In the vast theatre of human endeavours, where the pursuit of meaning often reveals itself in the most unexpected of places, we find ourselves drawn to the sacred cathedral of football. In this timeless ritual, where passion transcends reason, and the spirit of camaraderie meets the cruelty of fate, a tapestry of narratives unfurls.
Picture, if you will, the canvas of a stadium – a canvas that bore witness to a spectacle of Shakespearean proportions. It was a game that encapsulated the very essence of existence–the agony and the ecstasy. Two misses, each a reflection of human frailty – Kai Havertz’s dance with destiny in the first half and young Bukayo Saka’s poignant second-half reverie, where the goalpost itself became a philosopher’s stone, transforming dreams into mere echoes.
But here, in this footballing microcosm, the hand of fate wove its intricate tapestry with VAR as its brush. A penalty decision, akin to a courtroom drama, saw the virtual adjudicator overturning the course of destiny. A seeming winner, etching the United narrative in glory, was cruelly rewritten by the ethereal judgments of technology.
The symphony of this saga reached its crescendo with the poetic flourish of Declan Rice, who, with one graceful stroke, composed a verse of triumph for Arsenal. Yet, as the world watched with bated breath, Gabriel Jesus, an artist in his own right, inscribed the final chapter with the pen of destiny, sealing Manchester United’s fate in the dying seconds.
Now, as we embark on a philosophical exploration, we’d dissect not just the goals and the misses but also the intricate tapestry of tactical battles that unfolded throughout this allegorical encounter. For in the realm of football, as in life, the pursuit of meaning often lies not in the outcome but in the profound narratives woven through the fabric of the beautiful game.
When Arsenal held possession, Anthony Martial’s primary role revolved around covering Arsenal’s pivot, Declan Rice. Subsequently, he seamlessly transitioned into pressing one of Arsenal’s center-backs. The duty of marking Rice then shifted to Bruno Fernandes, who tactically adjusted his positioning according to the ball’s location, switching from pressuring the pivot to engaging the second center-back.
In response to Arsenal’s box midfield, which featured Oleksandr Zinchenko, Rice, Havertz, and Martin Odegaard, Manchester United strategically introduced winger Antony to bolster their midfield presence and mark Zinchenko. This setup resulted in a balanced 4v4 midfield battle.
Casemiro diligently marked Havertz, Christian Eriksen attended to Odegaard, Antony effectively policed Zinchenko, and Bruno Fernandes pressed Rice, all the while maintaining a tight cover shadow. Arsenal’s advanced 8s, Havertz and Odegaard, often drifted wide, joining the wingers and striker in an attempt to overload the opposition’s defense.
To further stretch Manchester United’s defense, Arsenal positioned Rice and White on the right side alongside Saka. When Saka moved infield, it signaled White to overlap, creating opportunities for crosses or cutbacks to Saka, Odegaard, or Rice, who stood ready to recover and recycle possession in case of a turnover.
To address this challenge, United deployed Brazilian defensive midfielder Casemiro in a deeper defensive role to counter Arsenal’s numerical advantage. The ex-Real Madrid man was assigned to mark Havertz in the left half-space, while Eriksen marked Odegaard in the right half-space. However, Arsenal identified a vulnerability in United’s defensive structure between the lines, as Casemiro and Eriksen had shifted deep into the defense.
Antony continued to mark Zinchenko, Fernandes concentrated on a center-back while shadowing Rice, and Marcus Rashford diligently tracked Ben White. Arsenal’s striker, Eddie Nketiah, intelligently dropped into the space vacated by Eriksen and Casemiro, enabling him to facilitate play and distribute to Odegaard and Havertz. On occasion, Victor Lindelof, a United defender, attempted to contain Nketiah, but this strategy had its drawbacks. As the half-spaces opened up, Havertz and Odegaard effectively exploited these vacant areas, ultimately leading to the penalty that, in the end, was overturned.
In a tactical showdown at the Emirates, it was Manchester United who broke the deadlock in what proved to be a pivotal moment of the match. United’s strategy was clear from the outset – Andre Onana’s long balls targeted Rashford, looking to exploit the space behind Arsenal’s defense. However, Ben White’s ability to read the game and adapt without the presence of a traditional central striker was commendable. His positional awareness denied Rashford the opportunity to hold up the ball and receive it comfortably.
But football, as they say, is a game of moments. United’s predictability in their approach was occasionally disrupted when White ventured forward, joining the attack. Rashford found room to exploit, as White failed to backtrack in time. It was in these transitional situations that United’s midfield maestro, Eriksen, came into play. His incisive pass found Rashford in a prime scoring position, and the opener was calmly slotted past Onana.
However, the beauty of football lies in its constant evolution, and Arsenal swiftly responded. A small but critical structural adjustment saw Havertz and Zinchenko swapping roles. Zinchenko, now stationed wider on the pitch, created a 2v1 scenario with Gabriel Martinelli against Aaron Wan-Bissaka, allowing them to bypass the United right-back.
With Wan-Bissaka outnumbered and caught out of position, Lindelof was forced to cover the flanks, creating a 2v2 situation. Unfortunately for United, this left Nketiah unmarked and free in the space vacated by Lindelof. Eriksen, recognising the danger, was drawn to cover Nketiah, inadvertently freeing up another threat in the form of Odegaard. Martinelli found Odegaard with a precise pass, and the Norwegian midfielder made no mistake, calmly slotting the ball past Onana to equalize for Arsenal.
Arsenal took an assertive approach against Manchester United, choosing active pressing as their weapon of choice. Their strategy was to disrupt United’s short passing options, particularly targeting Onana in goal. This forced Onana into attempting long passes, seeking out Rashford making runs in behind the defense. However, United lacked the setup to disorganize Arsenal’s defense, making it easier for Ben White to handle Rashford in aerial duels, given his prowess in the air.
Yet, there were moments when White ventured forward, affording Rashford space to exploit, especially when White failed to track back promptly. Arsenal’s pressing game was multifaceted, with Nketiah pressing Lisandro Martinez, Saka shadowing Diogo Dalot, Havertz keeping Lindelof occupied, and Casemiro under Havertz’s cover shadow. Saka even occasionally inverted to offer support to the Arsenal midfield, demonstrating their adaptability.
In response to the challenges posed by Arsenal’s pressing, Manchester United adapted by switching to a back three in various configurations. Whether it was Lindelof, Casemiro, and Martinez or Onana, Lindelof, and Martinez, the aim was to find a solution. However, when Casemiro operated in defense with Eriksen as the lone pivot, the midfield could be overrun. Nketiah and Havertz relentlessly pressed the defense to prevent easy outlets, and Havertz effectively kept Eriksen under his cover shadow. To address this, Fernandez dropped deeper to assist Eriksen, but this adjustment left Wan-Bissaka free to make incursions into advanced positions.
Furthermore, Manchester United’s full-backs struggled with inverting deep into the midfield, leaving the team light in a midfield that was arguably their strongest asset. When Wan-Bissaka did attempt to invert, he often did so as an advanced midfielder, a role that didn’t play to his strengths, giving Arsenal opportunities to exploit his runs.
Additionally, when Jonny Evans and Harry Maguire came on as substitutes for United, their lack of pace became evident. This vulnerability was exploited in the second goal scored by Rice, where Evans failed to close him down, allowing Rice the time to control the ball and take a shot. This tactical chess match between Arsenal and Manchester United showcased the importance of adaptability and exploiting opponent weaknesses in modern football.
After the international break, there’s a glimmer of hope for the Manchester United faithful, a belief that the Red Devils will regroup and rediscover their form. Football is a sport of peaks and valleys, and this iconic club, steeped in history, has a knack for resurgence. The pause provided by the international fixtures allows them the time to reassess and reinvigorate. United’s faithful will be watching, with bated breath, for signs of the team’s resurgence in the coming matches.
In the other corner of North London, Arsenal’s unbeaten run this season has ignited dreams of Premier League glory. Yet, there’s a lingering shadow of past near-misses, epitomized by last season when Manchester City cut short their eight-point lead to claim the title. The question looms large: Can the Gunners maintain their impressive run and finally ascend to the pinnacle? It’s a journey filled with twists and turns, where consistency is key. As the ghosts of “Nearly Men” linger, Arsenal’s challenge will be to prove they have the mettle to go the distance.
Across the footballing landscape, Liverpool’s resurgence is hard to ignore. Their daily performances suggest a team reborn, eager to reestablish themselves as title contenders. The anomalies of the previous season seem but a distant memory, and the fierce rivalry with Manchester City is set for a thrilling revival. Amidst these narratives, Erik ten Hag’s tenure at Manchester United is a tantalizing story in itself.
Will he transform the Red Devils into an offspring of total football, akin to his tenure at Ajax? Or will he adapt, recognizing the squad’s strengths in counter-pressing and lethal counter-attacks? The answers remain uncertain, but amidst the tactical evolution, the signs of promise in Ten Hag’s ideas suggest a bright future for the club. As we traverse this footballing odyssey, we eagerly anticipate the chapters yet to be written.
By: Tobi Peter / @keepIT_tactical
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Catherine Ivill / Getty Images