Before the match at Old Trafford, Arsene Wenger met Mourinho 14 times and failed to get a single victory against his side. Everything he thought about for the Saturday game was useless and, in the end, he was saved by a bit of luck and good intuition. Two changes gave him an assist and a first goal against Mourinho in nine long years to claim a point in a match with Man Utd.
Arsenal came to Old Trafford without defeat since Day 1 of the Premiership wit three wins and two draws in last five matches. Wenger’s team was a clear favourite against the hosts that didn’t connect two wins in a row since August. To make it worse, United had to face Arsenal without suspended Zlatan Ibrahimović and without both starting center backs, Eric Bailly and Chris Smalling. Nevertheless, Mourinho was encouraged by a win in League Cup against Guardiola’s City and two matches in Premiership without a loss. Thus, he ditched six men defence he employed to get some kind of result against Liverpool and Chelsea, and went for relatively open match against Arsenal. Well, to his standards at least.
Although he didn’t park the bus, Mourinho didn’t want to risk too much either. It was yet another difficult game for him since a defeat would settle him back after carefully nurturing his team shaky confidence level in recent games.
MANCHESTER UNITED – DEFENSIVE ORGANIZATION
Above you can see how he, mostly successfully, closed the middle of the pitch forcing Arsenal to build up down the flanks. He was defending zonally oriented on a man while Arsenal was transitioning to the middle third.
He did press Arsenal on his half, however, he did it very selectively. There were two triggers for Man Utd to get out of their defensive shape and close down on opponent in their half.
First trigger were deliberate long balls from their own defensive line. United doesn’t dwell on the ball in their half if they can avoid it. Even less so when opposition is pressing high. Without Ibrahimović upfront, Mourinho instructed his defenders to clear the ball into specific areas. Mainly down the flanks and near the touchline. Reasoning behind this is that receiver of the pass will have less space to cleanly trap the ball. This was the trigger for whole squad to raise their defensive line. Rashford was first man to chase the ball ensuring the receiving full back/defender has also minimal possible time to turn towards United goal and pick his next pass. In meanwhile, midfielders ensured to man mark anyone who could receive that pass. Theoretically this would give Man United a chance to clear the ball on their own terms and react to it with a possibility to win the ball high up the pitch.
Another pressing trigger was largely a reaction to Arsenal actions as United players would defend from front to chase down any back pass to Peter Čeh. The point behind wasn’t really to win the ball high, but to force an opponent to hoof the ball in an uncontrolled manner and then regain the possession since Arsenal lack any strength or aerial ability in the advanced positions. Theoretically, that would allow United to win the ball deep/medium position while opening routes for a quick counter attack when they still had their attacking players in advanced positions against unbalanced defence.
ARSENAL COUNTERING UNITED ZONAL DEFENCE IN MEDIUM BLOCK
Above you see one of solutions that Arsenal provided to avoid the marking in middle third. One of the weaknesses of man oriented zonal marking is that defender will follow the opponent in his zone. Arsenal is using this with clever off the ball movement from Mesut Ozil and Chilean Sanchez. While Ozil leaves his position in middle towards the right channel, Pogba follows him opening the space. This, in turn, is used by Chilean who drops deep from his central forward position. Depending on reaction of defence, he might have time and space to face goal side or, at least, pick a back/sideways pass.
Arsenal used reverse movement as well to the same effect. At times it was Theo Walcott who would make horizontal movement from right wing position into the centre of the pitch. This would either pull away his marker Darmian or make an overload in the middle. If Darmian followed, a space would open for right back Jenkins to exploit.
MANCHESTER UNITED – OFFENSIVE ORGANIZATION
Due to high value of points in this game (more for the confidence of the team than table position), United was quite reluctant to commit too many men to offensive. This was surely influenced by presence of Theo Walcott who can exploit the space if given. Thus, Darmian largely stayed back together with Michael Carrick to cover for counter attacks. This meant Mourinho had only two central midfielders and Juan Mata to connect their midfield and attack. Despite this, the work rate and off ball ability of Mata/Herrera proved quality more important than quantity.
While Arsenal was quite solid on defence, the quality of Mata and Herrera provided numerous troubles for them. Above animation is an example of typical movement those two made. Herrera was able to find space and use the ability of Martial’s one trick (cut inside) to receive the pass and unbalance the defence. After Herrera got attention from defence pulling out of the line one of the centre backs there was space behind that was open for Mata to exploit.
This cooperation in the end resulted with seemingly easy finish from Mata from inside the box. However, while it looked pretty straight forward clear chance, it took great deal of composure and technique to connect with such a fast ball. You will notice it was gain a third man’s run that concluded Man United move.
Unlike Mourinho, Wenger was trying to unsettle United defence with number of players in the offensive third. While Sanchez was very effective in a deep lying striker role coming deep to pick a pass, he had no support Mata provided to his team mates. Whenever Sanchez went deep Ozil and Walcott went infield often joined by Ramsey. Unlike United, that failed to give an advantage to Arsenal as their runs were predictable and United defence always had an answer due to deeper stance.
To conclude, United did very well to both, limit Arsenal and create in front of their goal. Visitors were saved by a bit of luck and hunch from Wenger who, midway through the second half, introduced Olivier Giroud and changed the fruitless approach. In the end, Mourinho might be held accountable on the fact he left Rashford on the left flank when Oxlade-Chamberlain was introduced. It was young forward who was supposed to mark Arsenal winger in right back position when fatal cross to Giroud was swung in. Either way, Murinho didn’t get what he wanted despite a solid performance and his team is still looking for confidence although this game seemed a step in right direction. Arsenal on other hand, had a poor performance, especially in the second half and lost the opportunity to challenge the very top of the table. Yet, it is a long season.