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Tactical Analysis: Impressive Manchester United suffer crushing late blow

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Manchester United drew 1-1 with Arsenal in the early kick-off at Old Trafford, a result that will feel more like a defeat after Olivier Giroud’s late equaliser.

Jose Mourinho made a number of changes to his starting XI following the disruption of the international break. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s suspension gave Marcus Rashford an opportunity through the middle, Anthony Martial was recalled following an absence from first team action and Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba resembled Manchester United’s strongest looking midfield combination.

Manchester United were dominant throughout the game, without necessarily controlling possession or holding a territorial advantage. Arsenal had more of the ball during the 90 minutes, but United stopped them playing and controlled proceedings with a mature and resilient defensive display.

Arsenal had 55% of the possession this afternoon and completed 78% of their passes, well below this season’s average of 83.6%. United disrupted their natural rhythm and inhibited their creative players to the extent that this was an almost unrecognisable Arsenal performance. They created just three clear cut chances and had 5 shots on goal, only one of which was on target.

Arsenal passing vs Manchester United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Arsenal passing vs Manchester United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Looking at Arsenal’s passing map, two things are clear; Arsenal had very little of the ball inside Manchester United’s penalty area and, as a result, they resorted to more long balls forward than we are used to seeing from Arsene Wenger’s side. This aspect of the match speaks to Manchester United’s tactical superiority and dominance in the central areas, as Arsenal could not get Sanchez, Ozil and Ramsey on the ball in the positions to create chances.

Manchester United interceptions vs Arsenal (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Manchester United interceptions vs Arsenal (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

The United midfield and defensive units operated cohesively to shut down space and prevent any opportunity for Arsenal players in between the lines. It is no surprise to see that most of Manchester United’s interceptions occurred in central areas, the exact same part of the field that Arsenal’s greatest threats are most dangerous.

Going forward, Manchester United were quick and effective in transition. Antonio Valencia returned to the side and immediately demonstrated what he offers this side in attack. He exploited Aaron Ramsey’s lack of positional discipline with his offensive running.

Antonio Valencia heat map vs Arsenal (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Antonio Valencia heat map vs Arsenal (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Aaron Ramsey heat map vs Manchester United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Aaron Ramsey heat map vs Manchester United (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Playing from the left, Ramsey was never going to be comfortable getting chalk on his boots and was constantly drifting into more central areas to try and get on the ball more often. By contrast, Valencia wanted to play as wide as possible, as often as possible. It created an inevitable mismatch on United’s right, exposing Nacho Monreal to the pace of Valencia in advanced areas on multiple occasions, including a shout for a penalty when Valencia felt he was obstructed by the Spaniard in the penalty area in the first half.

But United needed to show more than defensive organisation to win this game. When in possession of the ball, the midfield three looked more comfortable and balanced than any combination United have used in that area this season.

With Carrick playing as the midfield pivot, Pogba and Herrera had the freedom to express themselves in forward areas. Their energy and invention led to the creation of plenty of chances, with Herrera looking particularly impressive on the right of this midfield triumvirate.

Ander Herrera completed 90% of his passes vs Arsenal (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

Ander Herrera completed 90% of his passes vs Arsenal (0-90 minutes) Credit: Squawka.

As always, his personality shone through. He was energetic, enthusiastic and positive throughout, but added intelligent passing, responsible and diligent defensive work and, in the moments that mattered, real quality in possession of the football. He conducted his work across the pitch, building attacks from deep, creative chances in the attacking third and providing the assist for Juan Mata’s goal in the Arsenal penalty area. Manchester United’s star man, without a doubt.

Ultimately though, for all United’s good work, it is two more points dropped. One defensive lapse, one moment without the desired concentration, a deserved victory becomes a disappointing draw. Mourinho’s men are moving forward. Performances are improving, selection issues are becoming clearer and little partnerships are developing all over the pitch. As long as they stay in touch with the leading pack, anything is possible. The result today was certainly hard to take though.

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