The Gunners can thank Giroud for a late equalizer at Old Trafford as they really looked listless on Saturday. The 1-1 draw is definitely a better result than the 3-2 loss of last season and leaves Arsenal in fourth place just two points behind Liverpool and Manchester City in the Premier League.
Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com
There were a couple of surprises in the starting lineup with Ramsey on the left wing, Jenkinson at rightback and Sanchez in the lone striker role. Aware of Iwobi’s poor run of form in the last few games, Wenger decided to play Ramsey in an unfamiliar position although Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been a more natural choice on the left flank. At the back, Bellerin’s ankle injury meant that the manager had to either trust Jenkinson or gamble on Holding. Jenkinson is more experienced whereas Holding is stronger in the air and more comfortable on the ball. Holding is a centerback by trade but played a few games at rightback for Bolton last season. Up front, I thought it was risky to start Sanchez after an exhausting trip to South America. Giving the nod to Giroud would have been the wiser option.
Arsenal enjoyed 55% of ball possession but only produced 1 shot on target compared to 5 for some Red Devils still struggling to find their feet. Before I start analyzing the game, I need to mention how badly the Gunners are missing Bellerin and Cazorla. Bellerin will be sidelined for 4 weeks after picking up an ankle injury against Tottenham while Cazorla is dealing with a nagging Achilles injury that could echo Arteta’s last two seasons at the club.
Bellerin is not just a better defender than Jenkinson, he also has more pace and better passing and dribbling skills than the English fullback. Jenkinson had a passing accuracy of 61% at Old Trafford, the lowest among all the starters according to the club’s website. Mourinho obviously targeted Jenkinson by starting Martial, although the French forward is low on confidence this season.
Lack of creativity
Jenkinson did fine on the ground, winning 3 of 5 tackles compared to 0 of 2 for both Mustafi and Monreal according to Squawka. However, Jenkinson struggled in the air, winning only 3 of 6 aerial duels compared to 8 of 10 for Mustafi, 3 of 3 for Koscielny and 1 of 1 for Monreal. Martial was able to bear down on goal in the 49th minute after Jenkinson missed his header but he could only drag a low shot straight at Cech. Rojo then outjumped Jenkinson in the 80th to head wide a cross from Blind.
The Gunners have struggled to build play from the back since Cazorla’s absence. The Manchester game was no exception. Wenger wanted to protect the back four by playing Coquelin and Elneny in midfield. The downside is that you have very little creativity with those two players. Sanchez and Ozil dropped back a few times to give a hand but Arsenal still finished the match with just 3 key passes. In modern football, the through ball is the most lethal weapon to crack a defense. However, the penultimate pass can prove just as important by creating the conditions for that assist. And that’s what Cazorla is very good at.
Ozil and Ramsey should have injected the touch of creativity that was missing but they both had a poor game. They had 7 turnovers each, the most for any player according to whoscored.com. Ramsey only won 1 of 7 tackles while Ozil had very little impact on the team’s passing game despite not playing for Germany during the international break.
A good old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system
Darmian was the weak link in the Manchester defense. The Italian fullback was booked in the 25th for fouling Walcott and could have received a second yellow card in the 32nd for planting his studs in Jenkinson’s shin. In the second half, the Gunners failed to test Darmian, who was nevertheless replaced by Blind in the 64th.
Somehow, Sanchez could have opened the scoring by the seventh minute. Walcott redirected a cross from Monreal toward the far post, where Sanchez got ahead of Herrera but headed wide from six yards. Sanchez made 4 successful dribbles out of 4 but it wasn’t a game tailored for him. Giroud has skills that Sanchez doesn’t have and the other way around.
Chasing an equalizer, the manager replaced Elneny with Giroud in the 73rd, Coquelin with Xhaka in the 80th and Jenkinson with Oxlade-Chamberlain in the 84th. The initial 4-2-3-1 formation turned into an old-fashioned 2-3-2-3 system with Koscielny and Mustafi at the back, Xhaka as the holding midfielder between Monreal and the Ox as the wingbacks, Ozil and Ramsey as the attacking midfielders, and Sanchez, Giroud and Walcott as the three forwards.
That’s how it looked like on paper. When Arsenal equalized in the 89th, any tactical consideration was thrown out the window. The Ox dribbled past Rashford down the right flank to make a cross for Giroud, who outjumped Jones and Valencia at the far post to head home. There were five Gunners (Walcott, Ramsey, Giroud, Koscielny and Monreal) inside the Manchester box when the Ox crossed the ball while Ozil and Sanchez were standing outside.
Lack of movement
When you watch that Manchester side play under Mourinho, it’s hard to see where are the improvements compared to the Van Gaal era. The Red Devils seemed the better team from the 20th to the 80th only because they showed a bit more desire while Arsenal lacked the movement necessary to destabilize a compact defense.
Mimicking Liverpool and Tottenham, the hosts implemented a high press in the hope of creating chances from turnovers. Valencia intercepted a sloppy pass from Elneny in the 12th but had his cross cut out by Coquelin. Then Coquelin gave the ball away to Rashford, who overhit his cross for Pogba in the 19th. Ramsey also put the Gunners in trouble with a risky pass in the 41st when the ball fell to Martial, whose shot was tipped over the bar by Cech.
Mourinho obviously remembered Arsenal’s loss at Old Trafford last season as he tried to exploit their vulnerability on crosses. Manchester made 30 crosses compared to just 13 for the Gunners. The opening goal came from a low cross from Herrera in the 69th. Mata pounced on the offering to fire a first-time effort into the bottom corner.
A bad chain reaction
You realize it’s a silly goal when you watch the replay. Basically, it’s a terrible chain reaction triggered by Monreal falling to the ground after losing a duel against Pogba. There seems to be no danger when the Red Devils have a throw-in. Valencia’s throw is a bit awkward but Pogba manages to control the ball while Monreal loses his footing in an attempt to head the ball away. Koscielny wants to cover Monreal and leaves a gap in the heart of the defense. Monreal is getting back on his feet but doesn’t track Herrera who is running past him. Pogba releases Herrera down the flank, therefore pulling Mustafi out of position as the Germany international is trying to make up for Monreal’s poor marking. Jenkinson is now dealing with both Rooney and Rashford inside the area. See all the space left by the Arsenal defense in the screen capture below.
The Red Devils have plenty of space to run into as Herrera ghosts past Monreal (Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com)
Coquelin notices the mismatch and tracks Rooney. However, Elneny doesn’t have Coquelin’s defensive awareness and fails to spot Mata’s run inside the box. The first mistake on that play is Koscielny’s decision to cover Monreal. It would have been safer to have a midfielder challenging Pogba with Monreal acting as a cover. The second mistake is Monreal’s failure to track Herrera. And the third mistake is Elneny leaving Mata unmarked.
Elneny is a utility player who does a bit of everything without excelling in any area. He’s not a ballwinner like Coquelin, he’s not a deep-lying playmaker like Xhaka, he doesn’t make deep runs like Ramsey and he doesn’t deliver through balls like Ozil. Elneny is a great asset when you have injuries in midfield, but he also shows his limits in specific situations when you need to score or defend. He gave away a free kick by putting his hand on Herrera’s shoulder in the fourth minute and failed to close down Pogba in the 36th. Pogba had plenty of time to play Mata in. Mustafi was a split second late and missed his interception. It took an outstanding save from Cech to tip Mata’s low strike around the post.
The need for a better game plan
The Manchester match was just the first of nine games in a 30-day span. In what is the most hectic period of the season for Arsenal, the manager must find a way to improve their build-up play otherwise they will struggle against the average sides and drop crucial points.
Wednesday’s game against Paris Saint-Germain could determine Arsenal’s future in the Champions League. In the past seasons, the Gunners often had a tough draw in the knockout phase because they finished second in the group stage. Arsenal and the French club are currently level on points but the Gunners have a better goal difference. Since both teams drew 1-1 in September, Arsenal would top the group with a victory over PSG no matter what happens against Basel in December.
A draw at the Emirates could also be enough if the score is 0-0 or 1-1, assuming the Gunners beat Basel while the Parisians defeat Ludogorets next month. However, PSG would snatch the top spot with a 2-2 draw because of the away goal rule.
Wenger will have to come up with a better game plan because he was badly outfoxed by Emery in September. Aurier enjoyed too much freedom down our left flank, PSG outnumbered Arsenal in midfield, and nobody marked Verratti and Di Maria when they dropped back to make key passes.