OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS
Manchester United played in a 4-4-1-1 shape. Edwin van der Sar was in goal and the center-back pairing was Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Patrice Evra was the left-back and Fabio the right-back. Michael Carrick played as a deep-lying playmaker and his partner in the center of the pitch, Anderson, played more in a box-to-box role. Nani was the wide player out on the right flank and Park Ji-sung was the wide left player. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez was the striker and Wayne Rooney played in a withdrawn role.
Arsenal typically play in a 4-2-3-1 shape, but with captain Cesc Fabregas unavailable, the home side played in a 4-3-3 shape. Wojciech Szczesny was in goal and the center-back tandem was Laurent Koscielny and Johan Djourou. Alex Song shielded his defense as a holding midfielder while Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey played higher up the pitch in a midfield triangle. Theo Walcott was the wide right player and Samir Nasri was the wide left player. Robin Van Persie was the striker.
*Arsenal control possession while United look to counter: For those familiar with the encounters between these two sides in recent seasons, this comes as no surprise. Arsenal controlled 61% of possession in the 1st half, however, they were unable to put any shots on target. United did well to keep their shape and stay organized in defense. In each of the past two seasons, in ties at the Emirates, United were able break at speed and with precision on the counter and score some brilliant goals. This wasn't the case on Sunday afternoon as United failed to counterattack with much effectiveness. A frequent occurrence in this half was Arsenal trying to unlock a United defense that defended with two bands of four along with Rooney getting goal-side of Song, the home side unable to come up with a killer final pass or unable to get on the end of a cross, and United sputtering on counterattack.
* Rooney vs Song: After scanning the backpages in the aftermath of this match, it was Ramsey and Wilshere that seemed to have gotten much of the accolades for Arsenal's victory. However, in my opinion, the man of the match was Song. Rooney has arguably been the best player in the Premier League in these past few months; United's number ten has thrived by playing in between the defense and midfield lines and essentially playing the role as a trequartista. Song not only did well to track Rooney in this space, but when they dueled, Song did well to win the ball back for his side. In addition, Song was also tidy with his distribution; he completed 49 passes out of an attempted 58 (84%). Here is a chalkboard, courtesy of the Guardian, of Song's tackling and Rooney's passing. Note two things in this chalkboard: (1) Song's tackles won were generally in the areas in between the lines that Rooney likes to operate in. (2) Rooney's didn't attempt many passes in this area as Song disrupted him; therefore Rooney moved deeper and to the touchlines in search of space and time on the ball.
* Ramsey deputising for Fabregas: Ramsey deputised for the skipper Fabregas and the Welshman proved to be a capable replacement. However, it was quite noticeable how differently positioned and how different Ramsey's passing instinct was with the man he was replacing. As previously mentioned, Arsenal typically play in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Fabregas the central playmaker in the attacking midfield band. Ramsey dropped deeper and with Wilshere having more freedom to get forward in this particular match, the North London side's shape was a 4-3-3. While Fabregas likes to play the killer final ball to unlock a defense, Ramsey was a bit more patient in his passing and he appeared content to play square passes. His sideways passes, particularly to the right to Walcott, helped Arsenal to play with a bit more width than they typically do. This chalkboard displays the difference in passing instinct between Ramsey and Fabregas.
* Walcott's width and Nasri's narrowness: Arsenal did well to play with width in this half, particularly in the 1st half with Walcott on the right side. When Fabregas plays, Walcott often makes diagonal runs so that the Spaniard can find him with a killer through ball on the ground with which Walcott often does well to finish (e.g. this goal versus Tottenham). With Ramsey on the pitch, Walcott played on the touchline a bit more and he did well to whip in dangerous crosses. Fortunately for United, Van Persie is not strong in the air and Arsenal were not able to capitalize on some of the quality service from Walcott. On the other side of the pitch, Nasri would start out wide but then would drift toward the center is search of space and desire to be involved in the link-up play. This chalkboard displays Walcott's effectiveness from the touchline in the 1st half, but he did go quiet in the 2nd half.
* Nani vs Clichy: In our match preview, I predicted that Nani would get the start on the right because of his recent history of success versus Clichy. However, Clichy defended well and generally contained Nani when they went head-to-head. In addition, Clichy did well to provide width on the left with his overlapping runs. Nasri's tendency to drift to the center and Nani's failure to consistently track back opened up space for Clichy to move into on the flank.
* Park's failure to mark Ramsey on the goal: It's become almost a cliche now, but Park is certainly regarded as being among the best as a "defensive-attacker." He typically gets deployed on either flank and is asked to track tricky attacking full-backs. In addition, Park sometimes plays at the head of a midfield trio so that he can mark a dangerous deep-lying midfielder. On Sunday, after Antonio Valencia came on for Anderson, Park was switched to the central midfield in a deeper role -- a role that he isn't familiar with. On the game's lone goal, Park failed to track Ramsey's run into the box and the Welshman was wide open for a simple finish. Perhaps this was due to Park's unfamiliarity with a role as a deeper lying center midfielder.
* United switch from 4-4-1-1 to 4-4-2: When Arsenal scored their goal, it appeared that Rooney was instructed to stay higher up the pitch. As mentioned, he wasn't able to influence the match in a withdrawn and playmaking role, thus, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson may have felt a simple 4-4-2 shape was the needed change. United's tactics at this point seemed fairly simple: quickly swing the ball wide to Valencia and Nani and let the wide players provide the creativity in attack. Dimitar Berbatov soon came on for Chicharito, likely to provide a bigger aerial target for the wide players. In turn, Arsenal began to park the bus and they clearly were looking to hold on for a 1-0 victory. The home side no longer were playing with much width and they looked to counterattack through the middle of the pitch.
* Arsenal's terrific defending: Arsenal have been extremely prone to giving up goals late and often after a defensive breakdown. However, on Sunday afternoon, the Gunners defended brilliantly -- particularly late in the match when United were desperately in search of an eqauliser. Goalkeeper Szczesny came up with timely saves and the center-backs were very good, particularly Koscielny. As mentioned earlier, Song was terrific in foiling Rooney and Clichy did well to contain Nani. Arsenal defended well and if this had happened on a more consistent basis this season, perhaps their six year trophy drought would be over.
* Fabio's emergence: One side benefit from all of the injuries that United were suffering from earlier in the season, particularly in defense, was that Fabio got an opportunity for regular minutes as a first-team player. The young Brazilian has taken this opportunity and emerged. His pace, energy, and surging runs forward provide an extra dimension in attack. Also, his willingness to get stuck in on crunching tackles shows the right mindset for a full-back. Furthermore, Fabio has shown his versatility by being able to play on either flank; both in defense or midfield. All that is needed from him is to improve his tactical instinct; both in positional awareness and his selection on when to get forward. I'm very excited for the potential of the youngster.
* Fatigue?: United have had the fortune of being in contention for their three most important competitions this seasons. However, the drawback to this is that they've been forced to play an important match every three or four days. Is fatigue setting in? United have looked lackluster in their recent domestic matches; Manchester City (FA Cup), Newcastle, Everton, and Arsenal. They possibly now have their two most important matches upcoming in a five day span (Schalke & Chelsea), two games that might define their season. It'll be interesting to see how Fergie rotates his squad, or if he even does much. Luckily, both matches will be at Old Trafford.
* Nani's dip in form: Through the middle portion of the season, it could have been argued that no other attacking player in the Premier League was having a better season than Nani. Since his injury at Liverpool and since the return of Valencia and Park, the Portuguese winger hasn't been in the same fantastic form that he was in earlier in the season. Did the Jamie Carragher tackle have an effect on him? Has the selection of Park and Valencia in recent matches effected Nani's confidence? Whatever the reason, Nani simply hasn't shown the same form in recent matches.
* Anderson's inconsistency: The talented Brazilian midfielder continued to show his maddening inconsistency. After being brilliant versus Everton last week, he was once again poor versus Arsenal. The talent is clearly there, and with the need for squad rotation, Ando is getting an opportunity to prove himself. Unfortunately, it's the same as its always been with him -- flashes of brilliance mixed with maddening poor performances. Until he shows more consistency, he will continue to be a fringe selection as first choice for the central midfield.