The hugely anticipated match between an unbeaten and top-of-the-league Arsenal side and the recently rejuvenated Manchester United finally comes to its head at Old Trafford. It was the first meeting between Erik Ten Hag and Mikel Arteta, with both managers once apprentices of Pep Guardiola. All these made up for an intriguing encounter.
Going with Manchester United’s latest signing of Antony in the starting line-up, Erik ten Hag pulled a trick with the starting of Antony and unlike Casemiro who has always been introduced from the bench, one could be forgiven for expecting Antony to either come from the bench or left out from the team completely, it was rather a surprise that Ten Hag started with Antony and dropping Anthony Elanga to the bench.
Both teams started with a 4-3-3 formation: The usual goalkeeping starters from both teams were the usual suspects in David De Gea and Aaron Ramsdale. Antony started at the right side of the attack alongside Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho occupying the other wing. Arsenal had Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli respectively. The United midfield as expected had Scott McTominay screening the defence with Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes ahead of him.
Albert Sambi Lokonga replaced the injured Thomas Partey, just like in the Aston Villa game with Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard completing the midfield trio. Oleksandr Zinchenko recovered and slotted in at left back ahead of Kieran Tierney, Ben White retained his right back position with the defensive pair of Gabriel and William Saliba partnering themselves.
The United backline of three successive victories were also retained: Tyrell Malacia at the left, Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane at the heart of the defence with Diogo Dalot at right back. The match began at a frenetic pace with the first 15 minutes belonging to the Red Devils. Manchester United found most joy from the left of the attack, utilizing the pace and trickery of Malacia and Sancho doubling up on Arsenal’s Ben White.
It was from this angle United drew the first save from Ramsdale. United overloaded the left side creating a triangle with three to four bodies at the left wing. This was where United was causing havoc before Arsenal suddenly struck and was eventually chalked off through the VAR intervention.
After that, Arsenal dominated possession and the duo of Saka and Martinelli did not just hog the width but were constantly drawing infield thereby overwhelming United with numbers at the middle, this was a problem for the Red Devils thereby not able to build coherently like the first 15 minutes.
United were not helped by Antony who at first was not tracking back to support Dalot, not until he began sprinting back either deliberately or instructed. However, with the weight of Arsenal’s pressure and the dangerous mobility of Jesus which was turning into a battle between himself and the ever-alerted Varane, Erik ten Hag’s team deserves some praise for maintaining their shape at this phase of Arsenal’s waves of attack.
The Red Devils had no choice but to soak the pressure without losing their shape. United suddenly broke loose in possession with the catalyst starting from a splitting pass from Eriksen in a holding position to Fernandes.
It is this incisive pass from a holding position United have been missing for years and expected Paul Pogba to deliver but ultimately failed to, and it was the mechanism of the pass from Eriksen which deleted two players landing to the feet of Fernandes.
What followed was a rushed tackle from Gabriel, he flew needlessly into Fernandes but the ball finally arrived to Antony through Marcus Rashford to send United ahead on his debut. United’s passage of passes for the first goal was as followed:
The move began from a forward pass from Eriksen, with Gabriel needlessly attempting to tackle Fernandes and failing to come away with the ball, as Antony drifted into the final third to apply the finish. It was only a matter of when and not if, as the continuous pace and movements of Arsenal’s front three were causing United all sorts of problems.
Varane was caught napping and Martin Odegaard released a timely ball for the incisive run of Gabriel Jesus. Diogo Dalot blocked and the ball broke to Bukayo Saka to level the score for the Gunners. United was finally carved open, stemming from an individual mistake from Raphael Varane leading to a just reward for an ever-dynamic Arsenal’s front three.
Odegaard’s fine pass to the box for Arsenal’s leveller
The momentum was then on Arsenal to take the lead but other teams would do well trying to stop United by systematically pressing and stopping Eriksen from his incisive passes. This is where the Gunners failed to realize their problems.
United utilized Arsenal’s soft belly with devastating counter-attacking goals. Just like the first, Eriksen was the foundation; Fernandes the orchestrator and Rashford the finisher and for most of the second half, United look more like a team from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s heyday, happy and ready to utilise the breaks devastatingly.
Bruno Fernandes’ inch-perfect pass sent Rashford in motion for the second goal
United’s third goal was a vice-versa of the second; it was started this time around by Fernandes releasing Eriksen from the by-line. Eriksen sprinted to the final third and unselfishly squared the ball for the incoming Rashford.
In short, it was Mikel Arteta who inadvertently pointed out which path United should follow with his ill-advised substitutions. A team that needed a shield in the middle was further disorganized with the introduction of attacking talents hence handing the baton to Manchester United to further tear them apart on the break.
Erik ten Hag deserves praise for his flexibility: Upon realizing that this team is not yet capable to play from the back and dominate games for a longer period, he has been able to organize them out of possession and press at different phases. It is the realization and ability to step aside a bit from his philosophy that United have used as a stepping stone to record their fourth consecutive victory.
By: Papa Ade-Ola Lawrence / @LawrencePapa2
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images / Getty Images