Arsenal wiped the floor with Manchester United on Sunday, beating them, 3-0, in a game which could feasibly have seen five or six fly past David de Gea.
Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring inside five minutes, Mesut Ozil added a second just one minute later and Sanchez completed the rout on 20 minutes with a thunderous strike into the top corner.
Formations and XIs
Arsenal rolled out a now-regular 4-2-3-1 formation with Ozil in the No. 10 role and Theo Walcott up front. The only change to what would be considered their normal XI was Gabriel Paulista pairing Per Mertesacker in defence due to Laurent Koscielny’s injury.
Manchester United mirrored that formation, though Louis van Gaal sprung a surprise in starting Bastian Schweinsteiger over Morgan Schneiderlin. Matteo Darmian moved back over to right-back, and Ashley Young came in at left-back.
Arsene Wenger has been roundly criticised this week after Arsenal lost their second successive UEFA Champions League match to relative minnows Olympiacos; familiar suggestions that the Frenchman struggles to set up and motivate his team for certain games rang eerily true once again.
But from minute one, the Gunners were up for this.
The precision passing on show—cutting, slicing and stretching Manchester United—directly led to the early two-goal lead earned. Aaron Ramsey slipped Ozil in on the right byline to cross for Sanchez to back-heel the opener home. Then less than a minute later, wonderful slick passing through the middle released Walcott in behind, who played a nicely weighted pass back into the box for Ozil to finish.
The key was Arsenal’s ability (and willingness) to stretch the pitch for themselves. Too often, top sides shrink the space in which they have to play by using narrow wingers and dropping off the forward line too much, but the Gunners found an ideal sense of balance here.
Walcott’s runs in behind stretched the pitch vertically, Alexis opened up the left side and Nacho Monreal’s second-man runs from deep forced United to expand even more. The first goal was a product of penetrative passing and a clever stretching run from Ozil; the second a product of Walcott stretching vertically and creating room for his No. 11 to collect and shoot.
We Need To Talk About Bastian Schweinsteiger
So Arsenal were excellent—slick, quick and purposeful between the lines. That said, Manchester United—and, more specifically, Schweinsteiger—allowed them the freedom to play.
Quite what Schweinsteiger thought his role was in this game, no one can be sure. He lined up in a double-pivot alongside Michael Carrick yet proceeded to charge upfield 30 yards, pressing and closing down the centre-backs in possession and leaving massive holes in front of his own defensive line.
Carrick, a 34-year-old man of modest athletic ability—to put it lightly—was simply left with mission impossible: cover the entire zone between the midfield by himself, backtracking and turning as Ozil and Co. ran riot on the counter-attack. Schweinsteiger seemed particularly intent on shutting down Santi Cazorla in deep positions, but he got nowhere close and no longer has the stamina or energy to recover.
Nothing was done to fix the gaping open holes until half-time. For 45 minutes, the Gunners countered with pace and precision but also in the knowledge they had swathes of space to work with and could release up to three runners at any time.
Ashley Young: Not a Left-Back
It’s not really Young’s fault—he simply played a role for his manager at a time of need—but he struggled at left-back, and Arsenal began picking on him early. The Englishman has become a bit of a jack of all trades for Van Gaal, but orthodox left-back is not a position he can play—particularly against a side of Arsenal’s calibre.
Understandably, given his natural role as a winger, Young takes too many risks in possession and doesn’t have the requisite positional sense to play as a full-back in a back four.
The first goal came down his side, with Ozil darting in behind to cross after Young’s poor cross was repelled straight back into a dangerous area. He struggled with Hector Bellerin’s occasional forays forward, was duped by Ozil time and time again and completely lost Ramsey at the back post, allowing the Welshman a first-half chance he should have buried for 4-0.
Van Gaal made two half-time substitutions, bringing on Marouane Fellaini for Memphis Depay and Antonio Valencia on for Matteo Darmian. It left Young continuing to toil at left-back but did at least balance out the midfield a little.
Rather than substitute Schweinsteiger, LVG allowed him to continue roaming around and pushing upfield, asking Fellaini to straddle a role between him and Carrick. The latter continued to sit the deepest, but no longer was he on his own when chasing runners and closing out space during counter-attacks.
It did the job; the game levelled out, and United finally found their feet in the possession game. Granted, Arsenal naturally eased off due to their three-goal lead, but Fellaini was a successful substitute. It begs the question: Why wasn’t this action taken 10 minutes in, when the Red Devils were already 2-0 down?
A horrific, unorganised and confused game plan from Van Gaal and United ended this game before it began. Schweinsteiger’s performance was poor, Young was subjected to abuse that could have been avoided (play Darmian left-back, Valencia right-back) and the quick start from Arsenal compounded the misery.