Manchester United FC vs Arsenal FC, Old Trafford, Manchester
Final Score: Manchester United 1 – 0 Arsenal
Man of the Match: Wayne Rooney
Manchester United leapfrogged rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City into 5th place in the league table with a win over league leaders Arsenal at Old Trafford.
The clash of the two English titans has regularly been a high intensity game with none of the clubs ready to share the spoils from the fixture. Even so, Manchester United have maintained a stranglehold over this clash winning their last 9 games in all competitions at home against Arsenal. This dates back to as far as 2006 and includes the infamous 8-2 drubbing handed out to the Gunners a couple of years ago. But much has changed since then. Sir Alex Ferguson has retired and David Moyes is now at the helm at Old Trafford. At the start of the match, United sat 8 points behind table leaders Arsenal. A loss would have put them behind by 11 points, which, with only 11 games done, is not insurmountable but highly tedious.
Arsenal have been in a rich vein of form coming into the game on the back of a 2-0 dismantling of 2nd placed Liverpool and a mid week drubbing of Champion’s League Runners-up Borussia Dortmund, away from home. Manchester United, on the other hand, were coming into the game after a grinding draw against Real Sociedad in Spain. Earlier in the day however, 6th placed Tottenham Hotspur fell 0-1 to Newcastle at home while Manchester City succumbed to their kryptonite, Sunderland at the Stadium of light. This set up the Match of the Day tantalisingly. If Arsenal were to win, they would go 5 points clear at the top of the table. If United won, they would jump to 5th and also reduce their gap from the top to a manageable 5 points (from 8 points previously).
Squad and Formations
Arsenal’s hitherto success this season has been largely due to the emergence of the Ozil – Ramsey – Giroud triumvirate. Prior to today’s game, Arsenal had scored in every one of their previous 10 league fixtures. Coming into this match, Arsene Wenger received a setback when Per Mertesacker was declared unfit for the game. This forced Wenger’s hand to include Thomas Vermaelen in his place. Wenger and Arsenal fans did however receive some good news in the form of Mathieu Flamini’s return from a groin injury. The midfielder was promptly picked in the starting 11, Rosicky making way for the Frenchman. These were the only two changes in the side that faced Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund last week. The Gunners lined up in their favoured 4-2-3-1 formation that has brought them success this season.
Manchester United fans on the other hand were fretting after rumours began circulating of Robin van Persie having to miss the fixture due to a recurring groin injury. The rumours were however negated when Moyes did name him in his starting 11. The United manager made 4 changes to his team from the one that played Real Sociedad mid-week. Rio Ferdinand was dropped in favour of Jonny Evans while Ryan Giggs, Marouanne Fellaini and Javier Hernandez went onto the bench to be replaced by Michael Carrick, Phil Jones and RvP. Moyes matched his opponent’s 4-2-3-1, deploying Smalling on RB and using Phil Jones and Michael Carrick in DM roles to provide cover to the defense. Rooney dropped back into the hole behind RvP with Valencia and Kagawa giving him company on the wide positions.
United kicked off the match with their backs to the Stretford End. Valencia and Smalling took the fight to Arsenal from the word go, the former winning United’s first corner in the 1st minute itself. Phil Jones was making runs at the Arsenal midfield, effectively taking Mikel Arteta and Flamini out of the equation with defensive help from both Smalling and Valencia. On the other side, Evra and Kagawa began making overlaps to trouble Sagna out on the left flank. The high intensity start saw most of the play in the midfield with the home side hogging possession. In the 26th minute, Rooney crossed into the box for RvP, to force a clearance from Vermaelen. Rooney took the resultant corner and whipped in a cross towards the center of Arsenal’s box. RvP who was waiting on the edge of the box made a run towards the near post after losing Giroud, who was supposed to mark him for the set piece. Aaron Ramsey got drawn towards the ball and moved towards the corner flag, allowing van Persie room to take a running jump before heading the ball into the far post. Szczesny was left flat footed at the near post as he watched the ball sail over the head of a jumping Kieran Gibbs before nestling into the back of the net. United had their lead and the home supporters were abuzz with excitement.
Arsenal tried to step on it but multiple attempts from Cazorla were blocked in defense by Evans and Vidic, while the United defense did not allow Giroud to get onto his favoured left foot to take a shot at goal. Bar a few clearances, David de Gea, in fact, had nothing much to do in the first half. In the 41st minute, during another United corner, there was a coming together between Szczesny and Phil Jones that left the shot stopper out cold. Phil Jones was, perhaps harshly, awarded a booking by referee Michael Oliver for his troubles as the Arsenal goalie gingerly got back to his feet. Minutes later, on the cusp of half time, a similar incident repeated at the other end. David de Gea rose to punch a cross clear just as Vidic also decided to clear the cross. The result was a mid air collision that nearly caused de Gea’s thigh to take Vidic’s head off. The defender was forced to walk off the pitch, pale and spitting blood, for an early half time break straight down the tunnel from where he did not re-emerge. United completed the remaining few seconds of the first half with ten men on the pitch.
The second half started with United substituting Vidic with Tom Cleverley. Phil Jones dropped back into the CB position vacated by Vidic to partner Evans, while Cleverley moved into his RDM position. This, and being a goal down, encouraged Arsenal to attack in waves and United were forced to absorb a lot of pressure especially from Ozil who was now relatively freer to ply his trade. Smalling, Jones and Evans put in a decent shift to keep them at bay, being helped out in large parts by Valencia, RvP and Wayne Rooney. Rooney, who had already registered his assist for the game and the fourth for the season earlier, was all over the pitch. One moment he was defending his own goal and the next moment he was intercepting crosses and pinching the ball off Cazorla and Flamini.
The 58th minute produced the first real chance for Arsenal after Bacary Sagna whipped in a cross from the right flank to have Ozil put it just wide of the goal. After another attempt from Ramsey, United broke play and pushed the ball forward providing Wayne Rooney a brilliant chance to double United’s lead at the one hour mark. The striker, however, failed to do so, putting the ball just wide of the left post.
Wenger decided to change things up a bit by introducing Wilshere for Flamini and immediately the game turned more aggressive as Arsenal sat in United’s half for extended periods with United putting a lot of red shirts behind the ball and intercepting and blocking as best as they could. With 15 minutes to go, Moyes introduced Ryan Giggs for the tiring Kagawa while the ineffective Santi Cazorla was substituted by Wenger for Nicklas Bendtner. The 81st minute again provided United a chance to convert from a set piece but Chris Smalling failed to make the most of it.
The missed chance prompted a flurry of changes with both managers quickly exhausting their full complement of 3 subs. Wenger brought on Gnabry for Mikel Arteta while Moyes completed his third substitution, replacing goal scorer RvP with Fellaini to further shore up the defense. Bacary Sagna again overcame the exhausted Evra in the dying moments of the game to send in a beautiful guided cross across goal but it ended up harmlessly with Chris Smalling who promptly put a boot through it to send the ball away from danger. At the end, United managed to hang on to their solitary goal and very valuable 3 points from the fixture that reduced their deficit from the top to 5 points effectively leap frogging Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City into 5th place in the league after 11 games.
Where the game was won for United?
Moyes had obviously identified German midfielder Mesut Ozil as the primary attacking channel given his penchant for assisting strikes. The manager, thus decided to use a slightly defensive approach making Phil Jones play in midfield. This proved to be effective as Ozil barely got a touch on the ball in the first half. The biggest testimony to the success of this strategy is the increased push and penetration that Arsenal got from the last 45 minutes when Jones played deeper in his own half than from the first when he was playing a higher line. Comparing Ozil’s heat map from his games against Liverpool and United is quite insightful.
From this heat map it is clearly visible the license that Liverpool gave to Ozil to allow him to roam down the right flank as well as regularly cross over with Mikel Arteta onto the left flank thus completely overloading the defense on the flanks. This was not the case today, where Ozil hardly got the ball as crosses and passes made to him were intercepted successfully.
Apart from this, the United defenders especially Vidic (in the first half), Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra put in a tremendous shift with assistance from Wayne Rooney and Antonio Valencia to keep the attack of the Gunners at bay.
Man of the Match
Wayne Rooney put in a man of the match performance for the home team as he appeared everywhere on the pitch. He helped out tremendously in defense when required making vital interceptions and carrying the ball out of defense multiple times. He had a workman like evening where he almost ran his legs off.
The heat map above clearly depicts the level of his involvement in the game. He was practically running all over Arsenal’s half and still spent a significant amount of time in his own half as well helping out defensively. For all the pre-season moaning, this Wayne Rooney is a player every manager would love to have. He is diligent in defense, destructive in attack and goes about his business with a doggedness as he vies for the ball every single time.
This result is a tremendous one for United. This is one of the biggest matches of Moyes’ fledgling career at OT and he has managed to pass it with flying colours. More importantly, however, it has blown the title race wide open again with it becoming increasingly difficult to predict who all would qualify for European football next year and who would eventually lift the EPL trophy come May 2014.