Going into the game at the Emirates some serious pressure was put on United, with City getting a late 3-2 win over Spurs less than an hour before kick off. 3 points were a necessity. The 8-2 demolition in August was still fresh in the minds for both sets of fans, with Arsenal craving revenge and United hoping to prove that they still are have the upper hand on their North London rivals. The game went by and United collected yet another three points away from home, making it a total of 26 points out of 33 on their travels this season, which is an improvement to the whole of last season’s total. In the first half United totally dominated, and could had more than just their one goal advantage, but a change in tactics by Arsenal put them back in the game and in the end the 2-1 loss felt harsh to them.
United seemed comfortable during the whole game, but yet again they let the oppositions back in it after dominating. What happened to United?
It has been a long time since defence was one of Arsenal’s strong points. Despite going into the game with an injury list almost as long as United’s, they have never looked comfortable when the opposition takes the game to them. And United did exactly that in the first half. With players such as Nani, Rooney and Valencia in the team you would expect them to make the difference offensively, but at the Emirates there was an old Welshman who made the team tick and did the damage to Arsenal. It is weird watching Ryan Giggs play in midfield, having seen him skin full backs time and time again for nearly two decades. But after performances like the ones at Craven Cottage and now the Emirates, it really begs the question: Is he really playing in midfield? It does not look that way to be honest, with him operating more like a second winger on both flanks when United attack. He created the goal for Valencia swinging the ball in following a run outside of Nani, but it was not the first time in the game that we saw him there. Every time United managed to build up an attack on the flank he was seen close to the winger, always in space to get the ball in dangerous areas. Whether on the left or on the right, he was there, and it came as little surprise that it was his cross that would lead to a goal.
Most of United’s attack in the game came from the left, with the Reds doubling up the flanks each time they attacked. If it was not Giggs who supported Nani, it would be Evra, with Giggs getting down to cover the left back position. Obviously the pace of Theo Walcott is a major threat to every team Arsenal face, and because of that offensive danger he does not need to track back too often. Djorou found himself one against two each time United attacked, needing the help of Song to rescue him once in a while, but with the midfielder getting(surprisingly) attacking duties in the first half the Swiss defender had a shocker and was rightfully substituted at half time. Having being taken on a run more than once for the first 45, he was struggling to catch his breath and get out to pressure Giggs for United’s goal. United punished Arsenal were they were at their weakest, and in the end they got their reward.
Valencia found it difficult on the right hand side though, with Rafael staying back more often than not. Chamberlain proved a threat to United the whole game, and with Giggsy moving to the left flank for most of the game Valencia found himself one on one against Vermaelen most of the time. Of course, Valencia’s strength and pace is a difficulty for all defenders to handle, but being the most solid monument in the Arsenal backline the Belgian would always be tough to get past. Most of Valencia’s first half contributions were chips for Welbeck to chase behind the Arsenal defence, but more often than not Koscielny would got their first using his experience and pace. Rafael was wise not to get forward more often than he did, as in the end one of his runs led to the Arsenal goal. Finding himself totally out of position inside Arsenal’s own box, they countered down his flank with Chamberlain and Van Persie finding enough space to squeeze the ball in despite Valencia’s and Evans’ best efforts to keep the Gunners at bay.
Other than his goal, Robin Van Persie had a quiet game with Smalling and Evans deploying the sort of meet-and-cover tactic that has made the Rio-Vidic partnership so solid during the years. Evans marked the Dutchman out of the game, with Smalling using his pace to cover his defensive partner whenever the striker got past him. Van Persie was at best invisible in the first half, with Arsenal being too slow and deploying a too central tactic to get past United’s midfield. Rooney helped out Carrick and Giggs to close down every possible room Arsenal’s midfield could exploit, and with Valencia and Nani getting central they managed to push Arsenal wide, something they seemed reluctant to take advantage of. Despite Chamberlain’s best efforts to create something out of nothing, Arsenal simply had to play through the middle and it never paid off. The Gunners did not find room in the middle, and until they did the ball went backwards. No chances for them in the first half, and no wonder.
Credit must go to Wenger for making a tactical change at half time, putting on Yennaris for Djorou at right back. The young Englishman gave the Gunners some pace in that position, and Nani found it difficult to get past him. As well as that, Ramsey got close to Giggs and marked him out of the game, giving United few chances to get attack down their left flank. Arsenal played wider, forcing United inside and getting to more crosses themselves. Welbeck got more space to exploit, and together with Rooney they single-handedly created United’s best chances in the second half. Welbeck could have had himself a hat-trick but for a poor touch and a marvellous clearance from Mertesacker, but his goal was to come eventually. Arsenal left their midfield wide open, putting total focus on stopping United on the wings, and taking off Nani for Scholes was exactly what United needed.
It was the veteran’s pass to Valencia that started off United’s attack, and the Ecuadorian(now finding himself at right back) took advantage of some poor Arsenal defending to create the goal for young Danny to convert. Wenger has gotten a lot of stick for putting on Arshavin for Chamberlain, but unlike the young Englishman at least Arshavin was willing to track back. He found himself in a position Chamberlain had not done for the whole game, covering for his full back, and had it not been for some brilliant play by Park and Valencia the goal may never have come. Park forced Vermaelen centrally, and one against one with Arshavin Valencia would always fancy his chances. Despite having an otherwise quiet game, the Ecuadorian ended up with a goal and an assist, continuing his rich vein of form following his early season injury.
Arsenal got to a lot of chances in the second half, but never really threatened United’s backline until Mertesacker went forward. Cross after cross was swung in, but Van Persie would never find himself victorious in aerial duels with Evans and Smalling who, again, were marvellous. Rooney did his best to stop Arsenal getting through the midfield, and despite reports suggesting he had a poor performance he did his duties marvellously. He could have had himself an assist or two had Welbeck been more clinical, he was in the perfect position for a rebound whenever United got the ball in the Arsenal box, and defensively he stopped everything Arsenal through at him. Some balls were too sloppy when trying to put others through, but all in all he was marvellous and used his brain to great effect.
Despite a marvellous showing, United conceded yet another goal from a counter attack. There are worrying signs indeed, as we have now seen too many teams expose United’s weakness when going forward. For a team who pride themselves on solid defending, a too attacking approach has been punished too often this season, and in the end you could see that United were happy just clear the ball instead of trying to keep possession in the final minutes. United look solid whenever they are in control, and despite having an awful lot of defenders injured oppositions have found them difficult to break down. Only Wolves, Chelsea and Newcastle have scored goals against United this season that have not come from counter attacks, a set play, or an individual mistake. That would seem to be a good thing, but with the amount of goals United actually have conceded this season it is not. Improvement is necessary.