Manchester United host league leaders Arsenal on Sunday in a match that will have some serious implications on the title race.
The Gunners have made a stunning start to the season (unlike United) and this article looks at a particular midfield battle that could decide the game.
Arsenal In Between the Lines
Arsenal’s one-touch, short passing game has been phenomenal this term. Jack Wilshere’s goal against Norwich City is touted as the best in Premier League history.
The reason Arsenal are able to attack with such fluency is because of the space their midfielders and attackers are afforded in between the lines by the opposing teams and the overloads Arsene Wenger’s troops make in the attacking third.
To stop Arsenal from executing their brilliance, it is thus important to narrow space ahead of the defence.
United Against Real Sociedad
On Sunday, United will play with their usual 4-4-1-1 formation against Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1.
This means Arsenal will have an extra man in midfield, but outnumbering in the center of the park doesn’t guarantee space in between the lines as well.
Manchester United showed that against Real Sociedad by simply playing with a high defensive line. This tactic helped their two-man midfield counteract a three-man midfield.
The high-line started a virtuous cycle.
It meant the four United midfielders could push high up the pitch and press without the risk of leaving much space behind. This in turn, meant Sociedad didn’t get the time and space to build up attacks from the back and supply ammunition to David Zurutuza (Sociedad’s furthest midfielder) and Imanol Agirretxe.
United intercepted the ball a couple of times before it entered their defending third as the likes of Ryan Giggs and Marouane Fellaini didn’t need to sit deep and protect the midfield- they had freedom to press (albeit Fellaini was also quite reckless owing to this).
So, although Sociedad had an extra-man advantage in midfield, they couldn’t exercise that luxury in the area of the pitch where it really mattered (between the midfield and defence), as United didn’t allow them to enter that avenue of the field.
On the other hand, a deep back-four would have meant the midfielders would’ve needed to sit deep. Sociedad could have easily got into the attacking third as they would have had the required time to build up plays. Giggs and Fellaini would have tried to close space in between the lines but this time, the opposing midfielders would have been coming towards them (with ball and purpose) and not the other way round. This time, they would have been the one caught off-guard, under pressure (even without the ball) and static, while the opposing midfielders would have been the one with the flow and liveliness. Giggs and Fellaini would have eventually got outnumbered chasing the ball against players who were in possession and control.
Can This Work Against Arsenal, If Yes, How?
There are four questions that need to be answered if United want to play with a high line against the Gunners:
1) How long can the high line last?
Against Sociedad was the first time United started with a high line and ended the game in an almost similar fashion. Generally, as soon as the opposition starts to build up pressure, United drop deep.
Against Fulham, the Red Devils started with a relatively higher back-four but as soon as Fulham showed some intent after the interval, United retreated, allowing the hosts to pile up pressure and win the midfield battle.
United can’t risk doing the same against Arsenal. If they start with a high line and two midfielders, they can’t ditch that tactic abruptly. Stick with it or play three midfielders.
2) Who Should Form the Back-Four to Sustain Arsenal?
Unlike Sociedad, Arsenal can easily breach a high-line by getting behind it. So, United will need defenders who can deal well with pace. Jonny Evans and Phil Jones could be in contention for a starting spot in that case, while it will be best if Rio Ferdinand is kept on the bench.
3) What About Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla?
Sociedad made things very easy for United as their wingers didn’t start drifting centrally until the start of the second half and the two-deep lying midfielders didn’t venture into the attacking third.
But against Arsenal, United can brace for Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla to continually get in between the lines. The two will provide additional passing outlets to Arteta and the back-four and if United “miss-press” on a single occasion, Ramsey, Cazorla and Ozil will be in acres of space.
How will Moyes contain the trio?
4) Who Should Partner Michael Carrick in the middle of the park?
Michael Carrick is expected to return to the starting XI against Arsenal. His role will be crucial in breaking up plays and preventing Arsenal from getting the ball in between the lines.
Question mark is regarding his potential partner.
Marouane Fellaini lacks mobility and is clumsy against pacey attackers. If Arsenal beat United’s press, it is unlikely Fellaini will track back in time or without committing a foul.
Against Sociedad, the Belgian committed five fouls and eventually got sent-off. Hence, Tom Cleverley will be the safer option. He’s industrious, can press well and mitigate Arsenal’ threat in the midfield.
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