By Naveen Maliakkal
Like Arsenal, Manchester United have been a work in progress the entire season, and like Arsenal, injuries have played a significant role in United’s inability to function as a connected unit. These injuries make it difficult to predict how Manchester United will play or who will make it on the pitch, come Saturday.
Van Gaal does have clear principles for how he wants his team to set-up. In attack, Van Gaal wants to build from the back, moving the ball into the opponent’s half efficiently. From there, he wants the ball to move—to circulate the ball—in an effort to move the opposition around to create openings and to probe the defense for openings to exploit. For this reason, Van Gaal emphasizes player positioning and movement to ensure that players have options, allowing the team to better move the ball. At that point, Van Gaal wants his team to adopt a rather direct approach to exploit the openings they create and/or find. While control of the ball is essential for Van Gaal, he has little desire to have possession for possession’s sake.
Defensively, he has shown some flexibility with his approach. At clubs like Ajax, Barcelona, or Bayern, his sides looked rather “Dutch” defensively, look to push high up the pitch, in an attempt to pin their opponent in their own half and win the ball. At AZ Alkamaar and during his second stint as Netherlands manager, his teams played with much more caution and closer to their goal. During his second stint as the Netherlands manager, Van Gaal also showed a willingness to employ quite a bit of man marking, which pushed him towards playing three at the back.
Finally, when it comes to transitions, Van Gaal puts great emphasis on his team working as a unit and working quickly, either to hit a disorganized opponent on the counter or to halt an opponent’s counter/snap into their defensive shape.
With Luke Shaw (hamstring), Angel Di Maria (ankle), David De Gea (thumb), Michael Carrick (groin), Rafael (muscular injury), Phil Jones (shin), and Johnny Evans (ankle) all having the potential to be fit or not for the match, and with Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo certainly out, Manchester United could struggle mightily to perform in the way their boss wants.
While not having Di Maria would rob United of their best player, someone who can ensure that United transition quickly and effectively, and someone who can open up a defense with his dribbling, passing, and movement, the injuries to the back line and goalkeeper may play a bigger role on Saturday.
No De Gea would mean that United would suffer in their ability to build from the ball, in addition to taking a hit with respect to their ability to prevent goals. Not having a left-footed center back hurts Manchester United’s ability to build from the back, especially if they wish to split their center backs and drop the deepest midfielder, likely Carrick if fit. That desire to build from the back is why Manchester United paid so much for a player like Rojo, a left-footed player who can play center back. Playing a center back who is uncomfortable with his left foot and does not understand how to play in wide areas, could hinder United’s ability to build from the back and penetrate Arsenal’s first defensive line. Throw in a center back like Chris Smalling, and United may depend heavily on Michael Carrick dictating things from the center of a three-man back line, when United have possession.
Taking Advantage of United’s Backline: It’s All about Controlling Space
This means that Arsenal could find some success pressing United’s backline. With the potential lack of technical ability, composure, and vision, at the back, Arsenal have a significant ability to force mistakes close to Manchester United’s goal. With Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, Arsenal have two players who could initiate a pressing phase, funneling the ball wide. Then a wide player would press the ball, once the ball moved to one of the center backs out-wide, especially if the center back faces his own goal. Either Welbeck or Sanchez would position himself to deny passing lanes into the interior, depending on which one found himself on the ball-side, and then look to close the vice. However, as we have seen so many times this season, as a unit, Arsenal lack an understanding of when to press and when to drop deeper. Given that many of these players played on the team last season, a team whose defended deeper and did so more often that this year’s team, Arsenal have severe coordination issues with respect to allocating their on-pitch resources properly, given the circumstances of the particular moment of the game. So while United seem like a team who Arsenal should press, their continued inability to solve more complex problems as a unit¹ makes such proactive defending dangerous.
Arsenal do have another option. Instead of trying to press United’s back line, they could adopt an approach that has benefitted Liverpool’s opponents this season—ignoring the back line. While having center backs who cannot do much with the ball can incentivize putting them under pressure, it can also incentivize teams not defending them. This allows them to allocate their defensive resources elsewhere on the pitch. Teams have adopted this strategy against Liverpool, feeling no threat when either Martin Skrtel or Mamadou Sakho have the ball at their feet, allowing them to defend eight outfield players with their entire XI. In this match, especially if Michael Carrick does not play, Arsenal could simply ignore United’s back line, focusing on controlling the space in front of United’s back line. Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck would defend the half-spaces. The wide men would look to press the full backs, if the ball was played wide. In doing this, Arsenal could cut the supply of the ball to the rest of the team, forcing United players to drop deep to receive the ball or elicit an attempt by a United center back to advance the ball, either with a long pass or a dribble, either being a positive for Arsenal.
The problem for this defensive set-up, as with any defensive set-up Arsenal employ without their backs against their own goal, is that the space between the defensive lines should not be more than 10 meters. Closer to goal, the ability to keep the defensive lines close together is easier, as the amount of “offside” space a team concedes is quite low. Further from goal, such a tight structure does lead to more “offside” space conceded. If a team has three defensive lines, starting at half-way line, then they should cover the 20 meters behind the half-way line and leave the space behind them unoccupied, outside of the keeper. This way, Arsenal limit the ability for the center back to hit speculative balls into space in front of Arsenal’s last defender—into the “onside” space. However, especially with Per Mertesacker in the side, and the lack of a bonafide sweeper keeper, Arsenal have shown too much of a willingness to having their highest defensive line in a high position with the back line too close to their own goal. This leads to far too much unoccupied “onside” space, making it too easy for the opposition to move the ball from the back, through the first two or three defensive lines.
If Arsenal adopt either of these approaches and execute well, then they will have gone a long way in figuring out how to stop Angel Di Maria. If fit, he represents a player who Arsenal have little ability to stop. Therefore, the best way to nullify the attacking talents of Di Maria is to prevent the ball from reaching them in dangerous areas. By either pressing or ignoring the back line, Arsenal would have the ability to control the space the ball occupies, without having control of the ball. If Angel Di Maria has to drop deep to collect the ball, then Arsenal have forced United’s best attacking threat further away from their goal. Not only does this reduce Di Maria’s ability to make high leverage plays, but it also decreases the risk and increases the reward of harassing and harrying the Argentinean. Conceding a foul 50-60 meters away from goal is a rather benign outcome. If Di Maria gets past a player, as long as Arsenal have compact defensive lines, another man can step in to stop him. When Arsenal do succeed in winning the ball, they have done so with little distance or defenders standing between them and the goal. Ultimately, if Arsenal want to reach the next level, they need to learn how to control space without the ball
Possession for Possession’s Sake
At the same time, Arsenal have not shown that they can control the ball. Losses to Anderlecht and Swansea both involved Arsenal having an inability to control possession to see out the game. For a team that wants to defend higher up the pitch, which necessarily calls for more pressing, in an effort to better control matches, then Arsenal much learn how to control the ball. They must be able and willing to have possession for the sake of possession.
This flies in the face of Arsene Wenger’s football philosophy. Wenger wants the ball to move forward. He wants Arsenal to attack teams while they are disorganized and give them as little time as possible to organize. However, such a philosophy has the potential to turn a football match into something like basketball, leading to a loss of control on the proceedings.
This kind of 4-4-2 structure, which Arsenal have employed in the last two matches, seems to have hurt their ability to retain possession when they need to do so. Along with the obvious problems of a 4-4-2, especially when one of the central midfielders might as well not be on the pitch, it represents another new system, in which the players have to understand their roles and relationships. The ability to anticipate the actions of teammates suffers from such tinkering. This means that the ability to coordinate resources on the pitch becomes more difficult. This can lead to more turnovers through misplaced passes and poor touches. It can also lead to indecision, making Arsenal’s attack less potent and making it more advantageous for the opposition to attempt to win the ball, leading to more turnovers.
Hopefully, a healthy Mikel Arteta can help Arsenal fix some of their problems with ball retention. However, as with their figuring out of how to control space without the ball, looking to control the ball for the sake of controlling the ball is another developmental hurdle that Arsenal will need to overcome to progress as a side.
Follow Naveen on Twitter @njm1211
¹One reason why defending higher up the pitch is much more difficult is that it increases the amount of options that players have to choose. Now this means that players have greater potential to solve the dynamic resource allocation problem in more effective ways. However, greater potential is only as good as a player’s ability to extract information from the environment, to understand what to do given the information they have extracted, and to execute that plan. Sides that simply defend close to their goal sometimes do so to limit the number of decisions available to their players. This way they hide the intellectual deficits of their players and increase the ability for players to coordinate their actions. This means that the team can effectively defend in a certain manner, given a lack of resources, but will lack robustness and struggle against an intelligent attacking side.