Arsenal came into this highly touted match against Manchester United desperate for a win to continue the positive momentum generated from strong wins over Tottenham and Burnley. Coming away with three points would put them in sight of Manchester City, though catching them would always be a tall task. Two early counterattacking goals by Jesse Lingard put Arsenal into an early hole. Arsenal’s attacking barrage being negated by the stand-out goalkeeping performance for some time by David de Gea helped Manchester United escape the Emirates with all three points.
Arsenal: Cech; Monreal, Mustafi (Iwobi), Koscielny; Kolasinac (Giroud), Xhaka (Welbeck), Ramsey, Bellerin; Sanchez, Ozil, Lacazette
Manchester United: de Gea; Smalling, Rojo, Lindelof; Young, Matic, Pogba, Valencia; Martial (Herrera), Lingard (Darmian), Lukaku
United Man-Oriented Press and Arsenal’s Response
Arsenal utilised the same progression structure that they have used throughout the season yet struggled to break down Manchester United’s very structured 5-3-2. Mourinho was quite clear in his defensive intentions in the way he set up their pressing when Arsenal transitioned into the attack. They adopted a recognisable man-oriented press where Pogba would push up to join Jesse Lingard and deny easy central access to Xhaka and Ramsey.
Typically, Ramsey occupies a higher position on the pitch to serve as an ancillary fulcrum to connect the midfield into attack. Yet with Pogba and Lingard swapping man-marking on Xhaka, Ramsey was forced to drop deeper to aid in ball circulation. Even with the extra midfielder in a deep position, Manchester United was able to comfortably deal with the numbers.
Arsenal never tried to take United’s intentional bait and be more direct in their passing to bypass United’s pressing. To try and create space Ozil dropped deeper to act as a third option behind Pogba and Lingard. The unwillingness of Matic to track Ozil’s initial movements opened space further forward for the centre backs to pass into. The German international proved highly influential as a release valve and was able to dictate Arsenal’s vertical progression into the final third.
United’s Goals and Arsenal’s Chances
Manchester United’s early goals came from typical Arsenal shortcomings. Sloppy passing and a lack of concentration among Koscielny and Mustafi led to easy counterattacks and 5v3 overloads. Most of these counters were easily avoidable, which makes them all the more frustrating. Mustafi’s, in particular, was particularly infuriating; that he attempted to switch the ball onto his dominant right foot knowing full well that Lingard was attached to his right shoulder is highly questionable. Against a team utilising counterattacking football as their modus operandi in this match, giving the ball away so frivolously would have led to some dangerous chances.
Arsenal became more dangerous, surprisingly, after the introduction of Iwobi for the injured Mustafi. The introduction of another forward reverted Arsenal’s possessional structure resembling more 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 with Iwobi providing another half-space option and fully allowing Ozil to drift around and search for space. Coupled with the dynamic movement of Lacazette on the front line, United noticeably struggled to cope with the pace and angularity of Arsenal’s attack. Even down two goals, Arsenal showed the desire and speed of play needed to break down teams that defend in a low block. On other days many of those key chances would have been converted but unfortunately, the heroics of David de Gea saved United’s skin.
United Drop Deeper, Arsenal Aggressively Attack
During the second half, United dropped even deeper and began to occupy a compact low block within their own box. Effectively, they conceded possession on the flanks and prevented any easy penetration into the 6-yard space. At times they lost concentration, notably for the Lacazette goal as they completely lost Ramsey’s perfectly timed deep run into the box. Arsenal pushed the attack with particular venom; the movement of Lacazette and Ozil between the lines when deep in possession forced United’s defensive structure to respond, leaving gaps in other areas of the pitch. Introducing Giroud and Welbeck for Kolasinac and Xhaka, respectively, only increased the attacking gamble that Wenger decided to take as the game reached its latter stages.
By attacking so aggressively, Arsenal was always going to be exposed in the back and prone to rapid counterattacks. United had several opportunities that were dealt with except for Pogba’s well-timed run down the right half-space, beating two defenders to cross for an easy tap-in by Lingard. Mourinho, now up 3-1, parked the bus and substituted two attackers for two defensive-minded players to further shore up the center of the pitch. Arsenal dominated possession for most of the second half but with little space to operate in finding clear chances wanting.
It’s hard to take away good talking points from losing 3-1 to rivals Manchester United. Any loss to Jose Mourinho leaves heartburn in the souls of Arsenal fans. What was most encouraging was that despite being down two goals for most of the match, the players never showed the defeatist attitude that crops up amongst this Arsenal team. That they showed fight and desire against a tough defence and put in the paces for 90 minutes hopefully suggests that this Arsenal side are ready to fight back into the top 4. If they play with this type of energy for the entirety of the season then they could easily pressure Chelsea and Liverpool. Arsenal won’t cement their place in the Champions League, however, without fixing the defensive frailties that have been exposed too often for far too long.