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Tactical Preview: Manchester United v Arsenal – Barclays Premier League 2014/15

With a place in the top four of the Premier League virtually guaranteed already, Sunday afternoon becomes less about league position and more about pride as Manchester United and Arsenal lock horns once again.

Throughout the Premier League era, Manchester United vs Arsenal has often been a defining fixture of any season. We’ve seen title deciders, pizza fights, punches thrown, great goals scored; all under the watchful eyes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger and an almighty battle that was fought on the touch-line as well as on the pitch. By contrast this is a much less important fixture, but try telling the players and the supporters that.

Manchester United will be without Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney and Luke Shaw this weekend, but Robin van Persie, Marcos Rojo and Angel Di María are all available for selection. Wayne Rooney’s absence will cause van Gaal a selection headache more than any other. Usually seen as a the solution to any deficiencies in midfield, Rooney will not be able to slot into a deeper role to make up for the loss of Carrick and ensure van Gaal has the balance he so often craves in a central area. Instead his team will take on a slightly different guise this time around, emphasising the need for a strong squad and Sunday will prove a test of his ‘philosophy’. We’ve seen his established first XI perform to his very specific demands, can the fringe players come in and do the same?

First and foremost, United’s recent struggles may not reoccur against Arsenal because of the way the visitors may choose to come and play at Old Trafford. Whereas West Brom came to Manchester with one intention – to defend for as long as they could keep United out and see where it got them – Arsenal are less likely to come and park the bus and try and play for a result with such a defensive mindset.

Of course they are capable of such things. Their victory at the Etihad in January is testament to their tactical flexibility and suggests they can grind out a result should they need to, but given the context of Sunday’s fixture it would be unlikely that Wenger brings his players to Old Trafford just to defend David Ospina’s goal. Aside from the home defeat to Swansea on Monday night, Arsenal’s form has been exceptional in 2015 and they should arrive at Old Trafford confident in their own ability to go out and win the game on merit. A fact that would, if it plays out that way, give United a platform to go on and perform to an even higher standard themselves.

West Brom player influence vs Manchester United - 2nd May 2015. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

West Brom player influence vs Manchester United – 2nd May 2015. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Arsenal player influence vs Hull City - 11th May 2015. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Arsenal player influence vs Hull City – 11th May 2015. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Admittedly they were playing Hull City, a side dogged by a relegation battle and much less likely to pose a threat than Manchester United, but in their last away game Arsenal showed a tendency to impose themselves on the game, to play with a more expansive shape and try and control the tempo of the game. Contrast their shape to a West Brom side that came to Old Trafford to simply defend and you can see why United would favour facing Arsenal this weekend. The pockets of space that appear when two teams are both playing to win – rather than one playing not to lose – favour United, particularly at home. In an expansive shape the single pivot of Coquelin is more prone to becoming exposed with less protection around him, and Manchester United have the players to expose that very weakness and penetrate the very heart of the Arsenal defence.

In Ander Herrera and Juan Mata, United have two exceptionally gifted footballing technicians. Both comfortable on the ball, both appreciative of a possession based game and both capable of pulling the trigger on a through ball than open up an opposition defence at any moment. Looking at their completed passes from last Saturday against Crystal Palace, it is clear to see how important they would be in exposing an adventurous Arsenal team.

Juan Mata passing vs Crystal Palace - 9th May 2015. Credit: Squawka.

Juan Mata passing vs Crystal Palace – 9th May 2015. Credit: Squawka.

Ander Herrera passing vs Crystal Palace - 9th May 2015. Credit: Squawka.

Ander Herrera passing vs Crystal Palace – 9th May 2015. Credit: Squawka.

Both players, particularly Herrera, show a willingness to make short, sharp passes in and around the final third. When you notice how many of them are in central areas, it shows that any kind of positional error from Arsenal’s midfield and Francis Coquelin, and Manchester United will be able to expose Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. Midfield runners will be key, players willing to get beyond Herrera and Mata and find or create space around Arsenal’s holding midfield player, but the space should be there to exploit. Louis van Gaal’s obsession with dominating possession becomes a very dangerous prospect for teams that have ambitions to win football matches, and we’ve seen in the last month or so how many sides have had to ditch their own footballing ideals in order to prevent United from controlling the pace, flow and ultimately the outcome of football matches. Everton and Chelsea both conceded the lion share of the ball and territory in order to stop United picking them off at will, can Arsenal do the same? Will Arsenal do the same? The warning signs are there for Arsene Wenger. It simply depends on whether he chooses to heed such a warning, or ignore it and stick to his own philosophy.

Sunday marks the final fixture at Old Trafford in Louis van Gaal’s first season at Manchester United. So far it would be fair to consider his work as par for the course. He’s taken United back to the Champions League (almost certainly, barring a freak set of results) and his team has shown various levels of improvement throughout the season to suggest he can take this squad and this club back to the pinnacle of English, perhaps even European football once again. Win, lose or draw this weekend, that won’t really change but to finish the season on a high will be important to the manager. Take some momentum and another big win into the summer and spend big again in the transfer market. Everything points to a big season next year for Manchester United, but it is important Louis van Gaal and his players finish this year properly first.

It’s Manchester United vs Arsenal, whether it’s a friendly or a cup final, there is no other motivation needed.

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