As you were no doubt told when you first started watching football, going in 0-0 at half time of an away game is no bad thing.
You’re still on terms and have 45 minutes to go and win it. Your mum, dad, uncle, or whoever, probably cited Anfield ’89 as an optimistic example, absolving a listless first half display by the current Arsenal side, trying to fill you with hope that the second half won’t just be more of the same.
Given the stage of the season, Saturday’s trip to Old Trafford wasn’t so much a ‘must win’ as a ‘must not lose’. As such, Wenger selected a starting XI whose goal was to get to half time at 0-0. After settling into the second half, he’d look to make changes and have a go at United for the final 15-20 minutes.
Arsenal sides of 2008 – 2014 often went into away games looking to enjoy the majority of possession and play the same expansive football they would at the Emirates. In some of these matches, Arsenal attempted to play the same way even with some of their most important personnel unavailable and inferior or ill-suited players tasked with carrying out their roles. This was most evident in 2013/14 defeats at Liverpool, Chelsea, and Everton.
With Bellerin and Cazorla unavailable through injury and Xhaka left out for tactical reasons despite having played his best game for the club in his first North London Derby, Arsenal sacrificed any notion of controlling possession or building attacks from deep, instead looking to sit back and play primarily on the counter.
Wenger set his team up to shut down the middle of the pitch, with Elneny and Coquelin supplemented by Aaron Ramsey, who was tasked with tucking in from a nominal left-sided position he has only once played before, in a 1-1 draw at Everton November 2012, which does not suit his game at all. Özil and Walcott were tasked with supporting the ailing Alexis on the counter.
United grew wise to this early on and looked to get tight on Elneny and Coquelin quickly, forcing them to play sideways or backwards. This cut off the supply line to Özil, who was having to offer even more support than usual to Alexis and his heavily bandaged thigh. Consequently, Arsenal’s front three were cut off from their midfield and weren’t given enough support to fully capitalise when the opportunity to counter-attack arose.
As per Arsenal’s gameplan, Elneny and Coquelin were both tasked with playing how you’d want a midfield pair to play when looking to shut a game down and hold on to a slender lead. However, United’s disrupted them and not only did they look less than assured in possession, but also positionally suspect in defence. There were several warning signs before the hosts eventually took the lead.
United’s gameplan saw them look to use Valencia to create an overlap outside Mata, with Herrera joining them to create situational overloads. This would drag Elneny from his position towards Arsenal’s LB zone to match up men. Coquelin would then be drawn in by instinct to slide across and close the gap between himself and his partner. This deliberate ploy would in turn leave a sizeable gap between Coquelin on the penalty spot and the far touchline for a United runner to exploit.
A combination of astute positioning from Arsenal’s CBs and poor deliveries from Valencia limited United to two presentable chances created in this way in the first half. However, Arsenal didn’t heed these warning signs and weren’t so lucky after the break, when Mata capitalised on the same opening to put United 1-0 up.
It’s all well and good Arsenal setting up for a big away game aiming to keep the score at 0-0 until the 70th minute before making a push to win. However, by the 50th minute, it was abundantly clear that Arsenal weren’t going to make it to the 70th minute at 0-0. United were well on top and a goal felt imminent. What started out as pragmatism had strayed into crippling conservatism and it just wasn’t working.
Arsenal’s inability to get the ball into the opposition half and retain possession prevented them from releasing any of the mounting United pressure. It was only a matter of time until one lapse of concentration or moment of inspiration would see the hosts take the lead. Wenger would have also seen this, but opted to patiently stick when he could have proactively twisted.
When Giroud finally exposed the soft centre of United’s defence to equalise in the 89th minute, it was Arsenal’s first effort on target all match and first effort in any capacity since the 39th minute, such was the futility of their attacking performance.
While two of Wenger’s substitutes combined to dig Arsenal out of a hole, a number of steps could have been taken between the start of the second half when United asserted supremacy and Mata’s goal in the 69th minute to ensure that Arsenal didn’t find themselves in such a hole in the first place.
Introducing a player capable of dictating the play in deep midfield could have improved Arsenal’s ball circulation and helped them set a slower tempo to the game, sapping United’s growing momentum. A change out wide could have helped with ball retention in the final third and helped alleviate pressure on the defensive unit. Bringing on Giroud for a clearly unfit Alexis would’ve posed United’s patchwork defence with a different proposition.
It’s understandable to go into a big match trying to outlast an opponent rather than outpunch them. But when it becomes clear that you’re not going to outlast them, the time comes to change your approach and try something different. Against Mourinho’s men, Arsenal were lucky to find themselves only a goal down before they started trying to play. Against a more imaginative or clinical opponent, they won’t be so lucky and their conservatism will be ruthlessly punished.