United Vs Arsenal [Tactical Preview]:

Mikel Arteta’s red and white army will take on Solskjaer‘s mighty reds at Old Trafford in matchweek seven of the Premier League this weekend. Both teams are coming into the game after winning their respective group stage European matches with United putting in a terrific performance by putting five past Leipzig in the Champions League while Arsenal beat Dundalk 3-0 to win their Europa League tie.

Both however, have been a bit inconsistent in the league. It is imperative that Arsenal walk out of the game with something after suffering back to back losses in the league.

So, I will be taking a look at the potential tactics both teams could deploy and how potentially it could have an impact on the final result.

Note: Tactical previews are highly speculative, even more so, in this case as both sides seem to alternate between formations/players. So, bear with me if your favourite formations/line-ups don’t get included. I will be as objective as possible and will explain my rationale behind each and every decision.

Arsenal’s Likely Line-Up:

A lot of discussion has been going on about Arsenal’s lack of creativity against deep blocks. Lot of fans have urged Arteta to change the formation, personnel etc but I think we will be fine with our usual 3-4-3 setup in this game. There are two reasons for it a) United will press high for most part of the game b) this is not the type of game where Arteta should take a risk by bringing in a new setup.

Based on that reasoning, I feel that Arteta will go for a Xhaka/Partey pivot, Aubameyang as the wide forward, Lacazette at false and Willian on the right (I will explain the rationale behind each and every move latter on).

United’s Line-Up (if they opt for a 4-2-3-1):

United can either line-up in a 4-2-3-1 (as they did against Chelsea last week) or in a 4-4-2 diamond (as they did in their 5-0 win in midweek against Leipzig). First we will take a look at how they can line-up in their 4-2-3-1 formation:

With Martial suspended, it is likely that either Rashford or Cavani will start as centre-forward. I think going for Cavani as striker and Rashford on the left will give United more transitional threat and is a much better option than Rashford at striker and James at left wing.

Ole has opted for a Fred-Mctominay pivot in the last few games with Pogba coming off the bench in the latter stages of the games. It has worked well so far and hence, I feel they will persist with it for this game as well.

United’s High Press in a 4-2-3-1 Against A Back Three:

United’s high press in a 4-2-3-1 usually turns into a 4-4-2 high press with the no.10 joining the striker to press the CB’s and cut off their central passing lanes and forcing the opposition out wide before they collapse on the full-back with covering nearside passing options.

Against a back three though, United press with a narrow front three with the wingers pressing the wide centre-backs from the outside, cutting off their passing lane to the wingbacks. While Fernandes marks the deepest/nearside midfielder.

The aim is similar with United forcing the ball out wide to the wingbacks, which acts as a trigger for the United’s fullbacks to move high and press.

Here is a visual example of United’s pressing scheme:

How it could look like against Arsenal:

How Arsenal Can Exploit United’s Press To Their Advantage:

3+1 build-up Structure:

Arsenal’s back three transforms to a back four in build-up with Tierney moving wide and left wingback Saka inverting in midfield. But I think we should build with a back three in the same structure by dropping Xhaka to the left, Partey being more central resembling a 3+1 build-up shape:

This is how we manipulated Fulham’s press and can do the same with United (both seem to adopt a similar pressing scheme against a back three with narrow wingers and fullbacks pushing high to press).

Isolating Aubameyang And Opening The Channel:

The 3+1 build-up structure will help Arsenal create numerical superiority on the left flank and can help to draw players out of position and open up channel between Wan-Bissaka and Lindelof or Lindelof and Maguire for Aubameyang or Lacazette to attack. Here are some examples from the Fulham game:

Here is Aubameyang drifting wide attracting RCB (RB is attracted by Tierney), opening up a huge space between the CB’s for Lacazette to dart into.

Here is how Arsenal can repeat these patterns against United:

Potential downsides to this plan is that a)it would require us to play lot of long balls from the back which if not executed perfectly can lead to ball losses and will give United an advantage considering how good they are in transitions b)play becomes too predictable if we only utilise the left wing.

United’s Mid-Block:

United, when not pressing high consolidate in a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 narrow mid-block closing down the passing lanes to the opposition’s double pivot:

United shift across when the ball is moved across wide but act very aggressively when a direct vertical ball is played to into the feet of central midfielders.

How Can Arsenal Exploit This?

There are quite a few instances where Fred and Mctominay rashly step out to press and in turn leaving the halfspaces/spaces between the lines unprotected. Here is one such example of Chelsea exploiting this by dropping Havertz and creating an overload on Fred:

Arsenal can do something similar by dropping Willian in that right halfspace, a role which he is more suited to and hence the inclusion of him over Pepe.

Another tactic that Arsenal can deploy is having Saka move wide, high in the halfspace to drag Mctominay with him thus creating space for Lacazette to drop into and progress the ball:

United’s Threat In Offensive Transitions:

United are one of the best teams in the world in offensive transitions, a reason why they always perform well in big games. Arsenal would need a proper structure in place to counter-press effectively when the ball is lost, sufficient players should stay behind the ball and the midfield pivot should prioritise defensive solidity over anything. Also, any rushed vertical balls centrally should be avoided as if intercepted can cause Arsenal a lot of problems a) because United have capable passers like Fred and Fernandes that can play accurate balls in behind for runners like Rashford(United’s second goal a perfect example of this) and b)Arsenal’s structure won’t be in place properly to counter-press or to regroup when the ball is lost centrally.

United’s Build-Up And Arsenal’s Press:

There is a big misconception that Arsenal don’t press high against big teams. While it is true that Arsenal don’t press with particularly high intensity, they still keep a high line of consolidation and defence. Secondly, they defend in a 5-4-1 midblock/lowblock according to the gamestate (example: winning 1-0 or 2-1 in the last 15-20 mins of the game) and just like any team it is impossible to press high for 90 minutes.

So, it would make sense for Arsenal to start the game with the same strategy and adjust it accordingly to the gamestate.

United don’t have any repeated patterns in build-up and they often go long when confronted with a high press. Arsenal should be careful though, as generally the wingbacks push high to press their opposite number, it will open up the channel between Bellerin and Mustafi for Rashford to dart into.

It is also essential that Arsenal don’t commit both their pivots into the high press (which was exploited by City) and keep one (preferably Partey, marking Fernandes or any other forwards dropping deep).

A Brief Word On United’s Diamond:

There is quite a chance that Ole decides to opt for a diamond formation instead of a 4-2-3-1 considering the success they had against Leipzig midweek. Not only that, it can actually work very well against Arsenal, with Pogba drifting wide, two strikers running the channels can cause problems for Arsenal’s backline.

Pogba drifting wide and creating space for Martial to drop into.

Arsenal’s haven’t faced a diamond as of yet, so it would be interesting as to how Arteta adjusts the pressing structure to tackle the diamond.

 While my heart says a 2-1 victory for the gunners, my brain says a 1-1 draw.  All in all, a cracker of a game is expected both, for the fans and tactical nerds like me.