Arsenal v Manchester United: One big game, five big questions

Date published: Friday 29th January 2021 3:38 - Dave Tickner

Thomas Partey Paul Pogba Manchester United Arsenal

Resurgent Arsenal face a Manchester United side they’ve already beaten once this season and who have just suffered a traumatic home defeat to Sheffield United. Let’s take a look at the big tactical questions for this one…


1) Will Arteta’s urgent 4-2-3-1 suit United’s counters?
Arsenal’s 3-1 victory at Southampton was one of the most entertaining Premier League games of the year so far, thanks mostly to the newfound urgency with which Mikel Arteta’s side were playing. It helped the game that Saints also pressed hard and looked to take full advantage of the attacking transition – and that is something Manchester United will also look to do, albeit with less intensity in their pressing.

Gone are the days when Arteta’s Arsenal would build slowly, as one, up the pitch in a rigid formation. With Emile Smith Rowe showing for the ball, Thomas Partey looking to wriggle through the lines and quickly set the forwards away, and Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe running directly at the opposition full-backs, Arsenal have become a seriously quick team built on direct, vertical progressions.

This, though, could suit Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who is happy to sit his team a little deeper in ‘Big Six’ games before launching counter-attacks through his front three. Following this well-established pattern, Liverpool were unlocked by long passes over the top of their high line (first Marcus Rashford assisted Mason Greenwood, then Greenwood returned the favour) but deep-lying Sheffield United held firm.

Arsenal will be most dangerous in the attacking transition, but then highly vulnerable in the defensive transition. An entertaining end-to-end game is on the cards.


2) Or will Arsenal’s pressing stop Man Utd from playing?
Alternatively, perhaps Arsenal’s hard pressing will disrupt United’s rhythm – a job that has become easier following the visitors’ demoralising 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United on Wednesday. In the reverse fixture back in November, a 1-0 win for the Gunners, Arsenal’s man-to-man pressing (in a 4-4-2 formation) restricted Solskjaer’s team from playing.

Mohamed Elneny tracked Bruno Fernandes; Thomas Partey followed Paul Pogba; even Alexander Lacazette dropped to keep tight with Fred. Arsenal pinned United into their own half and forced them into meek sideways passing, in turn ensuring the game did not descend into an open contest as the hosts failed to set their forwards away.

At Old Trafford, United lined up in an unexpected diamond 4-4-2 and Arsenal were still playing a 3-4-3, so the lessons we can learn from that contest are limited. But Arsenal’s press is organised and bold, especially for games like this, and with confidence low in the United camp it could be enough to knock them back.

3) How can Man Utd avoid another Sheffield United showing?
The main question facing Man Utd is how to recover from their worst result of the season and prevent one slip-up becoming a run of poor form. Historically this has been a problem for Solskjaer, whose team lurch from long winning runs to a string of defeats – a natural consequence of playing largely improvised attacking football. Teams without detailed tactical structures are emotional by nature; vulnerable to the effects of low or high morale.

It works in Solskjaer’s favour that his next game is a completely different type of battle, offering the chance of a reset. But aside from simply hoping Arsenal will give his pacey forwards more space in which to run, the manager ought to reinstate Edinson Cavani to the first team in place of Anthony Martial. Cavani’s movement in the penalty area gives Bruno Fernandes something to aim at (and the Portuguese really needs some help as his own performances slow down), while Martial is clearly in need of a break from the first team.


4) Will Pogba’s role define the game?
The biggest decision Solskjaer has to make is where to play Paul Pogba, who has either been deployed as part of a central midfield two or on the right wing in recent matches. Which of the two the Man Utd manager chooses could go a long way to deciding the outcome of Saturday’s game.

In a deeper midfield role against Sheffield United Pogba was largely ineffective, failing to affect the play at either end of the pitch. He had one touch in the opposition box – a header from a corner – and completed just one key pass in the game. Solskjaer may be tempted to play him here in order to help evade Arsenal’s high press, but the Frenchman’s creativity is needed in the final third.

From the right wing, where he excelled in the FA Cup win over Liverpool, Pogba can interact more closely with Bruno Fernandes. More importantly, he will be operating in the half-space between David Luiz and Cedric Soares – Arsenal’s two weakest (or at least most error-prone) defenders.


5) How will Shaw & AWB cope with Arsenal’s in-form wingers?
At the other end, the key battles for Arsenal are between often over-worked Man Utd full-backs and a new-look Gunners front line that, in the Saints game, looked as good as at any point in the Arteta era. Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka constantly threatened by running straight at the full-back, taking advantage of having an in-form Alexandre Lacazette dropping off the front line to feed them – and, of course, of having Smith Rowe leading the attacks.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw have both enjoyed excellent seasons but when confronted with particularly quick attackers they can lack support. United’s 4-3-2-1 is very attacking, and with Pogba likely to be tucking in from the right wing while Marcus Rashford stays high to support the striker, Solskjaer’s side could get caught in the transition.

The one-on-ones between Arsenal’s wingers and Man Utd’s full-backs may prove decisive.

Alex Keble


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