A fast start and a run of luck was enough to see Arsenal beat Manchester United 2-0, improving Arsenal’s home record against the top 6, and putting the Gunners into the top 4. Arsenal have now beaten Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester United at the Emirates, taking 10 points from fixtures at home against the top 6, as opposed to 5 points last season, when they only beat Tottenham.
Fast Arsenal Start
Shortly before lineups were announced, Gary Neville leaked the lineups on instagram, and they quickly went around the Internet to some surprise. Unai Emery had named Mesut Özil, Aaron Ramsey, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the same team for the first time since late September, and as opposed to September, when that quarter played ahead of a base of two from Granit Xhaka, Lucas Torreira or Matteo Guendouzi,
Arsenal lined up in a 3412 system, with Ramsey partnering Xhaka, Özil playing behind the two strikers and Maitland-Niles and Kolasinac playing as wingbacks. In the early stages, Arsenal dominated proceedings, through pressing but also through quick attacking play: a cross from Kolasinac should’ve been tucked away by Lacazette in the second minute. One reason for Arsenal’s dominance was Manchester United’s system: a fairly conventional 442, with Paul Pogba playing on the left. This meant Arsenal had a 3v2 advantage in midfield, and Özil was constantly getting behind Fred and Nemanja Matic, allowing the playmaker to have an influence on proceedings. This opened space for Arsenal’s other midfielders, and Xhaka had space to score Arsenal’s first. The physicality of Arsenal’s midfield two allowed them to control midfield, with Ramsey’s industry and defensive work demonstrative of Arsenal’s approach.
United Begin to Dictate
Midway through the half, though, Manchester United shifted system to match Arsenal, with Dalot dropping to wing back and Ashley Young playing right centre-back. Without any numerical advantages, Manchester United began to control play: Pogba became influential, and Rashford’s pace and movement caused Arsenal issues. Arsenal still threatened on the break with Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles, but United enjoyed the majority of proceedings, and truth be told, were unlucky not to score, with the defensive commitment of individuals and goalkeeping of Bernd Leno keeping United at bay.
In the second haf, Solskjaer changed United’s shape again, moving back to a back four, but switching to a diamond in midfield, with Dalot right of centre, Fred left of centre, and Pogba at the tip of the diamond. This reflected United’s shape in their FA Cup defeat of Arsenal, when United played a diamond with Lukaku and Rashford wide, and Lingard as a false 9. Rashford had a roaming role here, but Lukaku lined up against Arsenal’s centre backs, and in the second half, although having a chance, Lukaku was better handled by Arsenal’s back three.
Indeed, United did control proceedings in the second half, but the switch to a diamond, although giving United control in the midfield, didn’t allow them to dominate as much as they had in the second half, having only one shot between the 60th minute and the end of the game. In part, this was because of the commitment of the Arsenal midfield: Özil, Xhaka and Ramsey all worked incredibly hard, with Ramsey’s 8 tackles essential as Arsenal sat off.
The other aspect of Arsenal’s game that came to the fore in the second half was the counter-attacking prowess of the wingbacks, especially Kolasinac. With Manchester United playing a back four, the fullbacks, though providing an outlet, couldn’t play as high as they did in the second half; otherwise, the Arsenal strikers could get 1v1 against the two United centre backs. This gave space for Arsenal’s wingbacks to carry the ball on the counter, with Kolasinac driving Arsenal’s counter-attacks forward in the second half, with one setting up an eventual Aubameyang shot, and other runs relieving pressure and moving Arsenal higher up the pitch. Maitland-Niles combination play with Ramsey set up Lacazette’s run that won the penalty for the second goal.
Arsenal were perhaps lucky to come away with all three points: United had several big chances, and on another day, they might’ve come away with the three points—just as Arsenal, on another day, win against Tottenham last week. The aggressive start from Emery, some element of fortune, and the ability of the wingbacks to carry out counter attacks, and the general committment of Arsenal’s XI—especially the man of the match, Aaron Ramsey—gave Arsenal enough to come away with all three points, putting the Gunners in a decent position for a top 4 place with eight games left in the season.