Alexis Sanchez drops deep to punish defensive Manchester United
Jose Mourinho devised yet another cautious gameplan that led Manchester United to a disappointing 2-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, in what was their fifth game without a goal at a top-six rival this season.
In prioritising Thursday's upcoming Europa League semifinal second leg with Celta Vigo, the Portuguese changed eight players and used a 4-5-1 designed to counter-attack and defend deep. Sporadic attacks set up early chances for Anthony Martial and Wayne Rooney, but the chief aim was to shut up shop.
They initially managed this through diligent wingers and full-backs tracking Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, the two free playmakers in Arsenal's 3-4-3. But then Sanchez started creating from deep, and if United could have scored by half-time, the same was true of Arsenal.
Soon Granit Xhaka's deflected strike broke United's resistance, before Danny Welbeck added a second. Mourinho responded by playing two strikers, but from there the visitors never looked likely to avoid a first defeat in 26 league games.
Lonely Martial works channels
As in the recent stalemate at Manchester City, United pinned their hopes on quick breaks, set-pieces and defensive errors. The (very) lone striker role went to Martial, Rooney ghosted into the box from midfield, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan (left) and Juan Mata (right) operated out wide.
Unsurprisingly, United caused little harm playing out from the back. Moving into a 5-4-1, Arsenal blocked the passing angles into midfield; Mourinho will have advised against moving through the middle anyway, as his big-game approach tends to centre on risk-free ball circulation. United played it safe until a long ball became necessary, which usually Arsenal dealt with well.
Yet isolated moments did prompt chances, especially at the start. Within five minutes Rooney had steered a Mata cross over, and also released Martial who fired at Petr Cech. Later in the half, Rooney headed wide from a short corner.
Otherwise United relied on Martial chasing hopeful balls out wide, in behind the defence and into the channels. The Frenchman won a free kick here and a corner there, though the reward for his labours could have been far greater. On 32 minutes, he hunted down a long ball that Rob Holding got to first, only for the centre-back to play a loose backpass that Rooney snapped up. Cech saved the close-range finish. That was exactly the kind of something-out-of-nothing chance Mourinho will have hoped might have led to a 1-0 win.
As it was, United offered little else in the half, and Martial and Rooney remained their biggest threats until Mourinho changed shape on the hour mark.
Full-backs force Alexis, Ozil deep
Down the other end, Mourinho's plan worked to some extent. As always, his wingers followed the wing-backs: Mkhitaryan and Mata tracked Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs to the extent that they probably spent more time in full-back zones than between the lines.
That handed Rooney, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick a three-vs-two advantage in central midfield. With these areas sorted, the big challenge was to stop Ozil and Sanchez.
Mourinho had a sound idea. Drawing inspiration from Herrera's man-marking job on Eden Hazard in the 2-0 win at home to Chelsea, he told full-backs Matteo Darmian (left) and 19-year-old Axel Tuanzebe (right) to follow their men deep into midfield. Both were aggressive high up the pitch, Tuanzebe at one point crossing the halfway line to tackle Sanchez. This effectively forced Sanchez and Ozil even deeper, away from the danger zones. In this respect United succeeded, but side effects did emerge.
Sanchez finds Ramsey runs
Indeed, the tight marking triggered a role reversal. Particularly, Sanchez abandoned his usual zone in favour of playing a series of superb through-balls in behind the defence. The Chilean dropped as deep as the halfway line to pick up the ball as a deep-lying playmaker, while the actual central midfielders -- particularly Aaron Ramsey -- ran forward.
The chances this created were big. On nine minutes the Welshman ran onto a Sanchez pass near Phil Jones and drew a superb one-handed save from David De Gea. He soon made a similar run, again near Phil Jones, before cutting back to Welbeck whose shot was blocked.
Ramsey also popped up in left-wing territory to put a cross behind goal, while Ozil found him with a good pass near the box. That proved a rarity for Ozil, however, who played rather unadventurous passes in the first half and completed 35 out of 37. It was Sanchez who caused problems, and by half-time he had found Ramsey eight times (more than any other player), as the pass combination in the graphic shows.
Mourinho plays two up front
In any case, United were keeping Arsenal at bay and Mourinho will have been pleased. But then on 54 minutes, a Xhaka strike out of nowhere hit Herrera and looped over De Gea. Within three minutes, Chris Smalling had mistimed an Oxlade-Chamberlain cross to let Welbeck nod in for 2-0.
Once United had suffered that slice of misfortune, they were never likely to respond. With A-listers rested, Mourinho put on Jesse Lingard for Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford for Herrera near the hour mark. That prompted a change in shape, with Rashford now partnering Martial up front in what looked like a 4-4-2.
Part of the plan was for the two strikers to drift out wide and run at the centre-backs. Laurent Koscielny soon got booked for hacking down Martial near the touchline, yet the busier defender was Holding. Rashford and Martial seemed to take turns challenging him down the left, with Rashford once skipping past to fire in a cross.
Yet Holding coped well otherwise and United offered little more beyond a few Rooney long shots off target. Wenger deserved credit for asserting control in that phase, and though the breakthrough relied on a bit of luck, Arsenal deserved the win.
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