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Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Manchester United – tactical analysis


Two goliaths of the game met on New Years Day in Arsenal Football Club and Manchester United. With an outstanding 26 top-flight titles between the two clubs, they’ve been a staple of England’s game for generations. However, the two sides nowadays are long moved on from the days of Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson.

Mikel Arteta looked to end a horror home record at the Emirates Stadium for Arsenal who had lost four in a row in front of their own crowd. No teams have won more games on New Years Day than the Gunners however and they’re unbeaten in their last three meetings with Ole Gunnar Solskjær at the helm of United.

So history was on Arteta’s side as he looked to gain his first victory as a head coach. In this tactical analysis, we’ll see how each manager’s tactics shaped the game as they both battled to begin the new decade with a step toward Champions League football.


Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics

(Via Wyscout)

Both Arteta and Solskjær went for a 4-2-3-1.

The big news in Arsenal’s team came in the returns of Nicolas Pepe and Granit Xhaka. Pepe, after being stuck out of the team for a period, despite being the club’s record signing, got his first chance under Mikel Arteta. Xhaka who was subject to serious talk of an exit to Germany was convinced to stay after a conversation with the gaffer.

Manchester United came without Paul Pogba who missed the game through injury. McTominay, who has been key in their midfield this season, was also absent so Matić made his fifth appearance of the season. Marcus Rashford played as a left forward but he hasn’t scored against Arsenal in seven appearances.

United’s problems out of possession 

Arteta’s newly introduced 2-3-5 possession structure provides great balance across all phases of play. The Red Devils of Manchester struggled against the width it provides. Left-back Kolasinac and right-sided forward Pepe would operate on the right and left flanks respectively. This stretched United’s defensive shape and created space to exploit. Arsenal would easily bypass United’s lines of pressure with one or two passes.

There were many specific sequences where United’s right-winger James, wouldn’t recognize where to be positioned, not cutting off the passing lane to Kolasinac as you can see below. This would create space in their defensive shape. David Luiz found Kolasinac seven times every time the full-back was hugging the touchline.

Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics

The opening goal would exhibit United’s issues in defending the wide areas. Daniel James and Marcus Rashford wouldn’t trackback, leaving full-backs Shaw and Wan-Bissaka with no support in numerical disadvantages. Kolasinac and Aubameyang interchange positions, Aubameyang isolated against Wan-Bissaka has the time and vision to see Kolasinac’s run who then plays the ball to the arriving Pepe making a run from the outside in. Pepe is left completely free to make this run because Rashford doesn’t track back to defend him.

Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics

Arsenal improved pressing causes United problems

Arsenal under Emery attempting to press against opposition teams was simply a disaster. Players clearly were poorly instructed and it led to gaps throughout phases of play out of possession that teams would exploit. Arteta showed against Bournemouth and Chelsea that he was improving Arsenal in this tactical aspect but against United, it would be a pivotal piece of their play that looked refined and organized.

As you can see through the analysis below, Arteta set them up in a 4-4-2 man-oriented press. Ozil and Lacazette would occupy the two centre-backs whereas Torreria and Xhaka would eliminate the passing lanes into midfield. This organized and defined shape denied central ball progression. United centre-backs would be forced to play the ball out wide to a full-back where they would immediately be pressed by wide players Pepe and Aubameyang and forced to play it backwards. In the first 30 minutes where the press was most intense, the visitors struggled to move the ball out of their own defensive third and were not really in the game. Harry Maguire from centre-back made the most passes in the match, highlighting how much play was done in United’s own defensive third. Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics

The main goal of every press, of course, is to disrupt play and create turnovers. United defenders would often be forced into attempting long balls to skip the middle third which would either be failed passes or United forwards didn’t have the physical capabilities to hold the ball up.

The example below is where they try to start play from the goalkeeper. However, Arsenal’s press is so well organized that Maguire is left with no passing solutions and is forced to play the ball out of play in his own box. United only completed five of 19 attempted long passes.

Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics

United’s solution

Manager Solskjær would tweak his tactics to help his team combat the Gunner’s astute pressing scheme. Full-backs and wide forwards would begin to play higher and wider. This would, in turn, open up space for the centre-backs to carry the ball into,  and open up new passing solutions that were not there before. Maguire and Lindelof are both competent ball carriers and recognise where space is.

Another negative for Arsenal is this would pin wide players back more to cover the space the full-backs were getting into. So they could not aggressively disrupt United during the buildup phases anymore. As you can see below, Maguire dribbles into space vacated by Luke Shaw who is positioned higher up the pitch and it forces Pepe back. Generally, after this tweak in tactics, United progressed into the middle third with fewer problems and controlled the ball better. Eventually ending the game with more completed passes in the attacking third than Arsenal.

Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics

Where United ultimately lose the game

Due to the change in tactics and fatigue, Arsenal sat off more, which gave United more possession. This wouldn’t be a problem though as they failed to be effective in the final third and it’s where they would lose the game. They only created one big chance despite making 100+ passes in the attacking third. They also only made eight passes into the penalty area, never really taking any risks with innovative or creative passes.

One tactical principle Solskjær has tried to coach into his side is wide overloads. Through stagnant off the ball movement and Arsenal working hard out of possession, they failed to execute this part of their tactics. Never gaining numerical superiority or moving the ball quick enough to make a switch of play.

Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics

United are best offensively when they’re attacking in transition and they didn’t get many opportunities because of Arsenal’s structure. Torreria and Xhaka made 17 ball recoveries together as they were well-positioned through the structure to recover possession from counter-pressing and United’s clearances. Below is a sequence where United do win the ball from Arsenal in their own half and have their best-attacking chance in transition but poor decision making ruined the chance.

Lingard has two options, either to send Martial through on goal or Daniel James away from goal and chose James which killed the attacking opportunity. Premier League 2019/20: Arsenal vs Manchester United - tactical analysis tactics


Arteta continues to impress, Arsenal had great sustained spells of possession and they executed their tactics well as we showed throughout this tactical analysis. At the end of the day, the Gunners simply wanted it more. They showed commitment and desire on and off the ball which translated into a much-needed result.

United, on the other hand, never looked threatening and was poorly set up to combat Arsenal’s patterns of play.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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