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Manchester United overcame Arsenal, winning 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium in a hugely entertaining encounter on Saturday night. José Mourinho’s side countered brilliantly and defended well to ensure all three points and inflict the Gunners’ first home defeat since they lost to Bayern Munich in the Champions League last term.
The deadlock was broken early on, with Antonio Valencia capitalising after a poor pass out from the back by Laurent Koscielny on four minutes. The Ecuadorian played an unorthodox one-two with Paul Pogba before rifling the ball underneath Petr Čech and into the net.
Manchester United doubled their advantage in similar circumstances seven minutes later. Shkodran Mustafi was caught out after dithering in possession; the German was tackled before Anthony Martial laid off subtly for Jesse Lingard to run onto and score.
The Englishman would score his second and his team’s third in the second half, but that came after Arsenal had pulled themselves back into the contest on 49 minutes. Alexandre Lacazette, who most assumed would be absent through injury, found the finish, but it was not enough.
Lingard struck again and, after Pogba was sent off for a poor challenge on Hector Bellerín, Mourinho’s men sat deep and defended resolutely despite the one-man disadvantage to secure a big win. Here, Football Whispers looks at the five major tactical insights from today’s game.
ARSENAL BUILD-UP ISSUES
One of the most common themes seen in Arsenal’s play in recent years has been an inability to build possession effectively from the back. While they are renowned for their flowing football, they are ironically in the most danger when they have the ball. This was brutally evident on Saturday night.
The lack of structure and clarity in build-up was seen in both of the opening two goals. Manchester United understood exactly what they had to do – hence why they shaped up by placing Romelu Lukaku and Martial in the vertical channels between Arsenal’s three central defenders – and they executed their defensive game plan to perfection to intercept and counter.
Koscielny and Mustafi made the individual errors for both of United’s opening two goals, but those mistakes were the result of a poor team shape. The distances between Arsenal players was too great, and Mourinho’s side pressed and transitioned with precision to give themselves an unassailable lead.
UNITED TRIUMPH IN TRANSITION
All three of Manchester United’s goals on the night came from counter-attacking situations. The first two came high up the pitch, taking advantage of Arsenal’s poor build-up structure, while the third originated in a slightly deeper area.
Up against a possession side with a tendency to be open and disorganised, Mourinho’s more creative players thrived. Pogba, Lingard, Martial and Lukaku were able to make full use of their high levels of pace and one-on-one skill on the break to slice through their opposition in attacking transitions.
United have now scored four Premier League goals this season through counter-attacks, per WhoScored. Only Liverpool, managed by famously transition-oriented Jürgen Klopp – have bagged more from these situations.
PROS AND CONS TO ARSENAL RUNS
Arsenal changed their shape after going 2-0 down, though this was in part due to injury to Mustafi. Rather than bring on a centre-back for a like-for-like replacement, Arséne Wenger threw on Alex Iwobi and switched from 3-4-2-1 to 4-2-3-1.
The change in shape helped to push United deeper, with Martial going from striker to second left-back in a bid to track the forward runs of Bellerín. This allowed the Gunners to gain greater control of the territory and move higher up the pitch.
As is often seen in Arsenal attacks, there were a lot of forward runs off the ball by players in an attempt to flood the opposition’s defensive third. This gave greater opportunities to the ball-player to play one-twos with team-mates on the outside of the United penalty area in a bid to break down a resolute defence, but it also had some drawbacks.
One glaringly obvious negative side-effect of these forward runs was that it often led to a lack of balance. Granit Xhaka, if anyone at all, was regularly the only man between the hosts’ attack and defence. This openness led to frequent countering opportunities for Manchester United.
UNITED EVADE PRESSURE
Arsenal gained plaudits for their high press in the 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in the recent derby. Mourinho clearly took note of this, as his side refused to entertain the notion of building attacks from the back. As a result they hit almost twice as many long balls as their opposition on Saturday night – 62 to 34 in total.
Going long meant that United were able to evade pressure by simply avoiding it. They didn’t give the home side a chance to press high, instead knocking the ball over the top into the middle third and trying to win the second balls.
The difference in approach from the two teams can be seen in the activity of their goalkeepers. De Gea went direct with every single one of his 27 passes; Čech went direct with just five of his 16.
POGBA’S SENDING OFF
Arsenal ended the match with a ridiculously attacking setup. Alex Iwobi, a winger, was essentially acting as their left-back, while Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey were the central midfielders. Up front, Wenger had Lacazette, Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sánchez. But this wasn’t enough to break down a solid defence.
After Pogba’s sending off, Mourinho brought Matteo Darmian on for Lingard and his side went even deeper than before, generally abandoning even a midfield press. The match consequently looked more like a basketball game, with Arsenal being allowed to walk the ball up to the United penalty box without real incision.
However, once Wenger’s side got there, they struggled to get past an organised defensive wall. And, whenever they did, de Gea was on hand to provide assistance with some incredible saves.