Premier League 2021/22: How Arsenal heaped more misery on Manchester United to boost top-four chances – tactical analysis
Arsenal hosted Manchester United at the Emirates in what was a crucial game in the battle for fourth place. The home side started the day with a three-point cushion over their rivals and a game in hand as well.
After three defeats on the spin against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton, Arsenal bounced back in great style beating Chelsea 4-2 at Stamford Bridge in midweek. As for United, a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool meant that they have sunk to an all-time low and confidence was shot. With new boss Erik Ten Hag announced during the week, current interim manager Ralf Rangnick did not hold back during his pre-match press conference. “The good thing – one of the few – is it’s crystal clear. You don’t even need glasses to see the problems. Now it’s only about how you can solve them. Not minor cosmetic things. This is an open-heart operation.”
Despite Cristiano Ronaldo returning to the starting lineup and United showing an improved performance compared to the Liverpool one, they fell to a 3-1 defeat as Arsenal’s energy, hunger and dynamism proved too much on the day. The result puts Arsenal back in the driving seat to secure fourth spot and all but ends United’s chances of taking part in next year’s UEFA Champions League.
Mikel Arteta made one change to the side that beat Chelsea last Wednesday night. Cedric Soares came in for Rob Holding.
Arsenal XI (4-2-3-1): Aaron Ramsdale; Cedric Soares, Ben White, Gabriel Magalhães, Nuno Tavares; Mohamed Elneny, Granit Xhaka; Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, Emile Smith Rowe; Eddie Nketiah.
Ralf Rangnick made wholesale changes after the midweek humiliation at Anfield. Harry Maguire, Phil Jones, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford made way for Raphaël Varane, Alex Telles, Scott McTominay, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Manchester United XI (4-2-3-1): David De Gea; Diogo Dalot, Victor Lindelof, Raphaël Varane, Alex Telles; Nemanja Matic, Scott McTominay; Anthony Elanga, Jadon Sancho, Bruno Fernandes; Cristiano Ronaldo.
Arsenal mainly pressed in a 4-4-2 shape in order to cover United’s double pivot in Matic and McTominay and force the centre-backs to have a lateral build-up. When the ball was played from Lindelof to Varane, Ødegaard had to jump out fast and join Nketiah in closing down the two United centre-backs to prevent them time on the ball and block them from playing vertical passes into feet.
From a United goal kick, we can see Nketiah and Ødegaard pressing high. The pass to Matic is locked, meaning Varane now has only two passing options and ends up playing it to Lindelof.
When the Swede receives it, Elneny bursts forward to put pressure behind the United double pivot and Smith Rowe positions himself close to Dalot. Thus, Lindelof is forced to play a long ball towards Ronaldo and Arsenal win back possession.
A big weakness in United’s build-up play is De Gea’s ability to play with his feet. The majority of top teams utilize their goalkeepers when building up from the back. Arsenal took advantage of the non-drop offs from Matic or McTominay. The absence of proactivity in the build-up phase makes the task simpler for Arsenal to time and execute the pressing sequences.
Throughout the season, Manchester United’s left side has been the dominant area in advancing the ball, mainly with Telles/Shaw and Sancho linking up and looking to play the quick one-two. In the 24th minute, Telles feeds the ball to Sancho with his back to goal and makes a run inside of him in support.
As seen below, Ødegaard, Saka, Elneny and Cedric all rapidly close down the nearest man and block all passing lanes. Sancho ends up attempting a back-heel to Telles which Saka intercepts. This was a recurring theme in the game as United struggled to break Arsenal’s dense man-marking.
United had more pressing phases during the game since Arsenal had the fair share of possession. Ramsdale was often deployed in line with the two centre-backs to avoid numerical inferiorities in the first build-up phase. As Ramsdale is known to attempt many vertical passes and take risks, United pressed in a narrow shape and forced the goalkeeper to make errors. Here, his pass is cut-off by McTominay and reaches Fernandes on the edge of the box, but he takes too much time to shoot and his effort is blocked for a corner.
The Gunners were able to find alternatives, with McTominay and Matic camped outside Arsenal’s box, Ødegaard would drop deep to receive the ball knowing that Lindelof and Varane were not pushing high into midfield on his backside. On this occasion, Ramsdale is able to find Ødegaard in acres of space and Arsenal can break forward.
In United’s pressing structure, Elanga and Sancho brilliantly jumped on the full-backs whenever Arsenal played lateral balls.
Here, the press is in full flow. Fernandes hunts down the goalkeeper and Sancho closes down White who is forced to get the ball out of his feet to Elneny. The Egyptian midfielder, surrounded by blue shirts, plays a first time pass out to Cedric as Matic races down towards him.
Cedric receives the ball, it is clear that Ødegaard is wide open and it looks like a straightforward pass to release him.
But Sancho senses the danger and sprints back to intercept the ball before reaching Ødegaard. This was a tactic adopted by Rangnick mainly in the first half with Sancho and Elanga. United managed to win the ball back high on a couple of occasions but did not take advantage or create clear-cut chances on goal.
Arsenal quickly adjusted and started playing more vertically. Elneny’s positioning and movement being key in progressing the ball and disrupting the Bruno-McTominay-Matic set up.
However, this United energy was obviously not sustainable. The team switched their pressing shape into a more relaxed 4-4-2 out of possession. They focused on cutting vertical progression, but Elneny or Xhaka’s drop offs often led to 3v2 in Arsenal’s first phase of possession.
Ødegaard and Smith Rowe half-space dominance
Similar to the Chelsea game, Arteta shifted between a 4-2-3-1 and a 3-4-3/3-2-5 during different phases of the contest. Cedric moved inside as a third central defender, Ødegaard and Smith Rowe dropped into the pockets between the lines. Saka and Tavares provided the width.
In possession, the right lane became the main passing channel for Arsenal. It forced Matic to accompany Ødegaard’s movements and stretch the distance between him and McTominay, exposing United’s midfield.
One of the moves of the match happened in the 25th minute. Elneny receives the ball from Smith Rowe on the edge of the box. Focus on Ødegaard between Telles and Varane. Saka is unmarked on the right wing.
When Ødegaard receives the ball Telles applies pressure but the Norwegian provides a one-touch back-heel, not for Saka, but into Nketiah’s path as Dalot keeps him onside. Brilliant vision! Fans were on their feet waiting for the net to burst but De Gea came to United’s rescue yet again.
Ødegaard was constantly moving in between Varane and Telles, dragging them central which would allow Saka to receive the ball in space and cause damage.
For Arsenal’s second goal, Elneny splits United’s CMs as Ødegaard is again positioned between the lines behind United’s midfield.
He then turns and slides the ball to Saka on the right wing. Saka carries the ball forward creating a 2v2, with Cedric making an overlapping run and Sancho tracking back to support Telles.
Cedric’s overlap allows Saka to cut inside. He squares the ball to Ødegaard and makes a movement away from Sancho into the box. This forces Telles to leave Cedric and track Saka centrally.
Ødegaard demonstrated exquisite vision yet again with a dink over the United back-line into Saka, with Sancho failing to stay with his man. Telles senses the danger but arrives late with a challenge from behind giving away a penalty.
Saka’s best option throughout the game was to drag markers towards him (Matic, Sancho, Telles) and cut in towards his left, link up with Ødegaard who could then either combine with Smith Rowe or shift the ball back to Arsenal’s #7 who was making runs in behind.
On the opposite side of the pitch, Tavares was a major cause of havoc during the game, starting from the first goal. After Saka’s initial effort is denied by De Gea, Dalot is not aware of his surroundings and allows Tavares to go round him and tuck in the rebound.
Here, Elneny bypasses Bruno and looks to split Matic and Elanga to find Smith Rowe in the half space. When Smith Rowe receives the ball, he shields it from Elanga and his positioning attracts Dalot and allows Tavares to burst forward into the left channel.
Dalot initially does not commit but following Smith Rowe’s heavy first touch, he looks to make a challenge but arrives late. The ball finds its way to Tavares on the left but he ends up skying his shot.
Ronaldo’s movement and link-up play
United’s main threat came down Arsenal’s left-hand side where Ronaldo was dropping off Gabriel into midfield. He was constantly looking to receive the ball and supply the runners around him.
As early as the fifth minute, following a Bruno and Ronaldo combination, he drags out Gabriel and slides a ball for Elanga to break free which ends up in a save from Ramsdale on the near post.
Later on, as Dalot collects the ball and looks up for options, Ronaldo drops into the space on the left channel with Gabriel slow to close him down. He controls Dalot’s inside pass as Elanga quickly looks to make a run past Tavares who is caught ball watching.
Ronaldo identifies that and glides the ball across the left-back for Elanga, running off his shoulder, to break goal-side. He ends up being clipped by Tavares from behind, but VAR deemed that it was not worthy of a penalty.
United’s goal showed why Ronaldo is still regarded as one of the most lethal weapons inside the penalty area.
After a quick break, Ronaldo is in possession on the left wing with little to no support in and around Ramsdale’s goal. He lays it to Sancho and makes his way into the box.
Around 14 seconds later Ronaldo is positioned perfectly in the gap between Gabriel and Tavares to create the opening and convert Matic’s cross. With that goal, Ronaldo became the first player in history to score 100+ goals the Premier League, La Liga and the Champions League. He could have added a second after latching on to a Bruno flick-on in the second half but it was ruled out for offside by millimetres.
Around the hour mark, United are breaking forward with Telles. Ronaldo makes a run outside of Tavares to stretch the pitch. Telles finds him with a cross as Dalot strides forward on the right-hand side.
Ronaldo collects the ball and makes a movement towards the box attracting three Arsenal players. He then swiftly plays in Dalot whose shot is knocked onto the post by Ramsdale.
Arsenal’s back-to-back victories against rivals Chelsea and Manchester United indicates that they have got their mojo back after a sticky spell. After Tottenham’s draw at Brentford on Sunday, a top-four finish is in the Gunners’ hands as they now occupy fourth spot two points above Spurs. The North London derby on the 12th of May is potentially shaping up as the decider.
As for United, despite creating enough chances (hitting the post, crossbar and missing a penalty) to get something from the game, it spells another grim day in their recent history. This defeat handed them their fourth consecutive away league loss; any hopes of playing Champions League football next year have withered. After 34 games, they now have their lowest points tally in Premier League history, while conceding 51 goals. Only six teams in the league have conceded more goals, which tells the whole story. The season cannot end soon enough for these United players and fans. Erik Ten Hag will certainly have his hands full come the summer. With the dressing room reportedly “a disaster” and as many as up to ten players heading towards the exit door, a significant rebuild and cultural reset is required.