Perhaps it is a bit too early to write about the upcoming game against Arsenal. If Manchester United’s recent injury woes are anything to go by, there is good chance that key Reds will not make it to the Emirates after the international break. Still, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal has a distinct style and weaknesses that come with it; a tactician as keen as Louis van Gaal will certain try to exploit them.
This season United has been troubled by constant injuries to defenders, but Arsenal’s threat is one that even the current weakened United defence can cope with. Danny Welbeck is in a poor patch of form, despite scoring six times this season, and Paddy McNair, who handled the stylistically similar Romelu Lukaku well, should match the former United striker.
Alexis Sanchez, who has already scored eight goals this season, is a worry though. Van Gaal’s preference for a high line has left United vulnerable to quick balls over the top and Sanchez has the legs to punish the Reds. Rafael da Silva’s injury has put Antonio Valencia at right back of late and the Ecuadorian’s conservatism should negate at least some of Sanchez’s explosiveness down Arsenal’s left wing.
United’s midfield has not been functioning to its full potential, but it now boasts some quality at least. Perhaps, enough quality to match and exceed Arsenal’s midfield. Still, counter-attacking has always been productive against Arsenal and the pragmatic Van Gaal will probably choose that a similar strategy next weekend.
Arsenal’s standing weakness has been its dogged adherence to the passing game. Many teams have exposed the London side by pressing heavily and United, for the first time in five years or so, has the midfield to challenge Arsenal in the centre of the park. Ander Herrera, should he play, could be key due to his pace and aggression.
Mathieu Flamini, Arsenal’s holding midfielder, is highly similar to Danny Blind in that the Frenchman is slow and relies more on positional awareness than tackling. In this Angel di Maria’s forays into central areas could be influential. Unlike Blind, though, Flamini has a notable weakness in the air – he has attempted less than two headers per game so far – and Maroune Fellaini and/or Wayne Rooney could prove crucial should Van Gaal choose a more direct approach.
Another of the Gunners’ weaknesses is in defence. The summer acquisition, Mathieu Debuchy, has been laid off with an ankle injury, while first choice centre back Laurent Koscielny also set to miss the clash with United next Saturday.
In fact Per Mertesacker is the only Arsenal defender to have played with any regularity this season. It is, however, no coincidence that he is the only Arsenal defender to have played in all of Arsenal’s draws and losses this season. Perhaps due to his lack of pace, the German has only attempted 1.5 tackles per game this season. Mertesacker has also made a meagre 2.6 interceptions per game. Both figures are roughly half of Koscielny’s. This is indicative of a player rooted to the penalty box. With Flamini unlikely to come to rescue, and saddled with an inexperienced partner, Mertesacker will concede a lot of ground to United’s forwards.
It is an observation that Robin van Persie, in particular, should enjoy. Despite scoring three goals, Van Persie has come in for much criticism this season. He has suffered several sub-par games, but the suspicion is that Ramadel Falcao’s presence, or the lack there of, is adding to the weight of criticism. It is evident that Van Persie no longer has the dynamism that Falcao offers and one cannot help but wonder whether di Maria and others are being hindered from the lack of movement United’s lone forward now offers.
Indeed, Van Gaal’s shift to a 4-1-4-1 system has greatly hindered Van Persie, and by extension United, by isolating the Dutchman. Di Maria has been forced wide with little support and the Argentinian’s inherent profligacy has come to the fore.
Herrera’s return, with his dynamism, should help but the time is nigh for the diamond to be re-introduced. Arsenal offers little threat from out wide so the narrowness inherent in this formation is not be an issue. Di Maria will always have two strikers to chase his through balls and United will outnumber the Gunners in the middle – always a key area at the Emirates.
Crucially, injuries to defenders may dictate Blind plays as centre back again. Unless van Gaal chooses the brave option by playing Tyler Blackett alongside Mcnair, United will be short of a proper defensive midfielder, with Michael Carrick also injured. Thus deploying four through centre midfield becomes a defensive necessity.
Then there is the fact that Mertesacker is Aresenal’s most prolific passer this season. This is reflective of Arsenal’s tendency to play out from the back. United’s commitment to pressing this season could force a mistake or two in north London. Van Persie is unlikely to be a constant nuisance to Mertesacker, whereas Falcao will be if fit. The Colombian has also created two assists this season by drifting into wide areas and the his lateral movement should stretch an already vulnerable Arsenal defence.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Falcao will be ready the game given his injury problems. There are other options though. Adnan Januzaj has been frequently considered a forward by Van Gaal and the recent Golden Boy nominee could partner Van Persie up top. Another, and possibly more likely, option is James Wilson’s introduction. The academy graduate has already been trusted, albeit as a substitute, in big games.
Van Gaal is too canny a manager not to have held the entire season in mind when he became boss at Old Trafford. The 3-4-1-2 system that started the season quickly became a 4-4-2 diamond, and although the make-up of that midfield shape has changed, the narrow formation persisted. It suggests that van Gaal sees four in midfield as a necessity. It certainly makes sense against Arsenal.
Graphic from LineupBuilder.com