Gary Neville cut to the heart of the matter straight away as commentator for Sky Sports by saying that the biggest question mark for Arsenal in the last ten years, when they face Manchester United at Old Trafford, is their mentality. It’s defined their approach from when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge, with the Scotsman knowing that he could generally count on Arsenal playing a certain way – and he could mix that up with a little physicality to upset the Gunners.
Arsenal have also suffered from a conviction deficit in the past in these games as well, where they have been too occupied with making a stylistic impression so that if they don’t find their rhythm, they tend to freeze. It happened in 2013, when David Moyes was in charge, the best chance for Arsenal of ending their Old Trafford jinx, where before the game, Mesut Ozil said: “We are going to Old Trafford to have fun – and that is why we are going to win. We know the quality we have and we want to be successful playing our own way.” He also added: ‘We don’t feel any pressure at all.” As it turned out, neither premonition ended up correct as Arsenal lost 1-0.
However, Arsenal are made of much sterner stuff these days and Arsene Wenger tried to explain that with his selection in the 1-1 draw on Saturday lunchtime. “We wanted to be about steel and style,” he said but, in the end, they churned out a rather uninspired display.
Arsenal lacked any real fluency in the game which Wenger attempted to explain by asking “Was that because Manchester United blocked us as well? I think it was because we were not also at our best going forward.”
The truth is that the answer was a mixture of both. The two sides came to play and unsettle in equal measure but, unable to strike a balance between the two, erred on the side of caution. United were probably the better team, driven on by Ander Herrera and supported by the tireless runs of Antonio Valencia on the right-hand side.
Yet for them too, chances were hard to come by, though when they scored, through Juan Mata on 68 minutes, it was fully deserved. Mainly because it came at the end of a period of sustained pressure from Mourinho’s side, which began almost instantly after the teams came out in the second-half. It was also strange period of play because Arsenal had broadly dominated the first-half with the ball, but in the second-half, they just couldn’t get hold of it.
It wasn’t as if United’s pressure was attritional, nor could you call it relentless – but by playing on the front foot, they had pinned Arsenal back into their own half. Indeed, you might even call it one long attack with the outcome Juan Mata’s goal. At no point in the passage of play did they want to let the intensity let up, highlighted by how quickly Matteo Darmian restarted play with a throw-in, when Jose Mourinho was ready to make a sub.
Arsenal, though, got back into it by correcting the selection aberrations made by Wenger. On came Olivier Giroud, who may or may not have had a case of starting, to head in a cross from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain entering the game at right-back. Wenger had resisted the temptation of starting with Giroud because he didn’t want to upset the dynamic that has served Arsenal well, but the changes he made behind, in midfield, resulted in having that effect anyway.
He chose to begin with Aaron Ramsey instead of Alex Iwobi, saying that he opted for “experience and fight”, which was ill-judged because he took away one of the partnerships which have been the key to making Arsenal largely fluid this season. With Iwobi coming inside between-the-lines, dovetailing with Theo Walcott on the other side, Wenger established a sort of positional play which allowed Arsenal a numerical superiority ahead of the ball.
On the face of it, Aaron Ramsey doesn’t change much but it’s also about triggers; when to move, how high and wide to play at the correct time, and perhaps Ramsey’s positioning was too free-form. There’s a good passage of play, on 20 minutes which perhaps highlights that best. Arsenal got into good positions numerous times to penetrate United’s lines – except there was nobody there in wide areas to open up the middle of the pitch to then play those passes in between, whilst the spacing between the players just seemed random.
Most of the time the shape became something close to a diamond. Of course, Manchester United do also deserve credit for snuffing out those spaces and marking Arsenal tightly in those areas. Jose Mourinho said after the game, that he had time in the international break to work with defenders like Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Antonio Valencia on positioning, and it showed.
Arsenal's free-form positioning v Man United. A bit random, and almost like a diamond formation at times. https://t.co/XazGKOZzI7
— Arsenal Column (@ArsenalColumn) November 20, 2016
Still, Ramsey coming inside helped Arsenal “dominate” possession in the first half and it might have helped Arsenal get more of the ball if he’d acted as the “third” midfielder in the second-half. Instead, he was more occupied in a wider defensive role, as was Walcott, who only once got behind after a one-two with Alexis.
The final change was to put Ramsey into the middle and partner him with Granit Xhaka. For many that’s the preferred central midfield pairing. It allows a box-to-box midfielder like Ramsey a different way of getting higher up the pitch in the absence of Cazorla. Xhaka too allows that with his passing through the lines.
The Mohamed Elneny-Francis Coquelin axis was perhaps flat. Indeed, in recent games, this seems like a conscious move by Wenger to shore up Arsenal’s defensive game, at times a hindrance to the team going forward. Having one less player between-the-lines, even if Coquelin was more a distraction, means Arsenal aren’t able to have the same numerical superiority ahead of the ball that they showed in that benchmark match against Chelsea.
In the end, the match could be split into three phases: a first-half which was mainly dominated by Arsenal; a period of 25-minutes which was all Manchester United; before Giroud rescued the game in the last ten minutes.