When Man Utd and Arsenal meet, the footballing world stops and takes a look. Or at least, that’s how it used to be. It has been a long time since these two big clubs last challenged for the title, even longer since such a derby would play a vital role in the pursuit of that. Both Man Utd and Arsenal are in a transitioning stage, and both are fighting for a place in the Top 4. And winning this game would kickstart a run of games to challenge the other teams. With the stakes that high, the arena being the ol-mighty Old Trafford, everything pointed out for a spectacular – in terms of narratives- match.
Man Utd lined-up with a narrow diamond shape in the midfield that worked very well against RB Leipzig in the Champions League. The idea was to overwhelm and overrun the Arsenal midfield creating a numerical superiority, and avoid the Arsenal pressing.
McTominay played a bit deeper, receiving the ball from the defenders, Pogba and Fred flanked him and Fernandes was operating behind the attacking duo of Rashford and Greenwood. Solskjaer, fearful of Arsenal’s pace on the flanks, set up Bissaka and Shaw to play deep and avoid overlapping at the same time. Therefore the width of the team came from Rashford drifting to the left and Greenwood to the right.
Arsenal’s formation was changing, depending on the phase of the play the team was into. When defending deep, Arsenal’s formation was a 3-4-3, with Tierney operating as the 3rd defender on the left side. However, when they were pressing Man Utd high, their shape resembled the one of the United’s, to apply a man-to-man press high up the field. Willian was pressing Maguire, Lacazette the midfielder that came close to receive the ball, Aubameyang was shutting down the easy pass to the right back and the right-sided midfielder. This way, Man Utd defenders were forced to play the ball long, or make risky passes in their own third.
On attack their formation (mainly in the second half) was a 4-4-2, with both Lacazette and Aubameyang overloading the weakest part of Man Utd team; the central defenders.
This move helped the Gunners keep possession high on the opposition half, apply pressure to their defenders, and forced their midfielders to sit deeper and cover their back line. There are examples of this pattern played out in the game, where Aubameyang was moving closer to the middle and occasionally drifting wide, rather the other way round.
The game started with a lot of intensity from both sides, and for the first few minutes there wasn’t anything noteworthy in terms of chance creation. We saw Arsenal pressing the United’s back line in a man-to-man, making playing from the back difficult, and trying to exploit the overlapping of Tierny on the 4-4-2 formation in attack.
Arsenal was taking the leading role in the game and was trying to make something happen, especially after the first 10 minutes. The first big chance came in the 15th minute as Bellerin broke free down the right and drilled the ball across the goal with Aubameyang unable to provide the finishing touch.
The second big chance came in the 21st minute after a sublime pass from Rashford found Greenwood in the box, who shot the ball with power forcing Leno to push the ball for a corner.
The next chance came in the 38th minute after a near miss by Willian after his effort nicked the crossbar, leaving De Gea helpless to react. The final chance of the first half came after Bellerin placed a cross in the box and Saka missed a header in the 44th minute.
In the second half Man Utd changed the formation to a 4-2-3-1, with Pogba moving to the left, Rashford on top and Greenwood on the right wing. This seemed to work in the first few minutes as Man Utd managed to control the start of the second half. But the duo of Partey and Elneny, swiftly started to press better and closed down Fernandes and Pogba, and simply controlled the middle of the pitch on their own. With the use of this press and Lacazette’s work rate came the first chance in the second half; Lacazette in the 58th minute pressed Fred and won the ball, then he laid it out to Aubameyang on the left who took a shot first time, missing the post only by inches.
In the 68th minute, we saw a move that Arsenal has been doing on many occasions, and in this case, Arsenal was awarded a penalty. Willian received the ball on the wing by Partey, Bellerin made an underlapping run in between the lines, and Pogba tripped his legs. Mike Dean (of all people) awarded the penalty to Arsenal.
Aubameyang, very coolly and confident, placed the ball in the left side of De Gea, giving Arsenal the lead.
For the rest of the game, Man Utd upped their tempo and tried to create chances while Arsenal looked to see off the game and dropped deep to defend their clean sheet. Cavani, Rashford and co didn’t really attack the Arsenal goal and the Gunners managed to keep their goal intact for the final whistle.
There were two things Arsenal fans haven’t seen on the pitch since 2006; a variation of a 4-4-2 formation and an away win at Old Trafford. Adding the clean sheet to the equation, this is a massive win for Arsenal and will help them for the rest of the League in many ways. The league is still open and there is no clear who will compete for the Top 4 and who will stay out of it. And it’s a morale booster as well; see now, the narrative will be changed when Arsenal will meet one of the Top 6 again. Now they have a formula to win these games, the narrative of not winning a Top 5 since 2015 is gone, and the big boys are not going to shrug off Arsenal anymore.
If anyone said two months ago that Elneny would be one of the best performers on the Arsenal team, that would be at least laughable. But so it has it, Elneny, given the protection from Partey, is playing forward moving passes and manages to control the midfield. When the energy he shows when is needed is absolutely superb. This is a very much impressive sign and credits should go to the whole coaching team of Arteta, who clearly work on the individuals to adapt to the philosophy of the manager and improve the outcome on the pitch.
By Stelios Mouratidis