Tactics Column: Arsenal’s passing play stutters against Manchester United

Arsenal tactics

The sophistication and swagger that has been the hallmark of Arsenal’s play deserted them at Old Trafford on Sunday, going down 1-0 against Manchester United. The galling thing for Arsene Wenger after the game was that there weren’t any prolonged periods where Arsenal moved Manchester United around, and during the few occasions that they did, it was without the same intensity.

The illness that pervaded the side pre-game severely hampered Arsene Wenger’s selection, effectively choosing the team for him. It’s likely that he would have opted to start with Mathieu Flamini alongside Mikel Arteta anyway, but it’s clear that sickness had some negative bearing on the way Arsenal played. They were hesitant and decision-making was puzzlingly slow as simple passes to feet even failed to reach their target. Wenger though, discounted the effect illness had on the team, rather attributing their tentative play to nerves.

Certainly that made some sense: Arsenal were so keen to display to the world that they could compete with the best, and that they would do so by beating the best with style. (Before the game, Mesut Ozil told The Sun: “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).

Additionally, the “Arsenal Way” is a highly idiosyncratic way of playing. Wenger believes that football is primarily about the control of midfield; dominate in the centre and the chances will come. Arsenal did that – belatedly in the second-half – but to assume that control rewards success assumes that all else is equal, and United played in a way that ensured they thrived on inequality. They were stronger on set-pieces, which Wayne Rooney revealed they practiced extensively before the encounter, and which they scored the only goal of the game from; while they also defended deep to snuff out Arsenal’s through-passes. It was United’s midfield, though, particularly in the first-half, which was the most impressive part of their game, closing Arsenal down aggressively whenever the ball got into their half and marked tightly. Arsenal found it hard to get through, and when they did, they lacked their usual spark.

The Gunners faced a similar test in the two matches against Dortmund where they were marked tightly but at home, some of their close-control was outstanding, allowing them to evade tackles while away, they scored with their first crisp move of the match with Aaron Ramsey heading the winner. Here, Manchester United cramped the space whenever Mesut Ozil or Santi Cazorla got the ball and as such, they were unable to use their trickery to get away from a crowded midfield.

Instead, Arsenal fell back on the only way they know how to play: pass and move revolving around an inverted target-man in Olivier Giroud. However, that meant most of the play was in front of Manchester United’s defence. Without wide players or somebody to run beyond the backline, Arsenal’s idiosyncrasies were, not necessarily exposed, but highlighted.

The (slightly enforced) selection didn’t help because that meant, with two holding midfielders behind, Arsenal had one less attacking combination in the final third. Instead, Flamini was frequently asked to push forward due to the surprising lack of defensive work he had to do (which highlights also, how well Arsenal defended from open play), which we all know, isn’t his forte. Flamini’s inclusion pushed Aaron Ramsey out wide, Arsenal’s other man in form (alongside Tomas Rosicky who missed out altogether) and that forced him to adjust his game. Usually, he’d be the one finishing moves instead.

Shunting Ramsey to the flank might have been a design to give him more freedom but it also meant he wasn’t really able to get on the end of moves, as has been his success in recent games, but instead, had to be the instigator. Neat flicks and one-twos aren’t really his strengths; lung-busting runs and carrying the ball long distances from deep are.

Of course, it’s not as if he hasn’t played such a role before as he was devastating earlier this season when Arsenal defeated Napoli 2-0, combining impressively with Bacary Sagna on the right. As happened in that game, when Arsenal get their passing and moving right, their play can be intoxicating, but when it doesn’t work, it can look soporific. (With 60% of the possession, 438 completed passes is a curiously low amount). It needs to be fast, it needs to be accurate and crucially it needs to be in synch.

That places large demands on the players to be fit and mentally sharp. But when they’re feeling ill-effects, as Arsenal did in defeat against Manchester United, it can prove terminal. Arsenal need to find a way, when they’re not particularly playing that well – when the opponent has the edge – to not concede soft goals, to take their chances and somehow not lose. It’s an inexplicable quality that top teams have that is hard to define. Arsenal need to imbue it to their unique way of playing.

Figure 1: As Adrian Clarke highlights in “The Breakdown”, Arsenal’s players were below-par in possession, frequently squandering the ball to their opponents. Of Arsenal’s five midfielders, only Arteta bettered his season average pass accuracy – indicating in it’s own way, Arsenal’s ineffectiveness in the final third.

Passing accuracyvs Man UtdSeason average
Arteta94%93%
Flamini76%91%
Ramsey76%86%
Cazorla80%85%
Ozil80%87%
Team81%85%

Figure 2: Great Entertainers? Arsenal are known for their attacking football but there’s an argument that they should be offering more in front of goal for all their neat interplay.

 Shots on targetTotal shots
Aston Villa415
Fulham919
Sp*rs512
Stoke City614
West Brom412
Swansea410
Norwich1120
Crystal Palace410
Liverpool712
Man Utd210

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