“Are we watching mediocrity? Is that the way the fixture has gone down now?” exclaimed Peter Drury while commentating for Manchester United vs Arsenal. Anyone who watched the match hailed it as a show of mediocrity and few termed it a tactical battle, and everyone likely believed the fixture that once was the hallmark of the league calendar was anything but.

In this tactical analysis, we take a deep dive into Unai Emery and Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s tactics in this match. This analysis will also give a brief look into Arsenal’s ineffectiveness in playing out from the back

Lineups

Lineups
Lineups

Solskjær lined up in his usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Paul Pogba was fit and replaced Nemanja Matić in the midfield. Injured Aaron Wan-Bissaka was replaced by Axel Tuanzebe from their loss to West Ham. Tuanzebe was slotted into the left-back position and Ashley Young was the right-back for the match. Jesse Lingard replaced Juan Mata as the attacking midfielder.

Emery opted to replace Ainsley Maitland-Niles with Calum Chambers. He also brought in Lucas Torreira in place of Dani Ceballos as a tactical change. And to no one’s surprise, Bukayo Saka got another run out in the starting XI, proving the growing trust in the young promising Hale End product.

Tactical Positioning

4-1-4-1 and Xhaka playing just in front of the defenders
4-1-4-1 and Xhaka playing just in front of the defenders

Arsenal started with 4-3-3 but mostly played with 4-1-4-1 in the first half with Granit Xhaka sitting just in front of the back four. In the second half, Emery changed his approach when Arsenal were trailing. Emery pushed Torreira further up while attacking, creating a 4-2-3-1 formation though Arsenal defended in the same 4-1-4-1. When Torreira was substituted, Dani Ceballos performed the same role.

Torreira and Guendouzi marking Pogba and McTominay
Torreira and Guendouzi marking Pogba and McTominay

Guendouzi and Torreira closely marked the double pivot of Pogba and Scott Mctominay. Xhaka was given the duty of closely following the runs of Lingard, who was playing in the number 10 position. Pogba and McTominay tried to switch their positions to confuse Arsenal’s midfield but Guendouzi and Torreira were true to their task. Guendouzi covered the left side of the midfield area and Torreira the right.

Guendouzi on Pereira
Guendouzi on Pereira

Manchester United attacked and defended in the same 4-2-3-1 formation but they played with different patterns of the same formation. Daniel James and Andreas Pereira started wide in the wings. Andreas Pereira started to move infield trying to take advantage of the situation, which left Arsenal bewildered with the sudden change in tactics. Xhaka was left 2 on 1 with Lingard and Pereira as he kept on closely marking Lingard, while Kolašinac indicated to Guendouzi to mark Pereira. McTominay, who was on the right side of the double pivot, had the space to exploit and drive attacks.

Tactical Switches
Tactical Switches

Assessing the situation, Guendouzi stood to his initial task of marking the double pivot and Kolašinac started to move infield to mark Pereira. Man United taking advantage of the situation started to push Young further upwards. It forced Kolašinac to remain wide and Guendouzi was again tasked with marking Pereira, which gave McTominay space to operate.

Rashford on left and James through the centre
Rashford on left and James through the centre

Manchester United even created problems for Arsenal by switching James and Rashford. Rashford at the left wing was a new challenge for Chambers- he couldn’t deal with Rashford right from the word go and it gave Rashford a chance to give Man Utd the lead, unfortunately, it did not happen. Amidst all these tactical games, Man Utd took the lead through a McTominay stunner.

Boring affair: Ineffectiveness in attack

Arsenal’s compact midfield hardly gave Man Utd free space to operate. Arsenal sat deep, which gave Man Utd defenders too much time to play out from the back. Arsenal’s game plan was to be behind the ball and then press. Arsenal midfielders tried to block all immediate forward passes in the midfield by marking each Man Utd midfielder. Xhaka marking Lingard and other Arsenal players doing the same meant there was little ball movement in the final third. Man Utd could only make 36 accurate passes in their opponent’s final third- Lingard, in particular, was able to get only one touch in the opponent box.

Rashford's lack of movement
Rashford’s lack of movement

Man marking in the midfield region meant Rashford had the two centre-backs to himself. He has not been prolific in recent times, and this was evident here as he didn’t make many attempts in running through the channels and create problems for the Arsenal centre-backs. Even when he made a perfect run on one occasion, he couldn’t finish. Rashford has non-penalty xG of 2.11 in Premier League games and scored only one, one of the highest differentials in the Premier League.

Ineffective front four
Ineffective front four

Arsenal tried to play as they played against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League, by keeping the midfield compact and hitting Frankfurt on the counter. Arsenal against Frankfurt had a ball carrier in the form of Joe Willock which they genuinely missed against Man Utd. Torreira was good defensively: he marked his player well but he produced nothing in the offensive end. He tried 11 passes and just made eight with a 73% pass accuracy. The front four produced only 18 passes among them, which sums up the story of Arsenal’s night. Once Ceballos was introduced, Arsenal had the ball carrier they badly needed.

Playing out from the back

Arsenal’s problem of playing out from the back continues- it’s been a common scenario this season. Trying to play out from the back has been so disastrous for Arsenal that even their supporters give a sarcastic cheer when they realise Leno is going to kick the ball long. But one thing Arsenal have changed is their approach. They are open to adjustments and not adamant on playing out from the back. In the last four games when they were having trouble playing out from the back they switched to long balls. One problem with this is that a team on their day would require that one chance to win the game.

Solskjær came out with a plan to press Arsenal’s defence high from the very start which led to Manchester United having a PPDA of only 5.42. It means on average they allowed Arsenal to play only 5.42 passes before a defensive action was made by them.

The basic rule of playing out from the back is that a midfielder should always make space for himself and find an empty pocket to receive a pass. Manchester City is the best example to understand this situation. Whenever they play out from the back they create a three man defence and a midfielder sits just above the three players and tries to find space for himself to receive a pass.

KDB falling back and Rodrigo running the space to make him available for the pass
KDB falling back and Rodrigo running the space to make him available for the pass

City against Everton did what they do best. Even in the starting minutes of the game, Kevin De Bruyne fell back and gave City defenders an extra man to pass. Rodrigo is just above the three players trying to create some space for himself to receive the ball. This happens almost every time: City either keeps a full-back or Rodrigo falls back to create a three man defence and plays it around and another midfielder is always there to receive the ball.

The main problem with Arsenal’s build-up play is that the midfielders do not make themselves available for Leno or defenders to pass. When they build up they push both their full-backs up, and Xhaka or any other midfielder is not competent enough to give Arsenal an extra man to pass.

No Arsenal player to pass the ball
No Arsenal player available to pass the ball

In this situation, Sokratis has the ball and he has none other than Leno to pass to.

Luiz has no one to pass
Luiz has no one to pass to

Leno passes the ball to Luiz. He is in a complete mess now, with four Man Utd players in the vicinity and no Arsenal player to pass. He has no other option but to play a long ball. Luiz doesn’t do so and turnovers the ball to Rashford.

High Press by the Arsenal midfield
High Press by the Arsenal midfield

If Arsenal have a prolonged problem of playing out from the back, it was Man Utd who conceded a goal from Arsenal’s high press. In the second half, Arsenal pushed a man further up and pressed the United defence high in 4-2-3-1 formation or the same 4-1-4-1 formation. Pepe and Guendouzi breathed down on Tuanzebe’s neck and he could not handle the pressure and misplaced a pass to Saka. Saka played the ball to Aubameyang the first time and, Aubemeyang being a clinical striker he is, lobbed the ball above De Gea coolly.

Guendouzi’s growing influence and Aubameyang’s brilliance

In spite of the mess Arsenal are in, they have two shining stars bringing the entire squad home with minimal scratches with the help of others.

Guendouzi has become a captain figure at this young age of 20. He is the player who drives the midfield during an attack as well as helps in the defensive job immensely. As per Wyscout, he made 77 total actions against Man Utd with a success rate of 64% – more than any other player from both the teams. What’s more intriguing is that against Aston Villa, where Arsenal was one man down, he made a staggering 113 defensive actions with an 81% success rate.

Guendouzi made four passes to the final third and one in the box when the match had little to offer from an attacking perspective. He was fouled six times and two of those lead to yellow cards for the opponent. His defensive numbers speak volumes too. Guendouzi made seven interceptions and seven recoveries, one in the opposition half. He went for eight defensive duels and was successful in five of those. Guendouzi’s performance led Cesc Fàbregas to tweet, “Gotta love Guendouzi. Can play good or not so good but always shows up in difficult moments at such a young age. Big future ahead of him at Arsenal.”

Alexandre Lacazette’s injury has been a blessing in disguise for Aubameyang as well as Arsenal. Aubameyang enjoys when he plays as a striker, where he has the freedom to run down the channels and upset the defenders. Even though he has almost similar stats in terms of goals and assists when playing as a winger as well as a striker, he is much more comfortable in the number nine role. Arsenal have not created much this season owing to Emery’s method of sitting deep to improve the defence. Aubameyang amidst everything scored 0.85 goals per 90 when his xG is a mere 0.42. This shows how good and clinical a finisher he is.

Conclusion

Emery’s plan to sit deep did not help Arsenal and they had very little creativity in the offensive end. A mix of high press and Ceballos’s ball-carrying ability helped Arsenal in the second half to create chances and come back home with a point from Old Trafford. Saka getting more minutes shows how confident Emery is about him, and he did not disappoint. He made a few fantastic dribbles and take-on with the minimal opportunities he got and it was his assist that gave Arsenal one point away from home at Old Trafford.

Manchester United has their own problem in the offensive end. They have scored just nine goals from seven matches in the Premier League, owing to four goals they put past Chelsea in the opening fixture. Rashford has to take more ownership upon him being the senior striker in the squad now or else Solskjær has to look for an alternative.