Tactical Preview: Manchester United — Arsenal

Posted Feb 27, 2016 by Tyrrell Meertins
For the first time in over a decade, Arsenal travel to Old Trafford as legitimate favourites against Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United.
Arsenal s Mertesacker reacts after being defeated by Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League soc...
Arsenal's Mertesacker reacts after being defeated by Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League soccer match in London
� Eddie Keogh / Reuters, Reuters
The two clubs have managed to play role reversal this season as Arsenal are still in the hunt for their first Premier League title in 12 years, while United’s chances of qualifying for next year’s Champions League are slim. United’s numerous absentees puts the club at a disadvantage, but Van Gaal must avoid a defeat equivalent to the 3-0 thrashing orchestrated by Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez earlier this season.
Arsenal were up three goals within the opening 20 minutes, as they easily bypassed United’s poor attempt to collectively press higher up the pitch. It was one of the great performances of the season, but stylistically, it was atypical considering Arsenal dominate possession in majority of their matches.
"We need to play at that pace again," Wenger said. "I just think we need to play at a high pace to be dangerous. That's our game. Our game is based on movement and speed, and if we don't have that I don't see how we can win there."
Likewise, United have been criticized for their use of possession this season due to the lack of quick penetrating passes in the final third, and most teams have been content with defending deeper at Old Trafford. This could see both sides partake in a congested midfield battle, but Wenger, should aim to employ their midweek approach against Barcelona.
While Aaron Ramsey occasionally left Francis Coquelin stranded in midfield, Arsenal’s two narrow banks of four stifled Luis Enrique’s patient Barcelona outfit. In terms of passing tempo, United are nowhere near Barcelona, and considering Wenger’s attacking options, Arsenal may benefit from playing on the counter against a make-shift defence.
Realistically, Wenger has only one major decision to make due to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s absence. The away side can choose from several options in this area in Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck or Joel Campbell. Campbell or Welbeck are the likely options here due to their defensive discipline, but the latter’s aerial presence, ball retention, and ability to work the channels should earn him a start against his former team.
Elsewhere, Mesut Ozil will scamper between the lines, whilst Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez’s roles could be decisive. The former may aim to exploit his aerial superiority over Daley Blind to get on the end of crosses from the full-backs. Meanwhile, Alexis tormented Mateo Darmian in the reverse fixture and will fancy running at the inexperienced Guillermo Varela.
With Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney unavailable, Van Gaal may turn to Memphis Depay’s direct threat upfront. From the bench, The Dutchman can turn to youngster Marcus Rashford, who recorded two midweek Europa League goals, as Memphis’ pace and trickery poses a threat to Per Mertesacker if the Dutchman sprints into the left channel.
That would leave Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata as the only first-team wide players with the former drifting centrally and the latter driving forward and offering protection for his full-backs. If so, it would be logical to start Lingard on the left against the speedy Hector Bellerin, as Mata’s movement would present ample space for the Arsenal right-back to charge into.
The main issue with United’s performance at the Emirates, however, was the Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick partnership. Here, the latter’s passing could still prove crucial, but Van Gaal would be wise to turn to a ball-winning midfielder in Morgan Schneiderlin to cope with Ozil’s clever movement between the lines.
Nevertheless, Arsenal encounter the same issue in midfield. Ramsey’s insistence to go forward leaves Francis Coquelin exposed, and the combination of Herrera and Mata in central areas could present issues for the Frenchman. This is the one area United could find joy through, but what they do with the ball remains significant, as it’s very likely the United Spaniards will receive possession in these zones.
"Normally I would expect this, a lot of confidence, but now we have to play against one of the best teams in the Premier League,” said Van Gaal. “It’s a challenge on Sunday and more of a challenge because we have to play within two days. That’s also different, but I think the recovery can go better than ever."
Considering United’s injuries and their intent to dominate possession, Arsenal’s counter-attacking options should prevail. However, the Gunners are equally culpable of pushing too many men forward and being exploited in a similar manner. Ultimately, the key to this match could be down to which midfield can negate the opposition’s no.10’s production between the lines.
In the past United have found various ways of coping with Arsenal’s various attacking options, but the Gunners appear to have too many options suited to break into space here, which on paper, should punish United’s makeshift defence.