Breaking Down the Manchester United vs. Arsenal Tactical Battles

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Breaking Down the Manchester United vs. Arsenal Tactical Battles
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

In the buildup to this game, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger told BBC Sport that Robin van Persie remained “an Arsenal man.” 

The Dutchman didn’t appear to share that sentiment when he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win for United against Arsenal at Old Trafford on Sunday and then celebrated by sliding on his knees. 

It was a clear rejection of the insufferably pious way many players refuse to celebrate goals scored against their former clubs. This was the pivotal moment that ultimately separated the two sides and delivered United all three points.

In such an important and tight game, and with so much at stake, it was almost predictable that a set piece would decide the outcome. 

In the opening stages, Manchester United played like a team who needed to win while Arsenal were sluggish and lacked any of the fluidity that has marked their season so far.

In the centre of midfield, Phil Jones—clearly becoming a firm favourite of David Moyes—was preferred to Marouane Fellaini and charged around breaking up play and preventing Arsenal from settling into their usual passing game.

Allowing Michael Carrick to sit in his normal role, Jones was not simply a defensive enforcer, also pushing forward on several surging runs.

In the 27th minute of the first half, United won a crucial corner, which Rooney delivered brilliantly onto Van Persie’s head.

The Dutchman waited on the edge of the area before timing his run perfectly and meeting the ball with a running jump.

Arsenal’s zonal marking proved their undoing here, as no one was either marking Van Persie or blocking his run to the ball.

Van Persie’s run from 10 yards gave him his superior elevation to Olivier Giroud, who was standing on the 6-yard line and had the disadvantage of a mere standing jump. 

As the ball came into the box, Arsenal were also not helped by Aaron Ramsey wandering away from his station to allow Van Persie even more space. Standing on the goal line on the left-hand post, Kieran Gibbs also momentarily drifted away from his position, which allowed Van Persie's header to loop over him.

To further compound Arsenal’s frustration, their tallest player—Per Mertesacker, who has enjoyed a brilliant season so far—was not there to add his presence to this corner after being ruled out with sickness before the start of the game. 

Up front for Arsenal, Giroud was being tightly controlled by Nemanja Vidic. When he did see the ball, he gave it away too easily. 

For once this season, the Frenchman appeared isolated in the first half, with Arsenal’s midfielders failing to push up alongside him.

On the brink of half-time, Vidic picked up a head injury after an accidental clash with his goalkeeper, David de Gea, which inevitably saw him withdrawn during the interval. It forced a tactical change upon United, with Jones retreating into the centre of defence and being replaced by Tom Cleverley in midfield. 

In the second half, Jones' absence from midfield handed the impetus back to Arsenal. Yet again, the consistently disappointing Cleverley failed to impose himself on the game.

Arsenal began to look like their old selves, passing the ball around midfield, with Ramsey moving to the right, Mesut Ozil through the middle and Jack Wilshere seeing a lot more of the ball when he came off the bench. 

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Arsenal’s best two chances both came from crosses by Bacary Sagna on the right, flashing past the goal without an Arsenal man being able to apply the crucial final touch.  

As the game entered its final stages, United’s tactics were simply to stop Arsenal by defending deep and shutting them out. By bringing on Fellaini for Van Persie towards the end, Moyes was signalling his intention to hold on to his one-goal lead.

While Van Persie might have claimed the winner, it was Wayne Rooney who deservedly went home with the Man of the Match award.

Rooney typified United’s performance in the second half, acting as a whirl of purposeful energy in both defence and attack.

The moment that best summed this up was when he closed down Wilshere on the edge of the United box before charging upfield on his own and closing down Thomas Vermaelen

The Rooney and Van Persie partnership is becoming increasingly important for United. They have now been paired together in 28 games and only lost once.  

Arsenal will be disappointed, but won't feel too downcast as they head back to London.

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Wenger’s side remain two points clear at the top of the Premier League and easily could have secured at least a point at Old Trafford.

Arsenal were certainly not outplayed by United and actually had the better of the second half. On this evidence, they remain serious contenders to win the title.

Despite suffering a comparatively poor start to the season after losing three times in the league before the end of September, United are now only five points behind Arsenal.

This victory will have given Moyes renewed hope for the rest of the season, and having now won three consecutive league matches, he finally has some momentum.

The next six weeks will show whether this was a mere blip for Arsenal or a significant step in United’s comeback. Speaking with The Guardian's Jamie Jackson, Rooney expressed his club's desire to sit at the top themselves by New Year’s Day. 

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