting, Bendtner seems to be nowhere near his best.
Wenger: His side have lost three and won two of the five big games, hardly a great achievement. But there are obvious signs of improvement and the work done is producing some returns. He’ll want to ensure they can go further on the same path but faster. Keep avoiding mistakes and find greater diversity and variation in attacking options. Return of injured players will help but there is scope to change things tactically.Follow @goonerdesi