Arsenal v Man Utd: One big game, five big questions

Ian Watson

Their 2-1 defeat to Chelsea on Sunday was a good example of what Arsenal will look like for the next six months at least: hard-working and moving towards tactical coherence but with fatal flaws undermining Mikel Arteta’s plan. Unlearning years of stagnation and bad habits, and building trust in themselves and each other, will take a long time.

So this probably isn’t the best time to be facing a Manchester United team who have lost just one of their last nine league games – and who generally perform well against high-pressing opponents who leave space for counter-attacks. If Tammy Abraham can walk through the centre of the pitch to give Chelsea the three points, just think what Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Daniel James might do.

Here are five tactical questions ahead of Arsenal v Man Utd on New Year’s Day:


1) Will Arteta’s Guardiola tactics have improved further since Chelsea?
Before we look at how the two teams match up it’s worth spending some time on exactly what Arteta has been working on since his appointment on December 21. Several players have made a point of talking about the intensity of the tactical work carried out by the new manager, and judging by an encouraging 75 minutes against Chelsea we can safely say Arteta is very closely aligned to Pep Guardiola.

Their 4-2-3-1 shape mimics Manchester City’s version of this system, focusing on a constant high press, positional play that ensures no two players are occupying the same column or row of space, and patient possession football.

More specifically, both Arsenal and Man City use one holding midfielder (Lucas Torreira/Rodri), one box-to-box player (Matteo Guendouzi/Ilkay Gundogan) who leans out to one side of the pitch, and one attacking midfielder (Mesut Ozil/Kevin de Bruyne) leaning out to the other. The balance this gives their attacking shape is complimented by a striker dropping short (Alexandre Lacazette/Sergio Aguero), a right winger staying out wide to stretch the opposition (Reiss Nelson/Riyad Mahrez) and a left winger who cuts inside to overlap the striker (Pierre Emerick-Aubayemang/Raheem Sterling).

What’s more, against Chelsea right-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles could be seen drifting into central midfield like Kyle Walker. Arteta seemingly takes all of his ideas from Guardiola – which might mean he has inherited all of his flaws, too.


2) Does Arsenal’s new approach play into Man Utd’s hands?
It is no secret that Man Utd like to play on the counter, rarely winning when forced to hold the majority of possession but often victorious if allowed to sit back, invite pressure, then break into the spaces left behind a high defensive line. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s focus on raw pace means this won’t change long-term; beating Newcastle and Burnley with 73% and 61% is just another false dawn.

There is no doubt, then, that Arsenal playing such an expansive and aggressive attacking game could play right into the visitors’ hands. United countered superbly in a recent 2-1 win at Man City, and that was against a Guardiola team with years of experience and knowledge of their manager’s tactics. By contrast, Arsenal will – for quite some time – leave unfortunate gaps as they get to grips with such a complex and constantly shifting formation.

It only takes one minor positional error for Guardiola’s system to fall like a house of cards, such is the collective endeavour required to pin back the opponent. If an out-of-form Chelsea could expose them, surely a rampant Man Utd will too.


3) Will James and Rashford find joy against makeshift Arsenal full-backs?
The key areas for Man Utd’s counters are the two flanks, but for different reasons. On one side Bukayo Saka will again deputise at left-back, creating an obvious mismatch with James; Saka is expected to overlap frequently, and as a winger by trade is highly unlikely to spot danger quickly enough to get back and prevent James from getting a head start as United counter.

On the other side, Maitland-Niles’ complex new role as an inverted full-back should give Rashford space as soon as United win possession. Maitland-Niles won’t be able to stay on top of the United forward, instead frantically making diagonal defensive runs as Rashford moves away from the right-back and in support of Martial, who will lean left to overload this flank.

It is simple analysis, but difficult to look past: Arsenal will hold most of the ball, but when they lose it will no doubt be out of position and unable to cope with the transitions as Man Utd counter-attack down both flanks.


4) Can Ozil and gutsy Arsenal midfield expose Matic?
The best thing about Arsenal’s performance against Chelsea was the work-rate and togetherness of their three-man midfield. Ozil was surprisingly effective, dropping neatly into pockets of space to the right of centre, while Torreira showed an energy and passion that’s been missing since his arrival at the club. Together with Guendouzi, he can form a formidable partnership under Arteta; these are two superb footballers who simply lost their way under Unai Emery.

Clearly given more detailed instruction under Arteta, all three midfielders pressed hard and stayed relatively close to one another at Chelsea, and with three team-mates – a left winger, a right-back, and a striker – all dropping into midfield to help out they regularly received the ball with multiple passing options. High tempo interchanges and little darts into space – a cycle of give-and-go football – perfectly suits the attributes of Guendouzi and Torreira in particular.

Man Utd are particularly weak in midfield without Scott McTominay, and if Paul Pogba still doesn’t fancy it that means the ageing Nemanja Matic alongside Fred. Do these two have the energy or intelligence to fight off a swarming mass of Arsenal bodies in their zone? The answer to that question will probably determine the outcome of this match.


5) Will Arsenal’s backpedalling centre-backs give Greenwood late opportunities?
Chelsea’s winning goal last time out exposed the brittleness of this Arsenal team. As legs tire and confidence wanes the centre-backs will start panicking, backpedalling comically to open up a chasm between themselves and midfield. Guardiola football requires bravery and every member must push high to compress the team shape, but the Arsenal defenders just aren’t good enough to trust themselves to do so.

It says a lot about both the passion and tactical coaching Arteta has already drilled into this team that Guendouzi was gesturing furiously at Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz as Tammy Abraham dribbled through the middle at Stamford Bridge, incandescent at the experienced pair’s sudden collapse. Most of these players already know roughly what to do. It doesn’t take a genius to work out Mustafi and Luiz can’t function in Arteta’s system.

Injuries will force this pair to play again on New Year’s Day, unless Sokratis makes an unexpected recovery from concussion, and that means further encouragement for United’s forwards – particularly late on as tiredness creeps in. Mason Greenwood has made a habit of scoring from the bench in January. When he comes on, Mustafi and Luiz will start to panic.

Alex Keble is on Twitter