Five points on United 8-2 Arsenal
Arsene Wenger’s heaviest ever defeat as Arsenal manager was a scarcely believable match. A completely rampant United were all over Arsenal without even expending huge amounts of effort, whereas the Gunners were utterly dire. The sheer absurdity of the scoreline and match in general make it hard to write a full report, as tactics took rather a back seat to sheer disorganisation and panic from the away side, at times. Therefore, here’s just five points of interest from the game.
United’s shape is naturally progressing…
Last season, United’s previous 4-4-2 shape they played in the league morphed into much more of a 4-4-1-1, with Wayne Rooney foraging around behind the main striker. This arguably worked best when he played behind Javier Hernandez, whose lightning pace forced the opposition to defend deep and created space for Rooney to drift into. This was, of course, highly successful, with United dominating the league. In this match, however, it changed slightly again.
The difference between a 4-4-1-1 and a 4-2-3-1 is subtle. In this match, however, United looked far more like the latter formation. Rooney’s deep position was on roughly the same latitude as his winger colleagues Ashley Young and Nani. Coupled with Anderson and Tom Cleverley’s deep positioning, United look like they’ve got another slightly different formation on their hands.
Against this Arsenal side, it worked perfectly. Neither Anderson nor Cleverley (in particular) are midfield ‘destroyers’, but in this match which United so utterly dominated the lack of a tackler in midfield was hardly missed. With Rooney occupying debutant Francis Coquelin – or, possibly more likely, with Coquelin given strict Rooney-marking instructions – Anderson and Cleverley overwhelmed their direct opposition, Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky. Quite apart from anything else, the United duo looked far more cohesive and worked as a team, whereas Ramsey and Rosicky looked unsure as to their roles. With the two United deep midfielders taking it in turns to charge up the pitch and support their forwards, Ramsey and Rosicky were having to deal with one deep midfielder plus both Nani and Young, who cut inside into the midfield. As a result, one player was always left free, and United took full advantage.
There are still a few teething problems. As mentioned, Cleverley in particular isn’t exactly a natural holding midfielder, and when Anderson went up the field Robin Van Persie and Walcott found space, but in the impending return of Darren Fletcher United have a world-class player perfectly suited to the role.
…whereas Arsenal’s seems to be regressing.
Arsenal, too, have changed their formation this year, though it’s a more dramatic change than United’s. Instead of their fluid 4-2-3-1 they played last year, Wenger has opted for a return to the 4-3-3 the Gunners played the season before last. The formation itself doesn’t seem to suit Arsenal’s players anywhere near as much as a 4-2-3-1 did: Alex Song, for example, had arguably his best year last year in a more box-to-box role alongside Jack Wilshere, who covered for his partner and linked with the forwards himself with a maturity far beyond his years. Robin Van Persie, too, came back in the new year and proceeded to rip the league apart, forming a deadly tandem with Cesc Fabregas.
One reason that excellent analysts like Arsenal Report’s Ix Techau can come up with for the formation change is that Arsene Wenger doesn’t trust Aaron Ramsey, the natural heir to Fabregas, to perform in the departed captain’s specialised role that was developed specifically for him. It was, essentially, a completely free role, allowing Fabregas free rein to drift across the pitch laterally and vertically. Often, with Van Persie’s movement back towards his own midfield, Fabregas would become the de facto forward of the team, creating a semi-strikerless shape that was extremely difficult to defend against. Now, however, Techau points out that Van Persie was often left completely isolated with no midfielder in close support. On top of that, Ramsey looked slightly uncomfortable with his more conservative midfield position, and his lack of defensive tenacity hardly aided Arsenal in a game in which they needed to battle in midfield. It is a baffling switch of formation.
United did the simple things well
The result itself was astonishing, but the means through which United established their dominance were remarkably simple. Their midfielders passed tidily, their defenders got in tackles (13 to Arsenal’s 9, despite Arsenal being the side under the cosh for most of the game) and blocks (again, 6 to Arsenal’s 1) and their forwards were punishingly clinical. Arsenal, on the other hand, looked lethargic and uncharacteristically sloppy in their play.
United’s defence, in particular, was extremely efficient at snuffing out Arsenal attacks. With Patrice Evra the only defender in United’s back four over the age of 23, a young and inexperienced back four coped wonderfully well with Arsenal’s front line considering they had no real holding player ahead of them. The chasm in terms of squad depth between the two sides was painfully obvious: with at least four defenders out, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans were strong and Chris Smalling excellent in an unfamiliar position on the right, whereas Arsenal’s defenders looked constantly uneasy and frequently out of position. Carl Jenkinson, for example, was drawn so far up the pitch on one occasion he was on a similar axis to Walcott. It was only through Walcott’s pace and awareness tracking back that prevented Patrice Evra having a free run down the flank.
Arsenal need to sort out their defence, and quickly
Which brings us rather neatly onto the next point. As could be expected from the losing side in an 8-2 thrashing, Arsenal’s defence was shocking. It is a well-known problem about Arsenal, of course, to the extent it was rather exaggerated last season, but against United it was atrocious. On more than one occasion the centre-backs were pushed up higher than the full-backs. John Djourou, in particular, had an atrocious game, exposing his inexperienced full-back Jenkinson to a rampant Ashley Young.
Arsenal tried their normal gambit of pressing high up the pitch, with the knock-on effect that they played a high defensive line. This only really works when the two are used in tandem, however: high pressing and a deep defensive line creates space between the defensive and midfield lines for opposition runners to exploit. A high defensive line with low-level pressing, on the other hand, allows too much time for opposition midfielders to knock balls over the top for forwards to chase. In this case, a version of the latter occurred. Arsenal were willing to press across the pitch, but their pressing was disjointed and Anderson and Tom Cleverley were allowed all the time they wanted to pick passes through to their forwards. At least with Coquelin doing a good job on Rooney, the United forward was kept relatively quiet from open play – until the Frenchman went off, at which point Rooney roamed across the Arsenal backline at will.
United look young, hungry and ready for a title battle
The day had a shade of ‘anything you can do, I can do better’ about it. United’s perennial rivals Manchester City had just beaten Tottenham 1-5 away, and were continuing to look like exceptionally dangerous competition. United went out and one-upped that result in astonishing fashion.
United looked excellent across the pitch. Ferguson’s buys look excellently astute, with Phil Jones turning in an assured performance at the back and David De Gea saving a penalty excellently. Ashley Young was without doubt the standout performer of the three new purchases on show today however, claiming a hat-trick of assists and two wonderful goals. Rooney has always tended to drift to the left when out of possession, and his partnership with Young was a sight to behold. It’s hardly a surprise Young has stepped up his game (he was stagnating a Villa, but was still obviously one of the most complete wingers in the Premiership) but even the most fanatical of Ashley Young supporters will be taken aback by his sudden jump in form. Anderson and Cleverley, too, look like they have parts to play this season: the former is likely to be a starter, whereas Cleverley can play all across the midfield and even in attack, which will be a significant advantage in trying to get himself onto Sir Alex Ferguson’s bench.
There’s not too much to say about Arsenal that hasn’t already been said. Most were expecting a loss away at an in-form United, but not to this devastating degree. Arsenal need a greater squad depth, that is certain. Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong are both good enough to start in the first team, and on the basis of this match Francis Coquelin looks a capable backup, but backups for Robin Van Persie, Jack Wilshere and Thomas Vermaelen all need to be found. The imminent signing of Park Chu-Young would seem to remedy the first, but the other two have yet to come to light.