When Sir Alex Ferguson took over the reins of the club in 1986, Manchester United were an underperforming squad that hadn’t won the domestic title in over a decade. And then it was the Ferguson era as we know it and Old Trafford went from the home of potential contenders to the cathedral of English football. Success became the norm, battering of visiting sides was common, silverware after silverware were hoisted, and a finish in the top 3 a formality.
Last year, around this time, Manchester United were top of the Premier League with 65 points on 21 wins, a goal differential of 31, and only 2 defeats in 26 games. Now, under David Moyes, fortunes seem to have been flipped and luck has deserted a side that once earned the title of "kings of comebacks" as the Red Devils are in 7th place with 23 fewer points and six more defeats, including three home losses.
United’s shortcomings have come as a surprise to most football pundits as Ferguson won the Premier League with thexact same squad. With more pressure building on Moyes as more final whistles are blown, a favorable result at the Emirates was mandatory (and no one knew more about that necessity than Moyes himself) especially after Darren Bent’s late equalizer last Sunday left United with just a point against bottom-table Fulham .
The Scot opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation with Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley in midfield, choosing to leave Darren Fletcher, who started against Fulham, on the sideline. Wayne Rooney was deployed in the hole behind Robin van Persie with Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia operated on the right and left wing, respectively. Moyes retained the combination of Chris Smalling and Nemanja Vidic in central defense with Rafael and Patrice Evra on the flanks.
In opposition, Arsene Wenger deployed his side in a similar formation. Olivier Giroud led upfront with Mesut Ozil playing in the hole and Tomas Rosicky and Santi Cazorla on the wings. Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere played in deep lying roles, occasionally participating in the attack while the back four was constituted of Gibbs, Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Sagna.
In the end, the two sides played a scruffy match that required some time to come to life. The result proved restorative to the Red Devils, but with Liverpool securing a dramatic win at Craven Cottage, United’s European aspirations were left hanging by a thread, a thin one.
Red Devils Frustrate The Gunners
The Manchester United midfield has been a constant topic of discussion and with the occasional injuries to Carrick and Jones, Cleverley’s failure to make the most out of Moyes’s confidence, and Fellaini’s phantom presence at Old Trafford, it was expected that whoever was tasked with playing against Ozil and Co. was going to be subjected to an hour and a half of torment. However, the United midfield rose to the occasion and matched Arsenal’s creativity with discipline and intelligence.
Carrick and Cleverley sat deep and guarded the space in front the back four relentlessly. By both occluding the lanes to and limiting the space around Giroud, the Red Devils nullified the Frenchman’s link-up play, something that trailing Arsenal midfielders, who favor a central style over the traditionally lateral game, have benefitted tremendously from. The midfield’s stellar performance of dwarfing Arsenal’s attempts was never more than in the 17th minute when United successfully repelled an Arsenal attack.
Rosicky receives the ball from Sagna but given his lack of pace and therefore inability to charge down the right wing, drifts toward midfield. Meanwhile, Olivier Giroud, given United’s obstruction of the passing lanes in the middle of the pitch, is forced out wide where he is less effective.
Rosicky then connects with the France international who switches the play through a long ball to Arsenal’s left wing where he finds Gibbs. Giroud’s decision to spread the play wide was mostly motivated by Cazorla’s presence and United’s unbalanced defensive line that was playing narrower in an attempt to limit the space in the middle.
With Valencia and Rafael quick to get back to their assigned positions following the ball movement, Gibbs decides to send the leather back toward midfield where he finds Arteta who in turn delivers a pass to Wilshere.
The Stevenage native then gallops forward and links-up with Giroud who has now stationed himself a short distance outside of the box. Giroud collects the pass but is immediately pressed by Vidic who had been tightly covering him and who now has five United players surrounding him. The Arsenal striker is forced to attempt a pass-back to Wilshere that is deflected by Cleverley and intercepted by Valencia.
Manchester United took advantage of their numerical superiority in Arsenal’s attacking third to provide Giroud with a body guard denying him time whenever he received a pass in front of the box. Also, the Red Devils pressured Arsenal higher up, keeping them far from goal as highlighted in this example.
Moyes’s strategy, aimed at killing Arsenal’s wing play and clogging passing lanes in the midfield, the area of the pitch the Gunners fancy, successfully reduced Ozil, Arteta, and Wilshere to bystanders. With United playing so deeply and with Arsenal bereft of pace in the wide positions, the Gunners struggled in the central zone despite so much creative potential and were forced to resort to long balls from the full-backs as Olivier Giroud lived on scraps.
Carrick and Cleverley deserve some credit for keeping Arsenal in check. Carrick operated efficiently, positioned himself intelligently, and intercepted passes while Cleverley roamed from side to side in the defensive zone, closed down the player in possession well, tackled in deeper positions, and constantly recovered the ball.
While United’s midfielders excelled in a defensive sense, there other departments where Moyes needs to improve if he wants to still be relevant.
Mata’s Ineptitude to Defend
There is no doubt over the amount of talent the World Cup bound Mata possesses and he’s showed us, although partially, why Manchester United went out of their way to acquire him in the January window. The Spaniard has already provided three helpers in his young United career and will only get more comfortable as time goes by. As talented as he is though, Mata still exhibits indiscretions in defense as shown in the following example.
Arteta receives the ball from midfield and delivers a pass to Rosicky. The Czech in turn executes a number of one-twos with Cazorla who positioned himself, his back to the defense, in an attempt to provide Rosicky with some link-up play. Mata is on the left flank, in between Cazorla and Sagna, but he neither pressures Cazorla when he is in possession of the ball nor does he completely seal the passing lane to Cazorla, allowing Arsenal to advance.
The Gunners later attempt to carve United open on the right wing through some triangle passing. Cazorla passes the ball to Rosicky and launches forward. Rosicky then delivers a ball to Sagna who is still in an advanced position. With Smalling and Vidic responsible for marking Giroud, and Carrick and Evra covering Rosicky and Sagna respectively, Mata needs to stay with Cazorla.
However, Mata’s lack of defensive instinct and failure to drop with Cazorla as he sprints toward goal (Cleverley could be seen anxiously pointing to Cazorla and asking a teammate to cover him) allows the Spanish midfielder turned winger to get wide open behind the defense. An aerial or a through ball between Evra and Carrick would have given Cazorla a great run into the danger zone and a potential goal scoring opportunity, but Sagna isn’t able to take advantage of Mata’s mediocre defending.
Juan Mata’s defensive shortcomings prompted Mourinho to leave him on the bench as the Portuguese values defensive work just as much as offensive productivity. One can argue that the Spaniard’s defensive work has been rendered harder by the fact he’s been played wide where he is known to struggle. However, a bigger defensive contribution and discipline will be required of him, especially with a vulnerable back four, if he wants to fit the mold at Old Trafford.
Vidic’s Glory Is Past Him
Vidic was responsible for both Fulham goals last Sunday: he was caught flat footed on the first one while his decision to try and retain possession with a minute left paved the way for a Darren Bent equalizer. On Wednesday, he looked uncomfortable, repeatedly fouled Giroud and sometimes left him free for headers. The United skipper has a reputation of an aerial battler and, given Giroud’s style of play, he was expected to handle him without much trouble, but he was out-battled. Vidic’s leadership qualities might be missed, but he’s hardly inspiring the team to great performances at the moment.
Ferguson was no tactical genius when he arrived at United and needed a few seasons to find out how to win in England and Europe, working out the need for a sitting midfielder such as Nicky Butt to guard against the counter-attacks of Alen Boksic and company. It wouldn’t be delusional to state that Moyes is going through the same adaptational period and needs to be given time and money to overhaul the current squad whose age and febrility was masked by Ferguson’s genius.
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