Manchester United suffered a disappointing 3-1 defeat to Arsenal in north London on Sunday. Erik Ten Hag’s tactical approach to the game was a lot different to what we’ve usually seen from United against better teams in the league in recent seasons. While leaving the Emirates empty-handed is definitely disheartening, there are a lot of positives for Ten Hag to take from that 90 minutes.
Manchester United in Possession
What we’ve typically seen from Manchester United in recent years is that against teams with more quality, United would normally sit deep and try to hit teams on the counter-attack. This was very effective at times, for both ex-United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and also Ten Hag last season.
What we saw from United against Arsenal though was a totally different approach, and this is a massive positive. United’s build-up play was excellent at the Emirates, and it’s arguably the best we’ve seen under Ten Hag. In the first half, United actually had the majority of possession and that’s not something we’ve seen from United in a long time against quality opposition.
Last season, whenever United tried to play out from the back, at some point when the pressure of the opponent became too much, David de Gea or one of the defenders would eventually play a long ball. However, what we saw against Arsenal was that even when Arsenal made it difficult to play out from the back, United didn’t crumble under pressure and stuck to the plan. That said, Arsenal were clearly reluctant to press United, and this is likely because of Andre Onana, who’s regarded as one of the best ball-playing and technical goalkeepers in world football.Embed from Getty Images
So far this season, we’ve seen United mainly build up in somewhat of a 3-1 / 3-2 structure. The back 3 has typically been the right-back and the 2 centre-backs, with the 2 players in front of that typically being Casemiro along with either the left-back or a midfielder. What we saw against Arsenal was slightly different. In the initial build-up, we saw Andre Onana play essentially as a centre-back on many occasions. Onana would be in the middle of the two centre-backs, basically forming a back 3. In front of that was Casemiro who was next to a full-back or Christian Eriksen. As the United moved further up the pitch, we normally saw either Christian Eriksen or Casemiro drop into a line alongside the two centre-backs which formed a back 3. A midfielder dropping into a back 3 in the build-up isn’t something new for United, as we saw this happen on numerous occasions during pre-season. United very often had numerical superiority in the build-up. There was a clear lack of desire from Arsenal to press high.
Casemiro’s performance on the ball was a big part of why United’s first phase of build-up improved. He had an 87% pass completion rate. Last season, the Brazilian international’s average pass completion rate in the Premier League was 79% so it’s clear that his performance against Arsenal in this regard is far better than it normally is. His biggest weakness is he’s not comfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal but against Arsenal, he looked a lot more comfortable doing this, normally playing one-touch passes out to the wide areas in these situations.
The fullbacks, while involved in build-up at times, had a far lesser role than we’ve normally seen which gave them more freedom to get forward at times.
While United’s first phase of build-up was good, they struggled in the second phase. In the second phase, United looked out of ideas and this led to long balls being played on a few occasions, which weren’t effective. Arsenal were very well organised out of possession and made it difficult for United to get the ball into the penalty box. They remained compact and did a good job of cutting the passing lanes. United had 55% possession in the first half, but Ten Hag’s men struggled to create any clear-cut chances and never really had a period of sustained attack, having only registered 3 shots and an xG (expected goals) of 0.30.
In comparison, Arsenal had 9 shots in the first half and an xG of 0.84. Despite having less possession, the Gunners looked like the more threatening side. In the second half, United only had 35% possession and struggled to control the game in the same way they did in the first half.Embed from Getty Images
Despite not creating many chances, United took the lead first and that goal proved why Christian Eriksen still has an important role to play for this side. Eriksen’s pass to Rashford was inch-perfect and once again showed his quality on the ball. The finish from Marcus Rashford was also fantastic, and it’s something we’ve seen a lot from him. He’s excellent at receiving the ball in the left half space and cutting in more centrally.
Manchester United Out of Possession
Out of possession, we typically saw Ten Hag’s side line-up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. United pressed with a front four and did so to a relatively good standard. There was a point in the first half where Aaron Ramsdale got the ball after a long ball from Andre Onana. It then took Arsenal around 75 seconds to get the ball back over the halfway line and begin an attack. At points, United’s press also forced Aaron Ramsdale to go long. The press of Ten Hag’s side so far this season has been very good, and this was on display against Arsenal again. Arsenal’s build-up structure did usually create an overload against United’s press, but the Old Trafford side did a great job at making it difficult for the Gunners in the first phase.Embed from Getty Images
For the goals, United made some unbelievably careless mistakes. There’s a saying in football that you are most vulnerable right after scoring, and United proved that by conceding right after taking the lead. When playing against Arsenal there are certain things that you do not do under any circumstance, and leaving Martin Ødegaard unmarked in and around the penalty box is one of those things. It was poor from United, and the Reds looked disorganised. Declan Rice’s 96th-minute goal was also very preventable. The £105m signing was left unmarked by United at the back-post, but United shouldn’t have conceded regardless of that. One of the defenders should’ve made the block, and despite it taking a deflection, it could be argued that Andre Onana should’ve done better. The third goal is quite simple and shouldn’t be over-analysed. United were desperately searching for an equaliser. That obviously left Ten Hag’s side vulnerable to being hit on the counterattack, and Mikel Arteta’s side did just that.
In the second half especially, Arsenal pinned United back and had sustained periods of attack, and it felt like if any team was going to win it, that team would’ve been Arsenal.
VerdictEmbed from Getty Images
Whenever United lose a game of football, the media are desperate to highlight the poor aspects of the performance, but despite losing, United’s performance particularly in the first half, was a massive step forward. So often in the past we’ve seen United just sit deep against high-quality opposition and just hit them on the break. On many occasions, United have never really even tried to play out from the back and instead chosen to go long. However, against Arsenal, Ten Hag’s men at times genuinely had control of the game and United’s first phase build-up was great. It’s a massive improvement on what we saw last season. The next thing Ten Hag needs to try to do in games like this is to find a way to have sustained periods of attack.
Having a goalkeeper who’s so comfortable on the ball in the modern game is massively important and Onana’s ability in possession was a big reason why Arsenal didn’t press and also why United’s build-up was so good.
Rasmus Højlund made a very positive impact off the bench. The Danish forward showed glimpses of his speed, and link-up play and also showed to everyone his physical attributes. He’s still very young and will need to be developed, but United could have one of the most complete centre-forwards in world football if Højlund fulfils his potential.
Arsenal were deserved winners but the reality is that the Gunners simply have more quality and that was the main difference. In terms of the tactical battle between the two managers, Ten Hag held his own against Mikel Arteta, despite the Dutch manager missing some very key players due to having an injury-ravaged squad. United didn’t allow Arsenal to control the game in a way they normally would and had Alejandro Garnacho just timed his run for his ruled-out goal just slightly better, United could’ve run out 2-1 winners.
As long as Ten Hag is given time, he will get this club competing for major honours once again. When he arrived, he didn’t have the players with the right profiles to play the way he wanted to. This meant for a large part of last season, he had to adapt to what he had to get results. Ten Hag did this extremely and showed how adaptable and tactically flexible he can be.
Having added Sofyan Amrabat to his squad now and Kobbie Mainoo set to play a significant role once he’s back from injury, Ten Hag almost has all the profiles he needs to play the way he wants. However, this squad does still lack quality in certain areas as well as consistency. It’s now just about giving the manager and players time to get the system ticking on a consistent basis. Further backing in the transfer market will obviously be needed to add depth and further quality.