It seems the patience of Jose Mourinho has finally run out with his overpaid star names. Manchester United’s Premier League team-sheet against Arsenal sprang a few surprises, not for the first time in their season. There was no Paul Pogba or Romelu Lukaku. Instead of the Scott McTominay centre-back experiment, Marcos Rojo earned some rare game time. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial were paired up front despite the former receiving public criticism from his manager. In this tactical analysis, we will use statistics from the match to explain the key points.
Intent to disrupt Arsenal
The intent was clear from the off. United pressed with intensity, forcing Arsenal into mistakes rather than outwitting the Londoners. Ander Herrera was the delegated destroyer in midfield alongside the seemingly undroppable Nemanja Matic. The Spaniard made eight attempted tackles in the match, double the next highest player, Jesse Lingard. His attempts were a third of his team’s total, a clear indication of the role he was tasked with.
Disrupting the flow of Arsenal’s more fluid midfield was working too. In the first 11 minutes alone, Arsenal lost possession through mistakes or tackles seven times. United, meanwhile, lost possession just once in that time. From then on, both sides lost possession a further 22 times, giving an overall total of 52.
He also came out well on top with interceptions, registering six. Again, this was double his nearest challenger in this metric. United as a team managed almost three times the amount of interceptions as Arsenal – 19 to seven. There were a number of reasons for this, and not all reflect badly on Unai Emery’s side.
For starters, as expected, the visitors dominated possession with 55.2% to 44.8%. The superior passing and creative skills of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira to United’s axis of Matic and Herrera created a platform for the more direct running of Alex Iwobi and scheming of Aaron Ramsey. Mourinho rarely cares about that statistic, as long as his players hustle their opponents into mistakes.
Errors influence the outcome
Individual errors made by both sides led to three of the four goals. If you include Arsenal’s defence switching off for Martial’s close-range equaliser, then all the goals were avoidable. David De Gea has long been the only truly world-class player in the United squad, but his horrendous handling error under a relatively harmless high ball gifted Arsenal the lead. Goal-line technology confirmed Herrera’s hooked clearance took place inches over the whitewash.
Marcos Rojo, who took the most shots of any player on the pitch, was at fault for Arsenal’s second. With enough time to play the ball sensibly, he instead dallied and squirted possession to Alexandre Lacazette. The Frenchman tore forwards after a neat one-two with former United man Henrikh Mkhitaryan before Rojo’s scrambling tackle only succeeded in poking the ball past De Gea.
He was redeemed with 13 seconds of the restart by Sead Kolasinac’s lapse in concentration. The Bosnian fullback was on hand as Sokratis struggled to cope with Lukaku’s presence from a Rojo long ball. His touch was indecisive, and rolled it into Lingard’s path to draw the score level.
It wasn’t pretty, by any means, and it isn’t a sustainable method given the energy expended. The change in tempo, attitude, and aggression was a welcome change to the apathetic performances of late, however. In the second half, in particular, pressing in the Arsenal half dropped off significantly.
The real question lies in how long the experiment to drop Lukaku and Pogba will last. Last night’s seven-man bench cost more in transfer fees than the starting XI. Pogba rarely responds well to criticism, preferring an almost deferential treatment to his quixotic genius. If the Frenchman can be blended into this enterprising setup successfully, then the possibilities are exciting.
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