Admittedly the title is mixing in a couple tablespoons of sensationalism, something more appropriate for the Daily Mail and other English tabloids. Arsenal on the whole were better, whether through the eye test or through Expected goal models. One could look at that game and conclude very rationally that it was just a one off, one of those games every team has in a season. It’s very much accurate, but football wouldn’t be fun without a tad bit of irrationality no?
Either way Arsenal continue their horrendous record versus Manchester United. Since their FA cup victory over Man U in 2005, Arsenal have only beaten the Red devils four times in all competitions and only once since 2008-09. The match itself resembled a car crash (which in fairness is an apt description of the 2014-15 EPL season in general) with Man United sucker punching Arsenal in Louis Van Gaal’s return of the 3-4-1-2/5-2-3. Arsenal countered that with timely instances of pressure , relying on the speed of their front three to bother Man United’s inexperienced back line and general imbalance in midfield.
The strategy worked, well worked as much as it could without producing a goal. It was quintessential Arsenal; using speed in the attacking positions to create a sea of chaos. Danny Welbeck drifted to both wing areas, exploiting the space given to him with the spread three CB line. Aaron Ramsey was involved a lot in the final third, even getting behind United’s defense on a couple of occasions. In the beginning portions of the first half, Arsenal’s attack was more directed towards the right hand side of the pitch, pressuring Luke Shaw and his replacement Ashley Young.
Arsenal were helped as well with Manchester United playing a fairly high backline, creating 1v1 opportunities off ball for speedsters like Chamberlin:
And when they weren’t playing throughballs like that, it was creating pseudo counter attacks from a multitude of positions. There were numerous instances of Arsenal’s wingers dropping back to start counter attacks from as deep as their own final third:
It wasn’t just wingers, Jack Wilshere provided similar results in his hybrid version of a #10, rampaging forward in a couple of instances from deep positions. In comparison to previous games this was a varied Arsenal attack, a positive sign for the club. Then again Arsenal fans for the longest time have been fed the words “positive sign” so it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for them.
In contrast it was quite odd watching Manchester United at work. It’s wasn’t just playing a 3 CB lineup, though that backline didn’t cover itself in glory, especially in the first half. Angel Di Maria at times functioned as a false nine, Robin Van Persie and his peg legs drifted out wide, creating a acid induced 5-2-3 formation. Even Marouanne Fellaini did well… Fellaini things, both good, bad and hilarious. The saddest part by far though was watching RVP ruin multiple attacks because of indecisions or just a lack of athleticism remaining in his body (BTW the days of RVP being a top class striker are finished. It’s done. He’s Old Yeller and no one has had the decency to take him to the woodshed yet).
Even at a contorted state, Arsenal did have problems with United’s sporadic counter attacking, having the same issue of balance in midfield as Man Utd did. Arsenal’s 4-1-2-3 formation did leave space in the midfield which Arsenal’s ball pressure couldn’t cope with. Mikel Arteta on the whole was pretty decent but he had his issues with Di Maria’s pace. Per Mertesacker and Nacho Monreal are no person’s ideal defense combination, and after the own goal Kieran Gibbs own goal was when Manchester United really soaked up the pressure tried to hit Arsenal on adventurous counter attacks.
Wayne Rooney’s involvement in those moments were key. He almost played a positionless game, varying his movements on either side of the flank or through the middle if needed. It’s where Wayne Rooney is at his best. As a pure #10 or having to be played in that position, Rooney leaves something to be desired but he did an admirable job in a supporting role in these instances. Plus the goal itself was a touch of class as well (against Arsenal no less).
It was another game where Arsenal failed to get a victory versus a traditional top four side, which will obviously get Arsenal fans more riled up about talks of the clubs stagnation and faint whispers of sacking Arsene Wenger. In the moment, it was an above average performance that on another day might’ve ended with an Arsenal victory. Then again with Arsenal, the “could’ve, would’ve, should’ve” approach has long run its expire date.