Monday, November 11, 2013

Manchester United x Arsenal - Tactical notes

In a match that could have offered the visitors a very comfortable lead, Manchester United and Arsenal met at Old Trafford and offered a quite interesting display - for loads of reasons. Below we'll be looking into some specific issues.

  • Arsenal struggle against a more physical United
Tomas Rosicky was bang on the money when he offered "resiliency" as one of the key factors for Arsenal's win at Dortmund last week, something that according to the Czech might have been missing over the past few seasons. In fact, while the tactical improvements in Wenger's side cannot be overestated (namely the failure to unbalance the whole team while attacking), the steelier heart of the team has to be taken into consideration - something that an older, more experienced eleven might help explain.

However, while United's physical approach lasted, Arsenal found it quite hard to get into their passing rhythm, a flaw that has been found many times over the past seasons, particularly against stronger sides. The two teams' different approaches was evident, with the physical, defensively disciplined Jones, Valencia and Jones all getting the nod from David Moyes, while Arsène Wenger kept his trust in the soft-shoed Arteta, Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil.

Arsenal struggled to progress to more advanced areas while United were able (and interested) to keep their pressure up.
During the first half, the attacking threat offered by Wenger's charges was restricted.

  • Özil goes missing in action
As so often has been the case, the German wizard was anonymous for most of the match at Old Trafford. Even though no player has accrued more assists than Özil during the past five seasons, his contribution is frequently small when he's faced with opponents that insist on being physically aggressive and that leave little space to exploit. Arsenal's no. 11, so important to the team's displays thus far, was a shadow of himself and failed to give the team the world-class boost he so often brings in most matches.

  • United prove faithful to Moyes
For all that has been said and written about David Moyes' time at the helm of United, the players' dedication and commitment seem not to have wavered. The Scottish manager finally got a win against top-calibre opposition by reverting to several of his methods while at Everton. The intense physical pressure in order to stifle Arsenal's midfield gave way to his preferred expectant two banks of four, with Rooney and Van Persie (particularly the former) putting in impressively hard-working displays as far as defending was concerned.

On the other hand, the resort to long balls (more frequent than usual under Sir Alex Ferguson) also seemed to show that United will be looking increasingly like a gritty, result-oriented team, rather than the side that so often threw caution to the wind and attacked in successive waves.

It is hard not to detect some patterns as far as United's building-up stage is concerned.

There is a stark contrast between United's approach before and after Van Persie's goal.
Even though Arsenal surely improved as the match wore on, it was clear that United were will to soak up pressure.

  • Centre-back vs midfielder: Who's more effective in the middle of the pitch
Phil Jones' deployment alongside Michael Carrick was surely meant as a strategy to keep Cazorla and Özil from dominating the centre, by making sure the centre-back got stuck to the skilled midfielders and stopped them from facing United's goal. Moyes' strategy effectively worked for the better part of the first half, but things changed when Jones had to replace the injured Vidic in defence, with Tom Cleverley taking his place in midfield.

While Jones' defensive contribution might have looked far more intense to the naked eye, a quick look at Cleverley's dashboard shows how important the English midfielder was in such a crucial position.

  • The Rooney conundrum
One of the hardest things of being your nation's most promising footballer for ages is that his every move, shot, word and mood swing are analysed under a magnifying lens. Wayne Rooney is no exception and he alone has put food on the table of many a reporter. 

In spite of all of that, he managed to put in a monster of a display, working tirelessly and selflessly, effectively resembling the version of Rooney that every football fan seems to remember. He pressed, he defended, he kept his passing crisp and simple, he vacated the space for his team-mates to exploit - in short, he was United's spirit personified, leading the team from the front. After all the reports of his less than warm relationship with Moyes, it is encouraging to see him give so much of himself to the cause.  

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