Arsenal once again undone by its old nemesis: the counter-attack

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal (FA Cup)

Because football isn’t ice-skating and you don’t get points for artistic merit, results have always mattered more than style. The counter-attack was once deemed as a Machiavellian ploy; when Herbert Chapman first devised the W-M formation and ultimately popularised the counter-attack as a primary form of strategy, the FA were quick to hand him a cryptic warning against what they thought was the “right way to play.” But nowadays it’s seen as the most effective way of achieving a win – and those chances enhancing greater against teams that prefer aesthetics over pragmatism.

At Old Trafford on Saturday, Manchester United was always going to play one way against Arsenal, especially with a host of personnel either unfit or deemed not worthy of the occasion to be risked. Sir Alex Ferguson’s selection certainly surprised a few many as he named a midfield comprising of three full-backs but it was quickly evident that any potential shortcomings were to be covered up by Sir Alex’s famed “never say die” attitude, steely determination and belligerent organisation. And in that respect, this battle was to be undertaken in a vein we’ve seen all too often before when these two sides meet, despite the unfamiliar team selection.

United sat deep and countered excellently, taking advantage of any gaps in Arsenal’s backline with a rapid commitment of bodies forward into the box. Arséne Wenger may have bemoaned his side’s luck at the end of the game but having been on the wrong end of United’s devastating breaks in each of the last two seasons, you would have thought he would have devised a strategy by now to guard against such attacks. But on the other hand, his team selection on paper looked far stronger than Manchester United’s and therefore it would be difficult to fault the Frenchman for trusting his side’s technical superiority to prevail on the night.

Initially it looked like it might be a mismatch as Arsenal monopolised possession and United failed to break through The Gunners’ structured organisation. Countless passes from the back were directed to nowhere while Arsenal just continued prompting and probing. However, that’s when United realised there was no way they could compete with Arsenal in the middle of the park and thus, they retreated deeper. But it was Wayne Rooney who instigated the first telling tactical move of the match as he proceeded to drop deeper into the midfield to collect the ball, this allowing the Da Silva twins to get forward with more freedom.

Rooney was detailed before the match to help Manchester United to make a five in midfield whenever they lost the ball but a chance from Rafael on fifteen minutes convinced him it was best that he remained a permanent member of the centre. His forays into midfield gave United an extra man and when they won the ball, Fabio and Rafael could spring forward to make a three with Javier Hérnandez in attack. It particularly worked also because Arsenal committed both full-backs forward and with each attack soacked up by Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling, were able to take advantage of the gaps in the channels. For the first goal, Hérnandez and Fabio drifted into the vacant full-back positions to shoot home. Ferguson stripped Rooney off the selfless running in the second-half by brining on Antonio Valencia and immediately, it brought dividends as the England striker headed home from another counter-attack as the left-sided forward.

For Arsenal it was all too familiar and once again, weaknesses in its game denied them of the chance at another trophy. Wenger pointed to the fact that Arsenal had “control of the game” however in the modern game, teams can also have control without the ball. Indeed, that is part of his argument as to how the referee “killed the game” against Barcelona as he felt his side has put their opponents in the position it wanted dur to the way it defended.

In that game, Barcelona showed Arsenal how to defend without the ball and it was evident at Old Trafford, that their was just no intensity in the press. Arsenal looked too committed in ensuring their structure was in place when United had the ball in defence but at 2-0 and the game to be saved, the lack of urgency proved costly. At different moments, Denilson, Andrey Arshavin and the ever excellent Jack Wilshere urged their side to push forward and close more aggressively but without the support of those around, it was destined to fail. Robin van Persie in particular showed little intensity but it’d be easy to point to scapegoats; the whole team must commit to the press, nevertheless, van Persie sets the tempo and should have taken more responsibility.

It’s hard, however, to see how pressing on it’s own could have stopped United exploiting on the break as it did. Sir Alex Ferguson was comfortable with leaving two or three of his outfield players up the pitch because he was confident that his defence could soak up Arsenal’s attack. Or rather, willing to take that risk because there would always be space up the pitch to exploit. Both Arsenal full-backs pushed forward and that meant the job would be harder for both Denilson and the centre-backs. Laurent Kosicelny and Johan Djourou could not spread as it would then leave space down the centre while Denilson would have to contend with manning both the centre – where Rooney exclusively operated in the first-half – and trying to cover the channels – where Hérnandez or the twins would look to drift. In the second-half, that threat was ever more dangerous with Valencia hugging the touchline. Alex Song was missed due to his capacity to cover although it would have remained tough also if Arsenal’s attacked failed likewise. A tactical solution would be to drop someone like Song into centre-back when Arsenal has possession so that the centre-backs could spread wide and play two tempo-dictating midfielders in front.

The introduction of Aaron Ramsey was a huge plus, for one because it is great to see him back in an Arsenal shirt again and he was straight-away reminded of where he was, having to dodge the senseless lunges of Paul Scholes. But also because he has an urgency and technical accuracy that The Gunners miss when Samir Nasri or Cesc Fabregas are not playing in the centre and something which Abou Diaby couldn’t really provide. The French midfielder did display decent movement and power but was ponderous on the ball, allowing United to get organised quickly.

If Arsenal are to fulfil its potential and concur teams like Manchester United, who break quickly, it must be more effective with its passing. Maybe because Arsenal was not so clinical with its finishing and the shuffling of defenders, United was able to take such a risk and leave players up the field. It knew, no matter how glamorous and graceful Arsenal’s play can be, it can also be too predictable. A Bakary Sagna cross or a procrastinated move at the edge of the box looked Arsenal’s most obvious source of a goal. Effective possession is also a form of defence as it forces opponents to furrow resources back which will have helped guard against the counter. Perhaps Arsenal lost the game at 0-0 when it should have made its possession count and stamped its authority on the game with more ruthlessness.

A far cry then, from the dynamic and explosive football it was producing from December to the middle of February and an appropriate reminder of how reliant Arsenal is of its fantastic eleven. Since the defeat against Manchester United late last year, Arséne Wenger has stumbled on his strongest line-up and the side had produced a series of exciting performances. The balance between organisation, pressing and passing reached its apex in the 2-1 defeat of Barcelona but in between those good performances, there have been a smattering of ugly ones; disjointed because of the unavailability or the resting of key men. Before the match against Manchester United, Arsenal seemed stronger and its passing and movement displayed some form of superiority, but its finishing and resilience indicated there is still work to be done. The season isn’t over and there is still time to show, with one final push, there is quality in depth at Arsenal and the character to secure the league title.


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