The best play of the encounter was a defensive tackle but it’d go almost untalked about after the melodrama which preceded Manchester United’s equaliser. Just after he had created the equaliser, the lively Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was taken off and replaced by Andrey Arshavin. Cue the Emirates crowd to collectively spit out their dummies and after Danny Welbeck had won the game for Manchester United, the substitution took symbolic value as the Arsenal team was jeered off at the end. However, that probably wasn’t the most pivotal substitution as almost straight after, Sir Alex Ferguson reacted and sent on Park Ji-Sung to replace Rafael. Antonio Valencia shifted to right-back and his driving run was more difficult to deal with with more space. The Ecuadorian squeezed into the box, played a one-two before finding Welbeck to score the winner.
It’s not the first time Arsenal have conceded so quick after they had regained a foot-hold in the match; they did it only last week against Swansea City and the way The Gunners switched off momentarily was reminiscent of the defeat to Tottenham. The second-goal came from a quickly taken free-kick and Arsenal never quite organised themselves to deal with the overload United created on the left for the opener. Arsenal’s goal, though, was a sweeping move, perhaps highlighting just how Arsenal have changed and it all originated from a tackle. Laurent Koscielny’s brash certainty that he would return with the ball when others would have panicked one-on-one in the box with Rafael was outstanding; his tackle even better without losing balance and he capped it off by having the composure to find Tomas Rosicky. He played it to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chamberlain reversed passed to Robin van Persie and the Dutchman squeezed in at the far post. It was the classic break-away goal, from back to front in 16 seconds and actually originated from a counter of United’s own. Here are some observations from the game.
1. United profit from left-side bias
Arsenal actually started the better side and for twenty minutes, dominated possession. The rotation in the midfield was better than it had been in recent games with Rosicky checking his forward runs to stay disciplined to the left side of Alex Song (as Mikel Arteta might have done). It seemed part of this decision, as it is not Rosicky’s game to stay back, stemmed from Arsène Wenger’s preoccupation of not allowing Manchester United any space out wide. It worked for a while although more due to Arsenal’s keeping of the ball. But, they dropped off halfway through the half and United started to work space out wide. In particular, with Antonio Valencia stretching the pitch on the right, it opened up play on the left. Luis Nani threatened while Patrice Evra always provided good support but it was with Ryan Giggs helping out did United ultimately cause damage. Arsenal eventually stumbled on Theo Walcott to defend their right hand-side but with his goalscoring agenda and Arsenal themselves biased slightly to their left, United were able to overload that side for their first goal.
2. What do the central midfielders do?
The absence of full-backs to provide support and the three striker system puts the central midfielders in a precarious position. Is their duty primarily to create or to hold position? Of course, over the course of the game, it flits in-and-out but Arsenal looked cautious with what they did in the first while United looked confident and executed their functions quicker in comparison. In the second-half, they didn’t seem so inhibited by a contrast of instructions and pushed higher up the pitch as they naturally prefer.
One issue this season has been the split of roles between midfield and attack. Clearly, Wenger’s tactic is to leave dynamism part more to the front three – and in a sense the goalscoring too – while the midfield plays a supporting role. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s involvement in the build up from the left-hand side helped bridge that gap between attack and midfield as it is something two “natural” wingers do not give. And while Aaron Ramsey also provides a double function, Jack Wilshere’s drive in the centre has been greatly missed. (Ramsey’s graft has not come without pain; he has been dispossessed 68 times, followed by van Persie at 61 but it shows Ramsey is not necessarily playing as a midfielder but somewhere in between. Only Paris’ Nene has been dispossessed more in the Top 5 leagues in Europe. Via Whoscored.com)
“I agree we are a little bit less good than last year with possession of the ball,” said Wenger in the Daily Mail. “But it’s down to the structure of the team a little bit, because we play this year with two wingers who are real wingers. And, you know, we are as well a bit more vertical than last year and a little less possession [based]. When we played for a long period with Gervinho, Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott we were dangerous, basically, always through our wings, but a little less in control possession wise.”
3. Arsenal push up in the second-half
At half-time in the Champions League Quarter Final in 2009/10, Arsenal pushed their defensive line up the pitch 10m to counter Barcelona. The result saw them concede two quick goals in similar fashion but also saw them rally to draw the game. In some ways, it was the same here. The midfield pressed higher, making it more a 4-3-3 (or 4-1-4-1) than the slanted 4-2-1-3 it was in the first-half, and the back line got tighter to the strikers. As a result, Arsenal squeezed United’s play (although they did leave space behind) and had the better of the opportunities up until their goal. The upshot of this however, was Manchester United looked threatening every time they broke and could have scored with one of the Welbeck chances. Culann Davies (
@CWDailyGooner) cites Laurent Koscielny as key to setting the blueprint for Arsenal’s increased intensity and certainly, once they can free Thomas Vermaelen from left-back, they will have an impetuous centre-back pairing to aid their collective game. As Koscielny stated in the programme: “It also helps our attackers if we win the ball in the opposition half, so we need to work hard in all areas.”
4. The Ox looks best on the left
It’s not Wenger-like not to attack but his substitution to take of Oxlade-Chamberlain for Arshavin was a bit naive. He felt Arsenal could win the game – which is a fair ambition – but knowing Arsenal’s insecurities, he should have played it more safe. Yossi Benayoun would have given Arsenal more control through possession while still possessing the killer pass option. But also, because he is a popular player amongst the group, would probably have not drawn such a reaction from van Persie.
Van Persie was probably most discontent with the sub because it came in a period in the second-half where his movements were beginning to be understood – van Persie had made some fantastic runs in the first half which were not found. Chamberlain was himself, errant in the first-half while Walcott never got into the game telepathically or technically. But in the second, and playing mainly on the left, Chamberlain was able to get into central areas (a bit Gareth Bale-like if wanting to be sacrilegious) more often. Indeed, as a winger who’s job it is to stretch play, he can’t get involved as much on the right even though he was still very dynamic in the chances he got. Wenger eventually settled on Chamberlain at wide left and he gave Arsenal a balance.
On the other hand, Walcott has seemed to have suffered not being able to get behind. Van Persie is playing closer to a centre-forward’s role this season and this has restricted Walcott to an orthodox role.
5. Arsenal good enough to finish fourth but…
Bemoaning a mass injury crisis is a fair excuse if for one season but to oversee it for two or three years, is poor strategic planning. In regards to the full-back position, Wenger knew before January both Andre Santos and Carl Jenkinson would be out for most of the season therefore a short-term option should have been drafted in. But just as much an oversight might be in the central midfield where two key midfielders, Abou Diaby and Jack Wilshere, were set to miss much of the season. Crucially, it’s in a position Arsenal lack; the Arteta role. Tomas Rosicky performed admirably to check his enthusiasms although that invariably drew Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick forward with time on the ball; nevertheless, his passing is always a plus. Indeed, one of the criticisms levelled at Arsène Wenger last season was that he failed to make use of the squad in the final stretch of the season and already this season, there is talk of fatigue. Arteta has been relied upon to stay fit, and amazingly he has, for the bulk of the campaign and he’s proven crucial. Somewhat bafflingly, however, Yossi Benayoun hasn’t been used as often as his talents deserve while Park Chu-Young is actually a better player than his anonymity has made of him. The athleticism of English football, though, has set him back considerably.
The unwillingness to change has shown Arsenal to have a tactical inflexibility although one option, Marouane Chamakh, has always been available as a Plan B on the bench. Indeed, the problem might be the players are too similar rather than a lack of depth and that’s why Wenger’s pining his hopes on injured players returning. Arsenal have the squad to get fourth place but we might not see it.