Alex Keble fears Arsenal could be bogged down by Man Utd’s tactical nothingness. And there’s a simple route to the Gunners’ goal even this United can follow…
Arsenal’s 4-2 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge came out of nowhere, a razor-edged display of direct football from Mikel Arteta’s young forwards right at the moment it looked as though their season was collapsing. It must be infuriating to support such an inconsistent and unknowable team. But it’s nowhere near as bad as the certainty of knowing your team are useless.
There are no words left to describe the mess at Manchester United, but whatever the cause and however deep the malaise, it has certainly infiltrated the tactics – or lack of them – on the pitch. In the 4-0 defeat to Liverpool Ralf Rangnick’s side were nothing: a void where a team should be, drifting around roughly in the right formation but without doing anything of note defensively or offensively. It’s what happens when you combine three years of empty coaching with an unpopular interim manager.
But the thing about a toxic club and a dreary, vacuous tactical identity is that it tends to suck everything into its vortex, including, on occasion, the opposition. There is an argument to be made that Arsenal will be dragged into the sludge by United’s low(ish) block and deep (sort of) line of engagement in the press – the direct inverse of how an injury-hit Chelsea made themselves vulnerable to Arsenal’s transitional speed by pouring forward with abandon.
Mikel Arteta’s team generally rely upon the opponent pressing them as they look to build riskily out from the back. It is part of a deliberate strategy to draw the other team forward before suddenly changing tempo and moving beyond them, creating an artificial transition scenario – either by turning their man in the dribble, or playing an intelligent vertical pass that catches the on-rushing opponent off guard.
And so, if United just kind of sit there, wafting around without any real intention, then Arsenal may become a bit stuck. This is what happened in the recent defeats to Crystal Palace and Southampton, and although those two are far better coached in sitting off and countering the individual quality in the Man Utd team should make up for that tactical gap to produce a relatively similar result.
From this position, Man Utd can deploy a straightforward tactical plan – the sort that even this bunch might think is worth a go. Arsenal are particularly weak in the full-back positions, with Nuno Tavares and Cedric Soares both far too easily beaten in the one-on-one. The left-back is showing particular vulnerability of late, and while Soares was replaced by Ben White for the Chelsea match the amount of chances Arsenal conceded on Wednesday suggests White will be pulled back into the middle of the defence.
United, then, can look to counter-attack with direct football aimed down the flanks. Get the ball out to Jadon Sancho and Anthony Elanga, so they can run straight at the full-backs. Surely the Man Utd players will be able to listen to Rangnick for long enough to absorb that instruction?
Of course, it is also possible that Arsenal take motivation from Liverpool’s 4-0 win on Tuesday and come out looking to burst straight through the heart of Man Utd’s flat-footed central midfield. Things did seem more fluid in this area with Mohamed Elneny at the base and Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard roaming forward as eights against Chelsea, and Odegaard in particular will expect to link up with Saka to work around the United central midfielders with those typical one-twos.
But it is unlikely Arsenal will suddenly find a higher gear against stodgy opponents. Their goalscoring woes were only temporarily solved because they faced an ultra-attacking, high-line Chelsea team who left themselves extremely open in the transitions – and who were missing two of their first-choice centre-backs. On Saturday, Eddie Nketiah will struggle to find space in a more congested final third, while Saka and Emile Smith Rowe will largely tunnel towards dead ends as the Arsenal full-backs provide inadequate support.
Alexandre Lacazette may be brought back in, given that Arteta will be aware United will offer less room for an on-the-shoulder striker like Nketiah. The Frenchman’s capacity to drop off the front line could be a decisive factor in outnumbering Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay in central midfield, although Lacazette’s poor form recently suggests that isn’t particularly likely.
The reverse fixture, a 3-2 win for Man Utd, was the last game before the start of the Rangnick mini-era, and therefore Michael Carrick’s final match in the dugout. That contest was defined by sheer carnage; some comical goals courtesy of Arsenal cowering for large periods and United pressing manically as Carrick tried to prepare the ground for the Rangnick revolution.
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