A Fan’s Preview of United Against Arsenal

Manchester United has nine victories and only one loss in their last 12 matches against Arsenal; one of those wins was a solid 8-2 battering of Wenger’s side in which Rooney recorded a hat-trick. Fortunes are reversed, at least for now, and Sunday’s game at Old Trafford will be one of Moyes’s biggest and toughest tests in his still young tenure. A win would extend United’s streak and build on momentum. A loss, however, would seriously jeopardize the Red Devils’s chances of claiming the domestic league.

With Mesut Ozil that a habitual penny-pinching Wenger acquired from Real Madrid in a club record of £42.5 million, Ramsey who has found the scoring touch he once enjoyed before the horrific injury he suffered at the hands of Ryan Shawcross, an ever impressive Wilshere, and a breaking out striker in Olivier Giroud, Arsenal have rejuvenated themselves.

Wenger operated in a 4-3-3 formation for years, and only recently has he made the full-time switch to the 4-2-3-1. The real reason for transitioning to the in-vogue 4-2-3-1 is unclear, but an educated guess alludes to Alex Song’s departure as the main reason. In Wenger’s new formation philosophy, attacking midfielders must all be technical and creative, and sometimes, small. Ozil is the No. 10 and the supplier of chances, assists and a few goals.

This isn’t the first clash between Wenger and Moyes’s coaching philosophies. When Andrew Johnson smashed the ball home in stoppage-time in March 2007 to give Everton both a 1-0 win over Arsenal and a significant boost in their push for a Europa League place, Arsenal’s most visible weakness was yet again emphasized: they could be easily roughed up. Not anymore. The Gunners have become more resilient  and Moyes has only won once against Arsenal since March 2007.Wenger has added a little bit of bite and tenacity in his midfield with the signing of Mathieu Flamini, a player the opposition views as destructive.

The addition of Flamini has provided a much needed element of toughness, but also, it has built the base from which the offense thrives. On the majority of Arsenal’s goals this season, the defensive midfielders played a vital role by being disciplined distributors and thus allowing the creative talents ahead to wreak havoc. They have been able to shine with the help of full-backs stepping forwards and creating overloads. Let’s for example look at Santi Cazorla’s goal against Liverpool.

With Suarez, Sturridge, and Henderson a little laxed in their marking, Arteta is presented with an opportunity and attacks the right flank; he is able to connect with Sagna who has overlapped on a sweet through ball, despite pressure from Sakho. In the meantime, Lucas is closing in on the right; Gerrard is out of position and Flanagan is way out wide.

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Sagna is then able to create space between himself and Cissokho and delivers a cross behind Giroud (who has drawn the attention of Skirtel and Toure) that find a wide open Carzola who has trailed all the way from midfield. Cazorla first rings the post but reacts quick to spank the bouncing ball back across goal and into the corner with no one bothering him.

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While this play might seem mundane at first, this goal highlights how efficient the Arsenal defensive midfield can be when unpressured. Liverpool went for a high pressure, weren’t able to regroup on time, and paid the price. They should have instead proceeded through Suarez and Sturridge to put pressure on Ramsey and Arteta while the rest of the Liverpool midfield sat back.

Arsenal’s resources have been deployed not to plug holes or diversify into their weaknesses but instead to feed their strengths, above all that revolving fluency in midfield. Let’s look at Arsenal’s second goal against Liverpool.

With Suarez and Sturridge relieved of any significant defensive marking in their own half, Gerrard and Skirtel pressure Ozil while Sakho and Lucas watch Giroud and Rosicky, respectively. Moreover, Henderson sits in the middle while Flanagan has dropped from his usual position to keep an eye on Cazorla.

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With half the Liverpool squad shifted right, Ozil realizes the space in front of the box and delivers a pass to Ramsey who started a run towards goal. Ramsey beneficiates from the available space between Liverpool’s defense and offense, is further aided by Giroud’s run which occupies the defense, and puts a volley that sends Emirates Stadium into an absolute frenzy.

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Although the end result is a goal that defies gravity, the Liverpool midfield once again sinned and allowed Ramsay to run towards goal unmarked. Rodgers should have tasked Suarez and Sturridge with more defensive work. With half the Liverpool squad on the flank, Ramsey has a clear path towards goal and Henderson should have dropped with him once it became apparent the defense was busy coping with the threat on the right side.

By keeping Ramsey and Flamini in constant check and forcing Arsenal’s attacking midfielders back to alleviate the pressure, United can prevent the Gunners from finding gaps in the final third – an area highlighted as a weakness by  Dortmund, and a necessity given the duo’s pass success rates of 86% and 93% respectively this season. Against Arsenal,  Jurgen Klopp fielded one striker upfront, five midfielders and four at the back, a variation of the 4-2-3-1 which is so dear to Moyes, and made it hard for Arsenal to advance at times as showed in the image below.

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Klopp kept his side disciplined and made sure the spine of his team wasn’t altered by sitting back, and playing all men behind the ball when Arsenal had possession.

With Gibbs and Sagna almost always eager to contribute offensively, Arsenal is sometimes quite vulnerable in defense, the bedrock of their recent success. Even Mertesacker’s tactical astuteness and Koscielny’s pace that serves as a complement to his colleague’s strategic acumen could not make a difference as seen here against Dortmund. Arsenal tried to match them blow for blow and pushed them back to control the midfield; they were aggressive and were punished in the end.

Dortmund’s second goal starts with Lewandowski who recovers the ball from midfield and passes it to Mkhitaryan, and because Sagna vacated his spot, Mertesacker is forced to come out and momentarily challenge the Dortmund strike. Mkhitaryan then passes to Aubameyang who in turns gives it to Grobkreutz. Grobkreutz is able to make a run and deliver a cross that finds a wide open Lewandowski at the far post who bangs it home.

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This sucker punch from Dortmund highlights how Sagna’s advanced positioning and Rosicky’s narrowness can be the source of defensive woes and something to exploit for opposing teams.

The two aforementioned strategies aren’t very dissimilar from the formula Sir Alex Ferguson concocted on how to play a Wenger team : sit deep, hit hard, break fast. The pattern was repeated in all manner of games, from the 2008-09 Champions League semifinal victory to a 2011 fifth-round FA Cup tie in which Ferguson fielded seven defenders but still won 2-0. An all too willing Ferguson explains his strategy in his recently published book “We didn’t need to win the ball against Arsenal, we needed to intercept it. You need good payers who can intercept. We worked out that when the ball was played into [Cesc] Fabregas with his back to goal, he would turn round the corner and meet the return pass… so we would say to our players: ‘Stay with the runner, then intercept the pass.’ Then we counter-attacked quickly.”

On Sunday, Moyes will try to nullify the link-up play Giroud provides Arsenal with, deal with Ozil’s alertness, and put a spoke in Arsenal’s defensive midfield’s wheel. For all the complications linked to Ferguson lingering, and all the comparisons with the drama of Matt Busby’s retirement, this is one game where Moyes could benefit from a lengthy discussion with his predecessor.

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