Between 1997-2005, this was arguably the best fixture in the world. Not so much now. Neither side played particularly well, but it's quite clear Manchester United are a far superior side to Arsenal these days. Here's an analysis of the relatively drab affair at Old Trafford on Saturday.
OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATIONS
United: The lineup is perhaps noteworthy only for the reason that manager Sir Alex Ferguson rarely names an unchanged side in league. He did, though, for this match as his starting XI, and even general approach, was similar to the one he took last weekend at Chelsea. In a 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1ish system, David de Gea was in goal, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans were the center-back duo, and Patrice Evra and Rafael were the full-backs. In midfield, Michael Carrick balanced the shape as the deepest-lying midfielder, Tom Cleverley had an active role as a box-to-box sort of player, while Wayne Rooney played in behind lead-striker Robin van Persie but dropped deep into midfield when United were out of possession. Antonio Valencia hugged the right touchline in attack while Ashley Young was the left-sided attacker.
Arsenal: The Gunners typically play in a 4-2-3-1 shape when in possession, and in a 4-4-1-1 when out of possession. However, in this match, playmaker Santi Cazorla played deeper than usual and Arsenal were in more of a 4-1-4-1 shape. In the back, Vito Mannone was in goal, captain Thomas Vermaelan and Per Mertsacker were the central-defenders, and Andre Santos and Bacary Sagna were the full-backs. In midfield, Mikel Arteta was the deep-lying player, Jack Wilshere added a vertical dimension as a box-to-box player, and Cazorla was the most advanced midfielder. Aaron Ramsey played a narrow role in attack on the right while Lukas Podolski based his position wider on the left but broke centrally in the attacking third. Olivier Girourd was the lone striker.
Arsenal seemingly had no clear plan
When Arsenal traveled away to Liverpool easier this season, they took a reactive approach -- they defended in two relatively deep banks of four and effectively counterattacked through Cazorla in the space between the opposition's midfield and defense lines. When they traveled away to Manchester City, a much more proactive approach was taken as they pressed and looked to gain control higher up the pitch. Against United though, it's not entirely clear what Arsenal's plan was.
Cazorla dropped deeper than he usually does and when out of possession, Arsenal were in a 4-1-4-1 shape with the Spaniard often level with Wilshere in terms of vertical positioning. The Gunners pressed at times and they closed down in midfield but it was done with little cohesion nor effectiveness. When the ball was won, they seemingly had no real plan. Giroud was isolated with Cazorla not able to link the midfield and attack due to the deeper positioning of the latter and no one from midfield was breaking forward with any sort of urgency -- perhaps Theo Walcott starting on the right could have provided a bit of drive in attack. The Arsenal midfielders would mostly pass the ball around with no real purpose and it would often end up being passed back to the defenders. Mertesacker attempted the most passes in this game for Arsenal (101) -- it was clear that United were allowing the German international time on the ball as it seemed it was actually being funneled toward him -- while Vermaelen attempted the third most (73). The Gunners had more of the ball, but they did nothing with it.
United concentrate their attack down the right
United's approach wasn't too different to the one they took at Stamford Bridge the weekend before-- stand off the Arsenal center-backs, close down when the ball reaches the midfield, and then quickly break down the right side when the opposition's shape is out of sorts. Santos is generally a lunatic with his positioning at left-back and United's opening goal came after he was dragged out high by Valencia, the winger brilliantly flicked the ball into the space that he just vacated, and Rafael was free to motor forward after he surged past left-winger Poldolski. The Brazilian sent in a poor cross but Vermaelen's miscue just prior to van Persie's clinical finish and the totality of this attacking move did well to highlight Arsenal's weak left-side in defense and United's eagerness to exploit it.
Rooney contains Arteta
Playing at Old Trafford, along with Arsenal not being of the same quality as Chelsea, resulted in United playing slightly more positive this game. Against the Blues, United played in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Rooney dropping into the midfield. Versus the Gunners though, Rooney pushed up a bit higher in United's 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 shape. Rooney went hot and cold with his distribution in the attacking third but he contributed hugely in this match by getting tight to Arteta and limiting his influence. The Spaniard is the man who sets the tone and tempo for Arsenal with his metronomic distribution from deep. Ahead of this match, he led the Premier League with 93 completed passes per game and in this match, he only completed 60. This is another reason Arsenal looked out of sorts and Rooney deserves a lot of credit for it. The United playmaker certainly understood the importance of his role:
"They are a fantastic football team but if you stop their playmakers then you have a chance, especially when you win the ball. If you win it high up the pitch you can break off them and create chances."
- Rooney | Source: Sky Sports
Cazorla moves slightly higher after HT, but Arsenal's plan is still murky
Perhaps surprisingly, no personnel changes were made at half-time for Arsenal -- Walcott would have been an obvious one with Arsenal trailing 1-0 (this change was made though in the 52nd minute for an injured Ramsey) -- but they did push Cazorla slightly higher up the pitch and Giroud wasn't as isolated as much. This resulted in Arsene Wenger's side playing more in a 4-2-3-1 shape. Arsenal improved slightly after this adjustment and it wasn't a big surprise with this shape being much more familiar to this particular side. However, they still seemed to lack a clear plan.
United weren't playing very well at this stage of the match though and they themselves were looking disjointed at times -- particularly in the attacking-third. United generally did well to get the ball forward quickly but attacks were sputtering with Rooney and Valencia not being particularly sharp. Arsenal improved slightly, United were no longer dominating the match, but the match was mostly uneventful and the home side still looked comfortable
Ferguson takes off Cleverley, Wenger doesn't bring off Wilshere
Cleverely was warned in the 59th minute by referee Mike Dean after a rash challenge and with the young midfielder already sitting on a booking, Ferguson smartly took him off in the 61st minute for Anderson. Wenger was in a similar situation with Wilshere but he was never substituted off -- he did, though, pick up a second booking in the 69th minute (just after Evra put United up 2-0) and the match was essentially over at this point. Had Ramsey not been forced to come off earlier with an injury, Wenger could have moved him inside and had Walcott come on for Wilshere. Francis Coquelin was an option off the bench but with Arsenal down, perhaps the Arsenal manager wanted to avoid bringing on the more defensive-minded midfielder. Not much happened after this as the tempo of the match slowed and Rooney dropped in deeper to help fortify the center of the park.
After the dramatic start of van Persie scoring against his old club in just the third minute, the match ended up being fairly rubbish. United executed their plan well but they lacked a sharpness in the attacking third and after the match, Ferguson was clearly not pleased. Arsenal lacked a clear plan (or an effective one if there was one) and as a result, they played poorly. This wasn't too interesting from a tactical point of view either and perhaps the one obvious takeaway from this match is how mediocre Arsenal has become and how far they are off from the elite now. United were far from their best this game but they were clearly miles ahead of the Gunners in talent.