Sunday, November 10, 2013

Organized United beat Arsenal in cagey contest

Robin Van Persie's first half header from a Wayne Rooney corner consigned Arsenal to their first league defeat since their opening day home loss to Aston Villa and closed the gap between the two sides to 5 points.

It was a contest with plenty of passion and organization from both sides but one that produced few genuine goal scoring opportunities or instances of stylish football. That the match ended with more yellow cards (5) than attempts on target (4) is indicative of the hard fought battles happening in midfield and lack of ideas in the final third. In truth the quality in possession was poor from both sides and it wasn't an especially entertaining contest.

Both sides opted for two central midfielders used to sitting just in front of the back four and defended in their own halves with compact banks of four. Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini played the holding midfield positions in Arsenal's 4-2-3-1 while Michael Carrick and Phil Jones played deep in midfield in United's 4-4-1-1. It was a sign both sides were concerned with the threat the opposition's attacking players posed in the seams between midfield and the back four. Both Arsene Wenger and David Moyes had the option of playing more of a box-to-box shuttler alongside a holder for a more attacking, proactive approach but chose the more cautious option. In Wenger's case he could have played Aaron Ramsey alongside either Arteta or Flamini. Moyes could have opted for Tom Cleverley alongside Carrick.

Manchester United looked slightly more dangerous in the opening exchanges enjoying more possession higher up the field than Arsenal. They advanced the ball into the attacking third mainly down the channels with both Rooney and Van Persie drifting into wide areas to create overloads for Arsenal's fullbacks and looked to get crosses in the box from these wide areas. They played 17 first half crosses to Arsenal's 8.

In this sense it was very much like a classic Alex Ferguson vs. Wenger contest from recent seasons. Manchester United used the width of the pitch while Arsenal looked to crowd the middle of midfield. Manchester United's goal came when Rooney drifted to the left flank and whipped in an excellent cross towards Van Persie that Vermaelen did well to clear for a corner. The two United forwards then of course combined for the opener on the ensuing corner.

Wenger's midfield trio of Ramsey, Ozil and Santi Cazorla was quite fluid. Both Ramsey and Cazorla tuck inside from their wide starting positions and the three frequently interchange positions. Usually this allows Arsenal to overload the opposition holding midfielders and control the game with possession. However, today the Gunners were unusually sloppy in possession and struggled to retain the ball. The positional interchanging of the three attacking midfielders is fine when Arsenal are bossing possession high up the pitch but can create big problems defensively when they're struggling to keep hold of the ball. It meant that when Arsenal turned the ball over, Cazorla, Ozil and Ramsey were frequently not in areas of the pitch where they could quickly recover into their proper defensive shape. Patrice Evra in particular was able to take advantage of Ramsey's narrow attacking position when United won the ball back, bombing down the left sideline into space.

Moyes was always a cautious manager when he had limited resources at Everton and has maintained that cautious approach at Manchester United in big games. After taking the lead United were careful not to get stretched, committing fewer bodies forward and maintaining a solid defensive shape. They defended in deep banks of four in the second half and despite three attacking substitutions from Arsenal, United's impressive defensive organization limited the away side's ability to find the space in the attacking third to create meaningful chances. United completed just 30 passes in the final third in the second half, illustrating that Moyes is more confident holding on to a one goal lead with an organized defensive approach than he is seeking out a second goal to kill the game off.

In the end that approach made for a less exciting encounter than many neutrals would have hoped but United will be unconcerned. Their third straight league win means that despite a rocky start to the campaign, they're now just 5 points off their league leading opponents today and are starting to find form.

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