Manchester United vs Arsenal used to be one of the blockbuster fixtures of the Premier League calendar, but both clubs’ struggles in recent years have downgraded this game somewhat.
Nevertheless, it remains an important game in the Premier League fixture calendar, and both teams’ respective campaigns so far added some intrigue to proceedings. United were on a run of three games without a win in the league, while Arsenal were unbeaten for 19 games in all competitions. Many football betting tips suggested that Arsenal would go to Old Trafford and continue that unbeaten run.
Unai Emery had gained a lot of praise for his tactics and substitutions in the 4-2 derby win over Tottenham, while Jose Mourinho was struggling to get anything resembling a cohesive performance out of his team. It was set up for a fascinating encounter between two contrasting sides, and while the game was decided through individual errors, it was an entertaining one nonetheless.
Mourinho stuck to the back three he deployed against Southampton, with Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo flanking Chris Smalling, while in midfield, Paul Pogba was dropped from the XI, with Ander Herrera partnering Nemanja Matic. Diogo Dalot and Matteo Darmian were the wing-backs, and another big-money signing in Romelu Lukaku also returned to the bench, as Mourinho trusted Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial up front.
Lingard helps United start brightly
One of the biggest issues with Manchester United this season has been their passivity on and off the ball. They remain one of the only top-level sides in Europe to not employ some form of pressing off the ball, while there is a lack of movement in possession. Therefore, the start to the game at Old Trafford came as a bit of a surprise, with United showing intensity and initiative, and Arsenal looking increasingly flustered and erratic on the ball. Key to this was Jesse Lingard – he repeatedly found space between the lines, and kept United’s passing tempo high through quick one-touch layoffs –
Arsenal struggled in the opening quarter of the match, as their midfield was repeatedly caught out of position. Both Guendozi and Torreira were guilty of pushing too far up the pitch at times, which allowed the likes of Lingard and Herrera to find space behind them. Given that Lingard was drifting into central positions to create overloads, one of the two Arsenal midfielders should have stayed deeper, or one of the centre-backs should have picked him up. Nonetheless, this spell of United pressure failed to create a breakthrough.
Arsenal attack down the left
United’s right-hand flank would have been considered vulnerable when the team-sheets were released, with rookie Diogo Dalot playing as the wing-back. Eric Bailly’s was United’s right-sided centre-back, and while on form he is the best defender at the club, this was his first Premier League appearance since October. The Gunners’ emphasis on attacking down their left flank can be seen in their heat map from the match –
Sead Kolasinac, Arsenal’s left wing-back, had the third-highest touches (70) of any Arsenal player, behind only the central midfield pair of Guendozi and Torreira. He also made the most key passes (3) of any player in the game, illustrating Arsenal’s tilt towards their left flank. A look at his touch map shows this –
Rashford getting better as a striker
Marcus Rashford has received a lot of criticism in recent weeks, especially after his catalogue of misses in the Champions League game against Young Boys. While those were chances which he should have taken, it must be remembered that this is still a 21-year old, who has played the majority of this season out on the left flank. While the Englishman did not score in this game, his pace and directness were vital to United pressing late on for a winner, and he led the line well too, holding the ball up when required before moving out wide when Lukaku was introduced. His contribution was best exemplified in the second half when he received the ball on the halfway line with Sokratis pressuring him – the youngster held him off before playing a wonderful pass out to the marauding Dalot. The move came to nothing, but in that one passage of play, Rashford provided a greater threat than Lukaku did in his 28-minute cameo.
All four goals in the game came from individual errors – De Gea made a horrible mistake for Arsenal’s opener, while the Gunners’ defence collectively went to sleep to allow Martial to tuck home the equalizer. Marcos Rojo scored a hilarious own goal, and Kolasinac’s heavy touch allowed Lingard to pounce and restore parity once again. The goals, therefore, were in keeping with the theme of the game, where individual errors abounded and both sides struggled to maintain a grip over proceedings. Unai Emery’s usual game-changing substitutions were not made this time around owing to injuries, while Mourinho just about managed to come away with a point from a game many had feared United would lose badly. This was more a point earned than two points lost for both sides, although they both lost ground to rivals and United now look extremely unlikely to make the top four.
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