Premier League 2022/23: Why Arsenal vs Manchester United could be one of the most interesting tactical battles of the season – tactical preview
Christmas has come late for Premier League viewers. Last weekend, a double-derby header took place as Manchester United battled local rivals Manchester City while Arsenal went head-to-head with a struggling Tottenham Hotspur.
These games certainly didn’t disappoint. Man United triumphed in the Manchester Derby at home for just the second time in three years, ending the game in dramatic, yet controversial fashion as Marcus Rashford poked the ball through the legs of Ederson to claim a 2-1 victory at the Theatre of Dreams.
Meanwhile, the Gunners cruised to the end against Spurs, collecting all three points after a Hugo Lloris howler and a Martin Ødegaard wonder strike outside the area put their bitter rivals to bed in Tottenham’s own backyard.
Now, England’s top-flight division is delivering the goods once more, starting with Chelsea’s trip to Anfield. Both sides are in desperate form at the moment and sit ninth and tenth in the league which seems like a fever dream for both sets of fans.
This battle of the strugglers is followed by one of the biggest games of the season as Arsenal host Manchester United at the Emirates Stadium, with the two sides in hot form at the moment.
United’s incredible recent run dating back to November has seen them in the conversation for the title with half the season left to go but the points gap stands at eight right now. However, a victory against the Gunners would have both the league leaders and Man City watching anxiously over their shoulders.
On the flip side, the home team have the chance to put United’s title hopes to bed and extend the gap to their old foes to a comfortable stretch of eleven points.
But bear in mind, Arsenal have only lost once this season in the Premier League and that was to none other than Erik ten Hag’s Red Army back in September. Will history repeat itself, or will the Mancunian giants come crashing back down to earth?
With the top of the table clash set to kick off this Sunday, we have decided to perform an analysis of the historic fixture. This article will be a tactical analysis preview, forecasting the tactics that can be expected from both sets of managers.
Formations and lineups
There likely won’t be any innovation from either side in terms of formation choices this weekend. Both Arsenal and Manchester United have been extremely consistent with regard to the shapes that they line up in.
In fact, there has been a lot of similarities between both sides when it comes to formations. A 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid is at the very core of the tactical contrast.
Arsenal will almost definitely deploy a 4-3-3 with Thomas Partey sitting at the base of the midfield while Martin Odegaard and Granit Xhaka will play further ahead, operating between the lines.
In front of Aaron Ramsdale in goal, Arteta’s backline may consist of Ben White, William Saliba, Gabriel and Oleksandr Zinchenko.
Meanwhile, Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli will hold the width for the Gunners as part of a front three, flanking Eddie Nketiah up top. This is the exact same starting lineup that put Tottenham to the sword with ease last Sunday afternoon. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
The only question mark for Arsenal is whether Kieran Tierney will start the game at left-back over Zinchenko.
The Ukrainian star is often used in an inverted role for Arsenal which may suit United’s right-winger, especially since the Reds counterattack with a lot of width and so there will be exploitable space down this flank on the break for the visitors.
There is a little more wiggle room for a tactical tweak by Manchester United. With just about ten minutes left on the clock on Wednesday night, Casemiro hacked down Wilfried Zaha at the edge of the area to pick up his fifth yellow card of the Premier League campaign, keeping him out of Sunday’s clash with Arsenal.
This was a huge blow for United and one which tilts the odds even greater in Arsenal’s favour. However, ten Hag masterminded a victory over the league leaders back in September without the five-time UEFA Champions League winner and so he can do it again.
Nevertheless, Casemiro’s importance to the side cannot be understated, particularly with his domination of the midfield out of possession.
David De Gea will definitely start in goal for the visitors, behind a potentially unchanged back four of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez and Luke Shaw.
The midfield will see a change, but it will be interesting to observe whether ten Hag opts for a straight swap, bringing Scott McTominay or Fred into the fold in place of Casemiro, or if the pair will start together.
Last Saturday, the Dutchman deployed Fred alongside his compatriot Casemiro, with Bruno Fernandes shoehorned out wide and Christian Eriksen pushed up into the number ‘10’ role.
Normally, ten Hag has utilised a 4-3-3 with United, particularly in possession. However, without the protection of Casemiro in front of the defence, this will probably revert into more of a 4-2-3-1 in all phases which the side certainly are not strangers to.
Ten Hag seems pretty certain on having Marcus Rashford on the left with Antony on the opposite flank but the other question mark for the Reds is surrounding the centre-forward position.
Wout Weghorst was handed his debut on Wednesday at Selhurst Park, but the colossal frontman underwhelmed throughout despite having decent moments, especially in the first half.
This was the type of game that suited Weghorst given the nature of his style of play and so, with Arsenal likely to dominate possession, ten Hag may prefer to put Anthony Martial back into the lineup.
Either way, both sides possess immense quality, even without Casemiro involved. But quality alone will not be enough to pick up all three points at the Emirates. The two managers must get their tactics spot on. Let’s look at key areas where this game can be won and lost.
Manchester United’s mixed defensive approach
Manchester United conceded more goals than ever before in the Premier League last season, allowing a whopping 57 goals to fly past David de Gea.
The side were woeful from a defensive standpoint and hardly kept a clean sheet over the course of the campaign. Ten Hag went to work straight away to rectify this issue, bringing Lisandro Martinez, Casemiro and Tyrell Malacia to the club to shore up the defence.
United have conceded 22 goals this season in 19 games which still isn’t ideal. However, ten of these goals came in two matches early into the campaign versus Brentford and Man City.
Since losing 6-3 in the derby at the beginning of October, United have conceded merely eight league goals in total, showing a drastic improvement defensively.
Ten Hag has primarily opted to use a zonal defensive block out of possession, with United dropping back quite a lot instead of pressing intensely up the pitch.
In the Premier League, United are ranked 12th for Passes allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA) with 11.95, meaning they allow the opposition to play more passes than the majority of the division.
Against Crystal Palace on Wednesday was a perfect example of ten Hag’s defensive approach. There seems to be a false narrative that the Red Devils press really high up the pitch and with intensity, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
United press occasionally, but primarily prefer to sit outside the box, waiting for the attacking side to play a loose pass or a backwards ball before stepping up as a unit.
We can see this from Anthony Martial’s average defensive line height from the 2022/23 league campaign.
Martial, being the leader of the press, tends to engage just at the start of the final third, registering very few interceptions or defensive actions overall in the last third of the pitch.
When United drop lower down the pitch, the side consolidate into a 4-2-3-1 mid-block, which shifts into a 4-4-2 depending on whether the number ’10’ steps up to press one of the centre-backs alongside the striker or if they sit off onto the opposition’s deepest midfielder.
The aim for Manchester United is to force the opposition to play out wide and to block passing lanes between the lines to prevent the attacking team from playing through the centre of the pitch.
Nevertheless, this approach changed against Manchester City in the derby. United went with more of a man-for-man approach with several players, while the forward line pressed situationally.
Pep Guardiola’s side are masters at breaking down zonal blocks, often overloading certain areas of the pitch to reach a free man and using their superior quality all over the park to penetrate the sturdiest of structures.
With the embarrassing 6-3 defeat still fresh in the back of the former Ajax boss’ mind, ten Hag switched up United’s defensive approach, instructing his midfield trio to go man-for-man against City’s three in middle.
Casemiro would man-mark Bernardo Silva, Fred would follow Kevin De Bruyne and Eriksen would sit on Rodri.
Added to this, Raphael Varane would follow Erling Haaland into deeper areas of the pitch when the Norwegian goal-machine would drop short in search of the ball, while Luke Shaw would be the free man at the back.
Furthermore, given the nature of how the two systems clashed against one another, this left Malacia and Aaron Wan-Bissaka in 1v1 battles versus City’s wingers Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden.
The front three of Rashford, Fernandes and Martial were outnumbered 4v3 against City’s back four as Guardiola held his fullbacks deeper alongside the central defenders. To battle against this, United’s wingers would press invertedly, cutting off the passing lanes to the fullbacks and forcing the City centre-backs to move the ball inside.
Why is this important information? Essentially, this is a near-identical setup that ten Hag used in the 3-1 win over Arsenal back in September given the similarities between Guardiola and Arteta’s teams in possession.
Fernandes would sit on the Gunners’ deepest midfielder, while Eriksen and McTominay would man-mark the players in the halfspaces.
Malacia and Diogo Dalot were also left in individual battles with Saka and Martinelli and one of United’s centre-backs would follow Gabriel Jesus into deeper areas when the Brazilian came short for the ball.
Finally, the front three pressed Arsenal’s back four, as the two wingers attempted to cut out the passing lanes to the fullbacks, trying to force the league leaders to play into the feet of a man-marked player.
Arsenal haven’t changed the way they play and so it is highly likely that we will see ten Hag opt for the same defensive approach, using his duel-based, man-oriented/zonal hybrid system at the Emirates Stadium this weekend.
How can Arsenal beat United’s defensive scheme?
But how can Arsenal beat this defensive scheme that will be put up by Manchester United? Well, there are two main ways.
Firstly, the wingers will be of utmost importance. In 1v1 duels, the Gunners’ wide players are some of the best in the Premier League. Ten Hag will be taking a massive risk by going 1v1 versus Martinelli and Saka due to the damage the duo can cause against their fullbacks.
Arsenal always look to isolate their wingers versus the opposition’s wide defender anyway. Against Tottenham Hotspur in the North London Derby last Sunday, this worked wonders, particularly with Saka who had the better of Ryan Sessegnon on more than one occasion.
In fact, Arsenal scored the opening goal from this very situation. The three-time Premier League champions always overload one side of the pitch to try and entice the opposition’s defensive block to shift across to make up the numbers on the ball side.
From there, Arteta likes his opposite winger to pull wide in order to receive from a switch of play. As the opponent’s fullback/wingback will be the first to get across, Arsenal can create these 1v1 situations where Saka or Martinelli will likely come out on top.
Last Sunday, Saka managed to isolate Sessegnon, drop his shoulder and get to the byline, giving him an extra yard of space to whip a ball into the box. Incredibly, his delivery was deflected, and Hugo Lloris spilt the ball into his own net, giving Arsenal the lead.
Saka is deadly in 1v1 situations and has been so successful when dribbling past his man in and around the penalty area to create chances for Arsenal or to even get a show away at goal, as can be seen from his progressive carries map above.
As ten Hag will likely go man-for-man against Arsenal wingers, Saka and Martinelli have an excellent chance of being a threat from the wide areas by getting the better of United’s fullbacks.
Regardless of whether Dalot, Wan-Bissaka, Malacia or Shaw start on the flanks for the Red Devils, they will need to be on top of their game to stop two of the most potent wingers in the division in 1v1 battles this Sunday.
The second method Arsenal can use to break down United’s man-oriented/zonal defensive hybrid is by trying to play to the fullbacks.
As spoken about in the previous section, to cover four players with just the front three, ten Hag will instruct his wingers to press from out to in, cutting off passing lanes out to Arsenal’s fullbacks.
However, if the Gunners can use the midfielders as a wall pass to play out to the free fullbacks, both White and Zinchenko/Tierney will be able to receive the ball with plenty of time and space. From there, the fullbacks can advance forward and overload United’s fullbacks 2v1 with the winger, creating a real threat on the flanks.
In the derby win over City, the visitors recognised that the fullbacks were always free while United were trying to bait the centre-backs to play inside.
To reach the fullbacks, who were in the cover shadows of the wingers, City’s central defenders would pass it inside before bouncing it out wide, using the fullbacks as the free third-man.
This is risky because playing inside offers United the opportunity to jump and win possession but is still an excellent way to find the free fullback when executed correctly.
Arsenal can utilise this to their advantage to beat the forward line and find the fullbacks to push forward and create those 2v1 situations with the wingers.
While everyone is discussing how sumptuous and scintillating Arsenal have been under Mikel Arteta this season on the ball, it’s worth noting just how excellent the Gunners have been out of possession.
Arsenal are one of the highest-pressing sides in the Premier League this season and have registered 214 high regains, 317 counterpressing recoveries and 75 dangerous recoveries in total which is insanely good.
The centre-forward is one of the most important components of Arsenal’s press. The striker is the player tasked with bending his run to cut off the passing lane to one of the opponent’s centre-backs to force the attacking team to play to one side of the pitch.
Once this is done, the Gunners push across and apply a man-for-man strategy on the flanks, aggressively closing players down to try and win the ball back as quickly as possible or to force the other side to play long.
Arsenal did this really well against Spurs last Sunday and the Lilywhites really struggled to build up play from the back, constantly opting to go more direct towards Harry Kane who was isolated up top.
Here, Arteta’s men have forced Tottenham out to the right side of the pitch and applied an intense man-marking system to regain the ball which they managed to do on countless occasions.
Manchester United have significantly improved their ability to play out from the back as the season has progressed under ten Hag. However, this was tested on Saturday against the extreme pressure of City.
United haven’t really faced such an aggressively high-pressing team in several months and so have looked flawless when passing out from the back. But there were moments of wobbling in the derby as Guardiola’s men hunted the ball down in the final third, causing de Gea to play long quite often.
With Arsenal set to press United very high up the pitch this weekend, United’s back four and goalkeeper will be tested once more to see if they can handle the pressure. Will they prevail? Let’s wait and see.
This will not only be a battle of two world-class teams, but also a clash of two of the greatest minds in English football right now.
Man United will want to pick up three points after Wednesday’s disappointing draw at Selhurst Park while Arsenal will be hoping to put a swift end to the visitors’ title hopes.
This could be a battle for the ages and both managers will need to get their tactics spot on to give their sides the best chance of coming out on top.