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How Arsenal outclassed Manchester United – Tactical Analysis


For the first time in 14 years, Arsenal managed to win at Old Trafford, as Mikel Arteta masterminded a much-needed victory.

This report will analyse the tactics used in Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Manchester United, at Old Trafford.

Line-ups and Formations

Mikel Arteta chose to replace the injured David Luiz with Rob Holding, as he completed a back three ahead of Leno, with Gabriel and Tierney. Saka and Bellerin flanked Elneny and Partey, as Willian returned, alongside Lacazette and Aubameyang.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer kept the diamond formation which dispatched RB Leipzig 5-0 midweek. De Gea had a back four of Wan Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, and Shaw ahead of him. Fred, McTominay, Pogba, and Fernandes formed the diamond, with Rashford and Greenwood as the strikers.

Arsenal deployed their usual 3-4-3, which altered to a 4-3-3 when in possession. Arsenal were able to quite easily enact positional play and execute their positional rotations, despite the number of United players who occupied the inside channels. Arsenal’s defensive shape was well-drilled, with all of the players understanding their zones of responsibility. For example, the back three knew that is was their responsibility to challenge and press any United player who receives between the defensive and midfield lines.

Manchester United started the game in a 4-1-2-1-2 (diamond) and ended it in a 4-2-3-1. Manchester United aimed to move the ball quickly through the lines with diagonal passes, before looking in behind the Arsenal defensive line for a forward run of Rashford or Greenwood. It’s a wonder that United didn’t alter to a 5-3-2 – it would have better suited their build-up play and facilitated width and Solskjaer’s attacking principles. Pogba would have had more freedom and United could have given Arsenal’s defence more decisions and problems to deal with. Instead, United couldn’t free Pogba from Thomas and any movement from a United player was tracked and marked.

Arsenal Out of Possession

When United built up, Arsenal sat in a midblock and looked to prevent any passes through into midfield. Arsenal’s preference was for United to play the ball out wide, where they had limited options, rather than through the lines, to Pogba, McTominay, or Fernandes. Upon one of Pogba and McTominay dropping (dependent on the side), Thomas or Elneny would track them. If Fernandes dropped a little deeper off the tip of the diamond, one of the centre-backs would follow him, though he wouldn’t if he were to drop into almost a defensive midfield position. This did cause Arsenal problems, but he never had any passing options.

With the midfield marked up, Lacazette could sit on Fred (United’s base of the diamond), whilst Aubameyang and Willian pressed the two centre-backs. Arsenal’s wing-backs proceeded to press United’s full-backs and this forced United long. In order to beat this first line of pressure, Fred would move into the back line and create a back three, allowing Wan Bissaka and Shaw to move higher. This didn’t really affect Arsenal, as they still had a 3 v 3 in midfield. Moreover, when a midfielder dropped, they would still be dually marked.

Manchester United’s only real success game down Arsenal’s left, when Aubameyang would switch off. Rashford would move across and not be tracked, due to how far he travelled and United could overload and unlock players with quick one-touch passing. Arsenal would look to foul or congest the move, as to stop it.

In the second half, Solskjaer changed to a 4-2-3-1. Arsenal struggled a little, as United had a double pivot and a 3 v 2 in midfield. Lacazette’s press got bypassed and United could get the ball through the pressure easier. If Arsenal’s midfielders pressed higher, the wingers could tuck in and occupy this space between them and the defensive line, or stay wide and a little deeper, receiving on the half-turn, which made it harder for the Arsenal centre-backs to press.

Arsenal’s Dominant Defence

This protection offered by Arsenal’s shape and the two screening midfielders (Thomas and Elneny), meant that the back three could control Greenwood and Rashford.

Neither Greenwood nor Rashford looked comfortable receiving the ball with their back to goal. Arsenal knew this and ensured that when they did receive, they didn’t have any space to turn and run. This saw in particular, Gabriel and Holding aggressively press the United strikers and follow them relatively deep. This both broke up Manchester United attacks and prevented them from pushing out.

Thomas Partey embodied this aggression. More often than not, Pogba looked to receive in the left half-space, between the lines. Thomas tracked Pogba and ensured he couldn’t turn, or find a pass forward or diagonally. A real testament to Thomas’ work was Pogba opting to move over to the right and abandoning his position. Elneny deserves real credit as well: he pressed Manchester United well and cut many passing lanes.

The collective pressing effort from Arsenal allowed for Gunners to play a high line, as they prevented any time or space for the United players to execute long balls or passes in behind the Arsenal’s defence. Arsenal’s passes per defensive action (PPDA)  of 11.85, shows this. Furthermore, it was through positional play, which saw United struggle to press Arsenal and get to their man. This saw United have a PPDA of 17.65.

How Arsenal outclassed Manchester United

This image shows Rob Holding (16), travelling all the way into the Manchester United half, to prevent Marcus Rashford (10), from receiving and turning. Gabriel (6) also proceeds to drop off and protect the space Holding has left. In the end Holding fouls Rashford, halting the counter-attack

Arsenal’s width

It’s been commonplace under Mikel Arteta for Tierney to bomb forward from left centre-back and overlap Saka. This small tactical detail completely derailed Manchester United’s ability to defend down their right. Wan Bissaka is widely respected as the best 1 v 1 defender in the league, if not the world. The overload of Tierney, Saka, Aubameyang, and then on the inside with Elneny, allowed Arsenal to overwhelm Wan Bissaka and McTominay, who was not comfortable in what was a not too familiar position for him. This in turn pulled Lindelof across and created space in United’s back line. Fred dropped in and plugged these gaps. When he did this, space opened up in front of the United defence and in zone 14. This allowed Thomas and Elneny to take shots, play through passes, switch play, and pretty much control Arsenal’s attack.

It was from these overlaps, that Arsenal could exploit the spaces at the far post. Against teams who play with a back four, the space is always at the far post. This is more prevalent when the team is playing a diamond and has no wingers who can tuck in. As a result, the United full-back was isolated at the far post. Arsenal often looked to exploit this, with crosses to the far post.


No one can complain about the result. Arsenal’s expected goals of 1.0, indicated they deserved the victory, to United’s 0.39. Arsenal tactically outclassed Manchester United – Solskjaer’s diamond played right into the hands of Arteta, who always makes defending the central areas a foremost priority. Arsenal’s press and compact shape stifled United’s build-up play and forced them long. Arsenal’s centre-backs could easily win these long balls, given their physical advantages over the United forwards. Thomas was imperious and looks as though he is the player Arsenal fans have been crying out for. His athleticism, technical ability, and reading of the game are priceless for this Arsenal team.

After a difficult two weeks for Mikel Arteta, he saw his side respond and end many a doubt about his managerial suitability for Arsenal.

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