Five points on Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United


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

“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.”

Rosicky slanted his play towards the left in the first half (part of the reason for United’s dominance on the other side), performing a more disciplined role. However, as Arsenal pressed higher, Rosicky was more able to initiate attacks

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.

Chamberlain’s passing in the first half show him unable to get involved effectively although his running did create two chances. In the second-half, he was able to roam more centrally and created Arsenal’s goal.

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.


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.

Arsenal meekly succumb to the challenge of Manchester United

Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal

There was no pizza throwing. No mass brawls. No unbeaten runs broken. No raised voices in the tunnel. For entertainment value, this Monday night instalment of Manchester United and Arsenal was a damp squib. Oh, wait. Yes, there was, at least, an overblown penalty but whereas Wayne Rooney joined Brian McClair and Ruud van Nistelrooy in blasting over the crossbar, it felt somewhat expected that the woefully out-of-form England striker would miss. Arsenal’s reaction was just as flat, although, that may have been masked by their belief that justice was done after Gael Clichy was harshly penalised for a handball he couldn’t avoid. By then, the Gunners were already one-nil down and had it all to play for but meekly succumbed to Manchester United’s attempts to reclaim top spot.

The game had intensity but note quite in the way it was exhilarating – and all a bit meaningless, like Cheese Rolling in Gloucestershire. The reasons, it seemed, were that both sides approached the match with an air of caution while Arsène Wenger was scathing of suitability the Old Trafford pitch. “The technical quality of the game was average on both sides because the pitch was very poor in my opinion and the game suffered a lot from it,” he said.

Whether or not the pitch had a part to play in Arsenal’s performance, their attacking play was below their usual standard. Manchester United nevertheless defended obdurately against the ineffective attack but it was these types of defence that Wenger has tried to make his side better against. The altered 4-3-3 from last season has now become a 4-2-3-1 but the fundamentals on the ball remain the same; stretch play up the pitch when the team has possession thus creating multi-angular passing options. As a result the team can be more direct with the ball played forward quickly although to what level does it become a hindrance to the team?

In  Champions League matches, especially at home, where the opposition naively comes to play a short, passing game, Arsenal are quick to seize on them and impose their technical superiority. In the league, opponents can be frustrating and attack Arsenal where they can be exposed. That worked for Manchester United, who despite not being miles better, was better and deserved their three points.  “The game-plan was to stifle the midfield and to make sure we got possession of the ball in there. We did that well in the first half. We played very well and maybe we should have been further in front,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “In fairness, with the goal we did score, we deserved that. In the second half we had some great opportunities on the counter-attack; we were disappointed [not to make more of that]. Arsenal had more of the game in the second half without actually making many chances.”

Arsenal’s impotency can be summed up by not being one word – compact. Off the ball, distances were too large between team-mates and when they did have the ball, seldom made the correct decisions. There was a fifteen minute spell where Arsenal dominated and had penned back United, playing the type of football they are more renowned for. Samir Nasri’s shot that nearly fell for Marouane Chamakh on the rebound should have been the spark to bring Arsenal to life but they ultimately lacked ideas. Bringing on the unfit Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie made little difference.

It was a night Nasri failed to impose himself. At times the midfielder seemed inhibited and lacked the belief he could make the difference because, when he did get on the ball, he looked Arsenal’s best player. On the one hand, Park Ji-Sung neutralised his threat as United doubled-up on him, the other, he just couldn’t link-up effectively with his team-mates. Chamakh and Wilshere displayed nice touches without looking like providing the killer instinct while Arshavin was his usual self – seemingly sprightly on the ball but lethargic when it came to decision-making. “The way Arshavin always wants ball to feet, never in space – not just annoying. Predictable too,” commented Alessandro Costacurta for Sky Italia. Wenger craves a powerhouse in his midfield and could not wish more for the safe return of Abou Diaby so as a result, has had to rely on the surge of Alex Song.

In defence, Gael Clichy had a night to forget against Nani as the left-flank was horribly exposed. Arshavin was never going to track back and as his best work is usually done centrally, it may have been a wise move to swap him with Tomas Rosicky. This would have allowed Arsenal to defend better down the flanks but in not reacting quicker, just conceding space to their opponents. United were already outnumbering them in the centre and the lack of defensive work done by Nasri and Arshavin meant Arsenal effectively had two men across the middle – Song and Wilshere – and that left them too much work to do – and left Clichy exposed. Darren Fletcher realised this, and especially in the first-half, regularly looked to break down Nani’s side. Their goal came from a Nani cross as Arsenal exerted too much intensity getting back and couldn’t match the run of Park who headed in off the post.

Arsenal would have felt this was a chance missed, not just because Manchester United had a game in hand; their opponents are not much better but have the experience and efficiency they so crave. Matches against the top sides will decide the title says Wenger although with a more competitive league season, that is not necessarily the case. With the win, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side go top although in truth, Arsenal was always second best.


<Figure 1> The pressing from Arsenal in the first-half was a double edged sword. Arsenal’s pressing was surprisingly lax and never harried Manchester United’s defenders. As a result of playing too high up the pitch, the wide forwards never gave protection to the full-backs and also meant a lot of work for Song and Wilshere to get through.

Arsenal’s mass accumulation of cards this season have not been without reason; the inefficiency the system sometimes poses means the Gunners can get in to bad positions and often with a lot of space to defend. Song’s cynical foul on Nani was a case in example of that.

United show the best form of attack is to counter

Manchester United’s game plan of containment, control and speed on the counter left Arsenal outgunned at the Emirates.

It was time again for Sir Alex Ferguson to get re-acquainted with the back of his hand. The wily Scotsman has enough big match experience – and success – against contemporary Arsenal to comfortably make it his chosen specialist subject on Mastermind as his side went about dismantling Arsenal’s title bid and reaffirming their’s. Manchester United met thrust with counter-thrust and vice versa but where much more ruthless from the latter.

There was little to separate the teams with half an hour on the clock as both teams found it troubling to break down each other’s defence from open play. United opting to play without Ryan Giggs missed a bit of invention in the final third and as a result Arsenal sucked up their attacks and looked to punish them on the break – Andrey Arshavin going closest with a drive wide of Edwin Van der Sar. But Arsenal have been slow starters this season, having scored only once before fifteen minutes in the league and once they started getting into their groove, Manchester United sensed their moment pounce. Luis Nani’s wonderful trick and run forced the ever-growing culpable Manuel Almunia to claw into his own net (although in fairness the cross looked to be headed for Park at the back post).

However, it was two devastating moments on the break that settled the tie. William Gallas was crowded out in the United box following a corner and as the ball fell to Wayne Rooney, the England striker, starting the counter-attack ended it with a finish of real conviction after running close to the full length of the pitch. Rooney then showed Arsenal the movement they tried to create with Arshavin as the false nine, as the forward took three defenders out by dropping short and the rest was rudimentary for Park.  There were only two options for Gael Clichy  – gamble and close down the attacker but risk the early pass or delay and hope the angle narrowed. As it turned out, Clichy left it two late for the latter and Park poked the ball past Almunia (could the ‘keeper have been more committed?). Counter-attacking is not merely a policy for Manchester United but a deadly and utterly ruthless weapon in their armoury. “Counterattacking has always been part of our game, particularly away from home, and we capitalised on those opportunities,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “Arsenal play a lot of good football and get to the edge of your box regularly, but if you can win the ball there and counterattack quickly you’ll have chances against them.”

“Transitions have become crucial,” says Jose Mourinho, who always seeks to keep his side organised with five at the back in guard of such moments. “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.” That was the situation that was also posed to Arsenal; the Gunners’ expansive style meaning more resources are committed forward and therefore less organisation at the back. And those gaps are even bigger this season due to the play being stretched on account of the switch to 4-3-3 and cover for the full-backs minimal. Sir Alex would have targeted the right-hand before hand with or without Valencia and deployed a ‘defensive’ winger on the other side. The slight surprise was in deploying Carrick as the deep-lying playmaker as the manager decided to sacrifice a bit of energy for extra tactical nous lower down, while Scholes’ creativity was to be translated higher up the pitch.

Arsenal in contrast were unlikely to play any differently. Arsene Wenger went into the game wanting to control proceedings but found in front of him a sea of black shirts who were very committed in not opening the floodgates and letting Arsenal have the initiative. Dynamism on one hand has waned since their electric start to the season and the late flurry could not hide the defects. The best Wenger can hope his side can regroup and find that extra spark again.

So where next for Arsenal? Chelsea at Stamford Bridge…

Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United: Almunia (og) 33, Rooney 37, Park 52, Vermaelen 80.

Arsenal: Almunia (5), Sagna (6) (Bendtner), Gallas (6), Vermaelen (6), Clichy (5), Fabregas (6), Song (7), Denilson (6) (Walcott) , Nasri (5), Arshavin (6), Rosicky (5) (Eboue).
Subs not used: Fabianski, Ramsey, Silvestre, Traore.

Man Utd: Van der Sar 6, Rafael Da Silva 6, Jonathan Evans 6, Brown 6, Evra 6, Scholes 6 (Giggs), Carrick 7, Fletcher 6, Nani (Berbatov) 8, Rooney 8, Park 6 (Valencia).
Subs not used: Kuszczak, Owen, Gibson, De Laet.

Referee: Chris Foy (Merseyside).

Arsenal Team Statistics Manchester United
1 Goals 3
0 1st Half Goals 2
3 Shots on Target 3
13 Shots off Target 6
4 Blocked Shots 3
8 Corners 5
9 Fouls 12
0 Offsides 0
1 Yellow Cards 0
0 Red Cards 0
80.8 Passing Success 75.2
18 Tackles 36
94.4 Tackles Success 77.8
53.1 Possession 46.9
50.6 Territorial Advantage 49.4

The comprehensive Arsenal v Manchester United preview

Arsenal’s next fixture in their crucial sequence of four games sees the Gunners face Manchester United. We give the lowdown on the encounter.

Which Manchester United will turn up?
Some grumbles of discontent have begun to surface among fans recently of Sir Alex Ferguson’s continuous tinkering of his side – he has gone 105 consecutive matches now without picking the same team twice in a row – and that unpredictability means it difficult to know what line-up the manager is to send out and in which system. The 4-4-2 has garnered 15 goals in the last four games it has been used although for the big games, Sir Alex has tended to favour the 4-5-1. And with strong performances against Chelsea and most recently Manchester City, the 4-5-1 seems the most likely choice away to Arsenal.

United’s changing face
Losing to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final was to Sir Alex, the equivalent of defeat to Real Madrid at home in the Champions League quarter-final in 2000. United had just been crowned European champions the year previously on both occasions but the severity of the defeats meant the manager had to reconsider the way his side functions. “We had a spell after we won the Champions League in 1999 when we had to change our thinking,” said Ferguson. “We lost to PSV and Anderlecht away and others on the counterattack.” This season, not only have they lost Cristiano Ronaldo, out went fans favourite Carlos Tevez across the city, the two key components of their 2007/08 double winning side. Manchester United have churned out some pretty uninspiring performances thus far but their functionality means they are still in the hunt for most trophies.

Inspiration seemingly comes in the form of Mourinho’s 4-3-3 at Chelsea. The wingers look to support the lone striker – typically Wayne Rooney – in attack but in the defensive phase drop back to a more orthodox 4-5-1. The key dynamics of the system, though, is the deployment of their three star central midfielders – Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes. The latter holds while Ferguson seeks to take advantage of Carrick and Fletcher’s high fitness levels therefore they can pressure more higher and aggressively up the pitch. Maybe also, the manager feels he can bring more out of Carrick’s creative and shooting abilities  – an area they’ve lacked in central midfield and have been unable to replicate with Anderson and Gibson.

Between the lines
It can be argued, by taking the minutest details of a team’s system, that United’s use of a flat 4-3-3 contributed partly to their defeat to Barcelona in the final. On the other hand, Barcelona  played with four bands to make it a 4-1-2-3 and with players constantly moving about made it difficult for Manchester United to match up. Having players ‘between the lines’ makes for more unpredictability and taking advantage in such areas final third of the pitch can be decisive. “I don’t like to play the 4-4-2 in two lines,” says Jose Mourinho. “I like the match in between lines and players with dynamic creativity to do that. What are you a midfield player or an attacker? Nobody knows.” This is still a criticism with Manchester United – that they are lacking players to do the damage in between the lines – although they will argue it’s the angles they attack from and the sheer intensity they do so, that is their central strength.

Arsenal also, it seems, do not have specified men in between the lines but Arsène Wenger’s idea is for the system to be able to morph into a 4-1-4-1, both in the defensive phase and in attack where the midfielders are required to get close to the main forward who is likely to be Nicklas Bendtner. It is primarily Cesc Fabregas’ role to get into such positions, playing as the interior and given more freedom to create chances. The captain has also added greater dynamism to his game, taking on defenders with his developing power not too dissimilar to Steven Gerrard.

Mind the gaps
Recent uncoverings of the Arsenal style have found a chink in the Gunners armour. The most successful opposition teams have been able to expose the space in front of the defence by bypassing the first defensive phase and getting men forward to take advantage of one-on-ones and indecision.

This is because in the defensive phase, the idea is for Arsenal to compress space quickly but that is a difficulty in itself when you factor stretching play is a means of attacking. If the build up breaks down, as opponents have been doing by pressuring up the pitch or alternatively, playing the ball deep early, the distances between the forward players and defence becomes greater (as displayed by below. (Bear in mind United’s intention in the defensive phase is to drop back as opposed to Arsenal’s which is to pressure up the pitch first). Also could Arsenal reverse the tactic and pressure early Paul Scholes and test his reaction times? Fulham did this particularly well as the midfielder gave away a couple of loose balls.

Football Fans Know Better

The best solution for Arsenal would be the return of a tired Alex Song back into the holding role, partnered slightly to the left by Denilson. This should ensure the Brazilian can push left as he and Diaby have done in the role beforehand with much success to cover for the space in front of Clichy. This area may be even more crucial should Sir Alex Ferguson choose to deploy Antonia Valencia or even Nani to hug the right touchline. In one of the wide forward positions, Nicklas Bendtner, Samir Nasri or Emmanuel Eboue are options for Wenger due to the extra attention they give to tracking back.

Transitions and set-pieces
Transitions and set-pieces more than anything have been the bane of Arsenal in recent season and will be key once again for both sides. Every team is able to counter these days but the most successful sides have made it their weapon, not their main policy. But it is not just winning the ball in the defensive third of the pitch that can lead to a counter – teams have found that winning the ball in midfield is the crucial area to spring a quick attack from. “Transitions have become crucial,” says Mourinho (again). “When the opponent is organised defensively, it is very difficult to score. The moment the opponent loses the ball can be the time to exploit the opportunity of someone being out of position.”

Effective widemen
Effective wing play may just be key especially as both teams like to stretch play and Ecuadorian Antonio Valencia has been in fine form. More orthodox than many of United’s great wingers of the pass, he found multitudes of room against Manchester City in the first leg by hugging the touchline while his central midfielders worked the full backs inside by switching play quickly. Defensively Valencia also has his plus points as against Chelsea he successfully helped nullify the threat of Ashley Cole by pinning him back.

Patrice Evra has had another fine season at left back and indeed the full-back position has become key in the modern game as it has become the only position where the player is unmarked. Arsenal’s full-backs, however, have been slightly more conservative in their roles, choosing to be more selective although Bakary Sagna showed his threat against Tottenham when he foraged forward unmarked twice to set-up two goals. Higher up the pitch, can Andrey Arshavin get into areas to take on the defender one-on-one as he likes? Indeed, if Bendtner does start, the support he provides to the forward will be crucial and especially testing to rookie full-back Rafael.

Arsenal’s key men
Sol Campbell- This will be the real test of Sol Campbell’s mobility. Barcelona have shown you don’t have to be particularly quick to be a success in a high line, instead astute reading of the game is order of the day. Campbell expertly marshalled Agbonlahor and restricted use of his pace and once again will have to be aware as Rooney likes to run the channels on the break.

Nicklas Bendtner – The Dane has a confident streak but has yet to translate that consistently over a season. Hopefully with injuries behind him, Bendtner can push on and give Arsenal a direct outlet they have been so missing. Playing as the focal point, the Gunners will be hoping the midfielders can play around the big forward while also giving Arsenal an outlet from the numerous times they reach the wide positions. An added bonus he possesses is the option to play the ball early from defence and relieve pressure on the backline. “If Eduardo is out, am I ready to come in?,” said Bendtner. “I wouldn’t be here if I was wasn’t ready. If I play Sunday, I will be ready as well and Manchester United is the sort of big game you’d love to come back into.

Manchester United’s key men
Ryan Giggs – Like Benjamin Button, Ryan Giggs seems to be only getting younger. If he starts on the left as anticipated, Ferguson will expect the Welshman to cut inside and deliver killer passes to Wayne Rooney as he did in winning the penalty in the 2-1 win when the two sides last met. “It was the kind of pass we’ve been trying in training all week,” Ferguson said of the assist. “We got one.”

Wayne Rooney – The England forward has nineteen goals in twenty-one games and he owes much of that good form to curbing his altruistic instincts and playing in a more orthodox manner. He has stated Valencia has kept him on his toes because he expects the winger to fire in more crosses than Ronaldo used to from the same flank.

Predicted Line-Ups
Arsenal (4-3-3): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Campbell, Clichy; Song, Denilson, Fabregas; Nasri, Arshavin, Bendtner
Subs from: Fabianski, Eboue, Silvestre, Traore, Ramsey, Eastmond, Rosicky, Walcott

Man Utd (4-5-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Vidic, Evans, Evra; Valencia, Scholes, Carrick, Fletcher, Giggs; Rooney
Subs from: Kuszczak, Rafael, Neville, Anderson, Nani, Gibson, Owen, Berbatov, Park, Diouf

The mysterious case of Carlos Tevez and his contract

Reports suggest Manchester United forward Carlos Tevez has the right to break from his contract and leave for free.

It’s quite fortunate that Carlos Tevez doesn’t want to break from his contract as if he did, it would surely tear a whole in the football universe and release with it a messy gunk of goo.

We all know Tevez and Mascherano both transferred to West Ham under the ownership of two third parties (Media Sports Investment and Just Sports Inc). Just what involvement the parties have now is unclear but Kia Joorabchian is still involved. Mascherano has signed for Liverpool outright while Tevez is still unattached to a club. It must be noted that third party ‘ownership’ is not illegal, providing there’s no right given to the them to influence the polices and performance of the team (such as missing a penalty etc.).

“It is a little bit like a loan deal between two clubs, except it is a loan deal between the club and a third party,” says Joorabchian, feeling like a modern day Robin Hood. “Third-party transfers are a way of bringing outstanding players to clubs that would not be able to afford them ordinarily. So they increase the competition. Why should only Manchester United and Chelsea be able to afford the best players?”

When the Argentinian joined Manchester United, the Red Devils agreed to a two-year lease deal worth £10million with his owners. United have registration of the player for that duration but the third-party owners have retained all economic rights over him. Under the terms, Tevez is not allowed to agree to anything without their consent and only MSI possess unilateral right to terminate the contract.

But if Tevez did want to leave he would have European Law on his side to allow him to do that. Chris Heaton-Harris, president of the EU’s powerful Sports Intergroup which deals with sporting matters across the continent and also East Midlands MEP Chris Heaton-Harris said: “It is unique and bizarre that an entity, rather than a club, owns a player.

“In employment terms, Carlos Tevez has a contract himself with this company. But if he went to the European Commission and said he wanted out of it, he would get European support. It is just an employment contract. You can’t keep a person to a contract that he doesn’t want to continue in. Under European law, he has the right to break this contract.”

Heaton-Harris then continued: “Bosman was tied to a football club and Tevez is tied to a company. There is very little difference. It is a simple follow-on from Bosman

That case of course revolutionized football because it meant a player is no longer tied to a club when his contract does indeed run out. The Belgian defender’s representative claimed any third party (a club) which governs the movement of a player between jobs is a restraint of trade, prohibited under Treaty of Rome. The legal sticking point is likely to be the fact MSI signed their contract with Tevez in South America (ie outside of EU jurisdiction), but since he wants to play in Europe, his contract is arguably open to challenge within the EU.

Carlos Tevez’s lease deal has run it’s course and hypothetically should he wish to leave, would undergo a pretty lengthy court procedure as the Bosman case took five years, something the player is not motivated to do.

In employment terms, contracts of employments are to be distinguished from contracts for services, which typically deal with independent contractors or other types of employments such as agency workers (and which most probably includes footballers). Contracts of employments are the standard contracts which you and I have and which differ from contracts for services as they have certain implied terms embedded in to the contract (like the restraint clause), something which is missing in contracts for services.

In employment terms, restraint clauses are not unlawful  unless they are deemed ‘unfair’, which then the employee must prove. A company could restrict an employee from working at another company for a certain number of years if there is a risk of highly confidential information being passed on, or a skill that gives the company a USP.

In football, players have already made an obligation with the club for the number of years they can stay and therefore do not have the power to leave in the middle. (In the case of Bosman, he left at the end, a contract of employment doesn’t necessary have a time-limit).

It’s probably just as well then, Carlos Tevez has sought not to exercise such rights and let Kia Joorabchian handle the matter.

By this time you may have noticed nothing has been said about Arsenal, this being an Arsenal weblog. So to wrap things up, wouldn’t it be great if the Gunners signed Tevez? Do we need him? We’ve got many quality strikers. Eh, probably couldn’t afford him anyway…

Tactical View: How to beat Manchester United

Arsenal Column have identified three key areas which could determine whether Arsenal return from the first leg of the Champions League semi-final at Old Trafford with a result.

1. Midfield shield must keep tabs on United’s attacking quartet

Wenger may not have advocated the midfield shield before the start of the season but there is no doubt that the role has helped steady the ship this campaign. Manchester United’s forwards like to operate in the area between midfield and attack and especially Berbabtov who is likely to start because of his hold up play.

Like Porto and Liverpool before them, being organised and denying space in front of the defence will be the first step to an Old Trafford result. It will be interesting to see who Arsene Wenger deploys in central midfield, as he has a full set of options to contend with, and whether to play Fabregas, as predicted, behind Adebayor. Arshavin’s unavailability will probably mean Nasri will play out wide but at Middlesbrough he showed great positional awareness which Wenger may be tempted to call upon.

Possession will not be key in this game and with the tempo both teams play with, the ball is likely to go back and forth between each end though mostly in United’s favour. Expect a 55-45% possession advantage to the Reds but with the counter-attacking nature of both sides, it will be how each team is set-up when possession changes hands that could decide the outcome.

2. Press Carrick

This job will be up to whoever plays behind Adebayor, most likely to be Fabregas. If Arsenal can get the England midfielder searching for the ball, then it could open up gaps for the Gunners to exploit. Carrick is a fantastic passer of the ball but with the way United attack, which is like a 4-2-4, the forward quarter are almost looking for the midfielder to feed the ball to them at every opportunity.

Cutting Carrick out may not necessarily mean cutting off the supply line; United are a pressure team looking to force the opposition on the back foot with the angles they attack from. Nevertheless, denying Carrick space will open up spaces for Arsenal to attack in and create uncertainty to the back four.

3.  Effective wing play will be key for both sides

Last season in the FA Cup Arsenal were comprehensively beaten 4-0 by United as Hoyte and Traore were run ragged out wide. Although with Sagna on the right this may not happen it is less assured on the left with Gibbs doubtful which means Silvestre may deputise if he also passes fit.

Ferguson will have identified this as an area of Arsenal’s weakness therefore could be tempted to play Ronaldo there. Wenger on the other hand may want to deploy Diaby to offer added protection.

However the past few games have also seen United frailties in defending quick, pacy players especially if the wingers do not offer enough protection. Evra v Walcott may well be the defining contest and on the break the winger can be deadly. Manchester United will want to force the England man as far back as possible to deny him the opportunity to run at Evra. On the break Arsenal had the back four on the back foot at the Emirates in October, with the centre back pairing having to make up positionally for others.

Predicted Line Ups
Manchester United (4-4-2):Van Der Sar – O’Shea, Ferdinand, Vidic, Evra – Ronaldo, Carrick, Anderson, Giggs (c) – Rooney, Berbatov.
Subs:Foster, Rafael, Evans, Park, Fletcher, Scholes Welbeck, Tevez

Arsenal (4-2-3-1):Almunia – Sagna, Toure, Djourou, Gibbs – Song, Nasri – Walcott, Fabregas (c), Diaby – Adebayor
Subs:Fabianski, Silvestre, Eboue, Denilson, Ramsey, Vela, Bendtner

Wayne Rooney’s left wing deployment will look to paper over the cracks

Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to sacrifice Wayne Rooney’s central link up play and creativity in favour of giving more protection to the full backs.

In football we think we have seen it all; tactics go out of fashion and some come back (the deep-lying playmaker, box-to-box midfielder) so it is rare to see something new emerge. The defensive winger. Nothing fancy, nothing flashy, they just do their job quietly. OK, maybe it is just a means to  balance out the team and cater for specialists and individuals but their selflessness allows others to play with greater freedom. Park Ji Sung and more recently Wayne Rooney, have both  played out wide for Manchester United to give greater protection to the full backs.

With the advent of the universal playmaker and the physical development of the modern game, it means most of the play nowadays tends to be concentrated in the centre. Effective wing play therefore is ever more crucial (though Spain’s movement and intelligence was too much in the Euro’s) but a natural winger can be much inconsistent and anonymous if they are stuck out wide all the time. Such players may have one good game in five but in that one game can be match winners. Wingers have added more to their game and are more than just tools although effectively decreasing the number of natural wide men.

Theo Walcott harks back to those old days but his Arsenal experience makes him the greater all-round player and his underlying threat to Manchester United is evident to Ferguson. Patrice Evra was tormented by Aaron Lennon in the first half in their 5-2 defeat and with United behind, Ferguson’s side’s relentless pressure forced Lennon back while Rooney was moved to the left, scoring two goals and nullifying the threat of the winger in the process. When United attack, it is like a 4-2-4 which means it can lead to vulnerability in the full back area and the central midfield prone to being overrun. Indeed this is an area Porto exploited in the first leg until United patched up the gaps in the second leg.

Rooney’s discipline allows Ronaldo to play up front where the Portuguese can use his dynamism to drive at the opposition, especially on the counter where the defence will have their tails up when they see Ronaldo running. (Maybe a converted forward role in the same way as Henry beckons?)

The tactic can be a double edged sword therefore we are likely to see some interchanging out wide as rookie Kieran Gibbs will start on the left side. The full back was given a torrid time by Jesus Navas in the Emirates Cup and lets see just how much he has progressed in the face of limited opposition.

Maybe Ferguson could have instilled a greater work ethic just as Guardiola has at Barcelona to his awesome attacking trio but in the short term at least , the solution is to counter-balancing Ronaldo’s egotism with Rooney’s selflessness.

Remember to leave your comments on the game. A full preview (with a greater Arsenal prospective) will be up on Wednesday.