Manchester United and Arsenal went into this match with contrasting statistics in the league.
- Having scored 24 goals in nine games so far, United had the best attack in the league, both statistically and on paper. Arsenal on the other hand had the best defensive record in the league having conceded only six goals so far.
- Arsenal had scored the least number of goals among the top six clubs in the Premier League table (14). While Manchester United had the worst defensive record among the top six clubs having conceded 13 goals.
So, based on numbers, on one hand it was the league’s best attack going up against the league’s best defense and on the other side, an out of form Arsenal attack was up against a shaky United defense. This contest had all the ingredients of a classic match between two of the biggest rivals in England.
The match had everything, goals, missed penalties, a sending off, but sadly it was a no contest. It was as one sided as it can get between two of the biggest clubs in England. The 2-1 score-line may flatter the Arsenal fans but the fact remains that had United been more potent in the final third, they could have easily pulled off a more comprehensive victory. Apart from the missed opportunities on part of United, Arsenal were saved by their best player on the pitch, Vito Mannone.
Gameplay And Strategy
As soon as the team sheet came out and Andre Santos’ name was found on it, Arsenal fans must have feared for the worst. Santos has always been a disaster waiting to happen and it wasn’t surprising to see United’s first goal coming down Arsenal’s left hand side. But to be fair, the blame for the opening goal was for Thomas Vermaelen to take. When Rafael’s cross came in from the right and fell at Vermaelen’s left foot in the box, there wasn’t much danger for Mannone to worry about. But after a terrible attempted clearance from the Arsenal captain, the ball fell kindly for Robin van Persie and the former Arsenal captain buried it with a clinical finish. It had to be him, the script was written. That goal set the tone for rest of the match.
Manchester United midfield pressed really well right from the start. Cleverly, Carrick and Rooney, who dropped deep, denied Arsenal midfielders any time and space to get into their passing grooves. United haven’t started brightly in most of their games this season, but here they looked sharp right from the outset.
Robin van Persie showed some excellent movements throughout this match. The Dutch international made amazing runs into the pocket of spaces between the Arsenal center-backs and provided Rooney with plenty of options to find him with the right ball. And in the 21st minute Rooney did find van Persie, whose right footed drive was saved by Mannone; his first of many.
The most concerning factor for Arsenal was the lack of width in their attack. Podolski and Ramsey continued to drift in-field into an already congested midfield. This not only crippled Arsenal’s attack down the wings, but also left huge gaps for the United full backs to exploit. Rafael and Valencia continued to torment Santos down Arsenal’s left hand side as United made a conscious effort to exploit the Brazilian’s lack of positional sense. Santos didn’t receive much support from Podolski or Wilshere as United enjoyed a free way down that side.
Manchester United then had a golden opportunity to double their lead before the half time as Ashley Young’s attempted cross stuck Santi Cazorla’s hand and the referee pointed to the spot. Rooney stepped up and surprisingly shot wide to give Arsenal an unlikely lifeline.
But Arsenal failed to make most of their luck in the second half as well as United came out firing all cylinders. Thomas Vermaelen made another horrendous mistake right at the start of the second half as the ball again fell to Robin van Persie. The Dutchman played in a low cross from the right, but to everyone’s shock Valencia missed a chance to tap into an open net. Arsenal were let off the hook once again.
The substitution that everyone was expecting to happen, took place in the 52st minute when Ramsey was replaced by Theo Walcott. And suddenly it had a positive effect on the team, as Arsenal had their first shot on goal after Giroud turned extremely well, but his shot hit the side netting.
Theo Walcott was brought on to add more width to the Arsenal attack. Well, at least that’s what the fans and pundits hoped it was for. But quite interestingly, Walcott drifted inside instead of hugging the touchline. In fact it was Giroud who had to move to wide to provide width as Theo played through the center. We would never know whether this was what Wenger instructed him to do, or it was Walcott trying to get a point across to his manager. Either way, it didn’t work.
In the 67th minute of the match, Manchester United finally doubled their lead, but the goal came from the unlikeliest source; Patrice Evra, the shortest man in the box scored with a header as Wayne Rooney floated in a cross from the left. Arsenal’s marking was non-existent.
As if they were not performing poorly enough with eleven man on the pitch, Jack Wilshere received his marching orders soon after this goal as he was booked for the second time. Interestingly, Cleverly, who was also treading a fine line after repeated warnings from the referee, was substituted by Sir Alex only a few minutes before this incident, while Arsene Wenger chose to persist with Wilshere. A clear case of a proactive decision making from one manager while the other remained hopeful for the best.
The only disappointing factor from Manchester United was the fact that they couldn’t score more goals to show for their dominance in this match. Right at the end, Santi Cazorla scored a wonderful goal for Arsenal, which in reality gave the scoreline a more respectable look than it deserved. Manchester United won 2-1, but the scoreboard can easily mislead someone who hasn’t watched the 90 minutes.
Tactical Talking Points
- Why Wenger persisted with Andre Santos in this match is a mystery. With Gibbs injured, Wenger should have played Vermaelen in the left back spot while pairing Koscielny and Mertesacker in the middle.
- Sir Alex’s diamond has been a talking point this season, but for this match the United manager reverted back to their strength and went in with two natural wingers. Valencia was the name Santos didn’t want to see in United’s team sheet and his worst nightmare came true in this match.
- Another perplexing team selection from Arsene Wenger was the deployment of Ramsey on the wings. The Welshman is anything but a winger and with the likes of Theo Walcott and Arshavin on the bench, why Wenger started with Ramsey is anybody’s guess.
- Rooney is flourishing in the deeper role. The Englishman controlled the match with his passing and was the driving force behind most of United’s attack.
While tactics and team selection can always be discussed and dissected, the most important (and deciding) factor in this match was the difference in the attitude of both the teams. There was only one team on the pitch with the intent to win and that was Manchester United. The Arsenal team lacked hunger and they have let their fans and perhaps Arsene Wenger down with their efforts, or lack of it. For Arsenal the best thing was their fans who travelled to Old Trafford, and despite such a shambolic performance from their team, they nearly outsang the home crowd at the end.
This is a big win for Manchester United and with Chelsea dropping points against Swansea, they are now at the top of the table. This could prove to be a turning point in the title race. As for Arsenal they now travel to Schalke and from what we experienced from this match, their performance can only improve in Germany.