Tactical Analysis: Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United

Manchester United took down Arsenal on Saturday in a 3-1 match that never slowed down. Though Arsenal outplayed United, Jose Mourinho beat Arsene Wenger tactically, and that proved the difference.

Arsenal dominated from the 11th minute until the 90th. Unfortunately for the Gunners, Manchester United made the most of those first 10 minutes, grabbing two and seemingly putting the game out of reach. Arsenal didn’t let up, grabbing a goal in the 49th minute through Lacazette off a deft assist from Aaron Ramsey. The home side hit David De Gea with an onslaught of shots, but he tied league history with 14 saves during the match.

David De Gea was by far the best player on the pitch, and it was not close. Had it not been for De Gea’s heroics, the match almost certainly would have ended in an Arsenal victory, as they finished the match with a whopping 33 shots, 15 of which were on target. Two goals from Jesse Lingard and another from Antonio Valencia proved the difference between the two teams.

The scoreline was a bit misleading: although Arsenal may rue the fact that they could not get anything from the result, they can take pride in the way they attacked today. Manchester United proved to have an affective counter-attack, but Jose Mourinho must realize that he cannot rely as much on De Gea next weekend against a stronger Manchester City team.

As the stats show, Arsenal outplayed their opponents for the majority of the match. The team could not take advantage of Paul Pogba’s red card in the 73rd minute. Even without Eric Bailly and Phil Jones, United only let Arsenal through once during the full 90 minutes. Arsenal’s lack of toughness and intelligence at the back was a glaring issue for the team. Nacho Monreal overcommitted on the first goal and Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny made fatal mistakes that led to the other goals. For most of the match, Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial pestered the three Arsenal center backs, and that made the difference in the dynamic match.

Manchester United’s Press

Jose Mourinho had his men press the Arsenal back line early in the first half, and it paid dividends. Laurent Koscielny won a tackle in the first five minutes and tried to pass the ball to Sead Kolasinac, but Antonio Valencia intercepted the pass. He brought the ball to the edge of the box, passed to Romelu Lukaku, and got it back, then placed it between Petr Cech’s legs to go up 1-0. Just a few minutes later, Shkodran Mustafi lost the ball and Jesse Lingard was on hand to make it 2-0 just 10 minutes into the game.

Mourinho’s strategy was to press the Gunners when the ball was in their own end and then park the bus once the hosts started to attack. It worked masterfully: Arsenal finished with 75% possession, but Manchester United got the all-important three points ahead of next weekend’s Manchester Derby.

Although Mourinho could not have possibly predicted that his ‘keeper’ would have such a spectacular performance, the Portuguese manager will look like a genius for his high press and deep, patient back line. Except for when Alexandre Lacazette got denied by De Gea in the 31st minute and when the Spaniard kept Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez out of the net with a stellar double save in the 56th minute.

Even after the Red Devils went up 2-0, Mourinho kept the press on. Here, you can see how Romelu Lukaku chased after the ball, with this image coming right after an Arsenal throw-in:

Arsenal’s defense lost all of its confidence early because of Mourinho’s press, and United’s manager proved that he can play the mental side of the game on the pitch just as well as he plays it during press conferences. Once Arsenal adjusted to the high press from the visitors’ attackers, it was too late: De Gea was not going to let Arsenal back into the match.

Jose Mourinho utilized his typical attacking style on Saturday. He had his defense wait for Arsenal to make mistakes and then sprung out on counter attacks. With pace on the wings with Valencia and Young and a mix of speed and strength up top with Lukaku and Martial, Mourinho’s team had all the physical attributes needed to get through Arsenal’s less-than-intimidating defense.

The Red Devils did not totally put Arsenal away with their two goals in the first ten minutes, but the goals got the team comfortable enough to let the Arsenal come to them, tiring themselves out in the process.

Arsenal played typical Wengerball: intricate passing and wing play were the most prevalent parts of the hosts’ attack. Oddly enough, Wenger insisted on Kolasinac and Bellerin playing in crosses for the majority of the match, even though the starting forward, Alexandre Lacazette, is just 5-foot-9. Needless to say, that strategy didn’t work. Arsenal had 12 corners in the game, and Man U had just one.

After his side conceded twice in the first ten minutes, Arsene Wenger made a smart move and substituted Alex Iwobi on for Shkodran Mustafi, who picked up an injury. Iwobi played well for Arsenal, but obviously, he could not make the difference ultimately in the match. Late in the match, Aaron Ramsey missed a chance from just outside the six-yard box, which summed up Arsenal’s entire performance.

The introduction of Iwobi after 15 minutes came 15 minutes too late: Wenger should have started the young Nigerian winger and went with four at the back from the beginning. Other than the 2-0 win over Tottenham a couple weeks ago, Arsenal’s 3-4-3 has struggled against the top teams. A four-defender formation would have given the Gunners more options going forward. Wenger has faced off against Mourinho plenty of times, and he should have known that the ex-Chelsea manager would sit back and wait to spring on the counter.

De Gea’s incredible performance, Lingard’s rise, and Pogba’s sending off highlight the high-octane match, and there is a strong possibility that it will go down as the best game of the season. Both teams will take a lot away from the game: Arsenal will be able to beat basically any other team if they play the way they did for the last 80 minutes of the game, and Manchester United will realize that they have to be more aggressive going forward if they want to beat their crosstown rivals next weekend and shoehorn themselves back into the title race.

Arsenal Starting XI (3-4-3)

Manchester United Starting XI (3-5-2)

 

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