Arsenal hosted Manchester United on a windy night in London, with both sides desperate for a win after disappointing results at the weekend. Arsenal made two changes to the side that were taken to the cleaners by Liverpool on Saturday; out went Nacho Monreal and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to be replaced by Kieran Gibbs and Tomas Rosicky respectively.
United also made two changes to the side that dominated but ultimately drew against Fulham at Old Trafford at the weekend. Ashley Young and Darren Fletcher were replaced by Antonio Valencia and Tom Cleverley in the starting line up.
The match started frantically, with both teams presented with good chances inside the first four minutes of the match. Robin van Persie robbed the ball off Mikel Arteta, in a rare instance of United pressing in the match, but scuffed his shot at Wojciech Szczesny’s goal.
Arsenal were quick to respond; Ozil and Wilshere combined neatly before the Englishman slalomed his way around two United defenders, but was denied by Patrice Evra just as he was about to pull the trigger. From the resulting corner, Olivier Giroud wriggled away from the clutches of Nemanja Vidic but sent his header wide
The fast start had the fans – and neutrals – excited about the match that was unfolding on the neatly laid Emirates turf. Unfortunately, the next 80 odd minutes or so were to be the complete opposite of that, with both sides still smarting from disappointment in the previous round of matches.
United were particularly happy to sit back and let the home side control possession of the ball. The Reds maintained a vertically compact shape with two banks of four throughout the match and rarely broke their shape to press the ball at all. So while they did offer Arsenal time on the ball, their compact shape meant there was little space between defense and midfield. These pockets of space, which are often exploited expertly by the likes of Cazorla, Ozil, Rosicky, Wilshere et al. were too crowded as a result.
For Arsenal to open the game up, which would undoubtedly have benefited them, they needed to stretch the game more. Yet, there was a reluctance to go out wide and use the full backs – particularly Bacary Sagna, who made some decent runs down the right flank – as an outlet. It was only around the 20th minute mark that Arsenal began going wide and using their full backs as an option, but even then it would rarely result in a cross to Giroud as they would try to play the ball through the central areas once more.
In the second half, Arsenal began sending in more crosses into the box and it resulted in better chances for the home side. One chance in particular was when Sagna sent in a teasing cross, but his countryman Giroud couldn’t quite get the right connection on the ball as it flashed across goal.
Arsenal tried to inject more pace and direct running into their game by bringing on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Rosicky. The England international, though, couldn’t quite make an impact in the 15 minutes or so he was on the field of play.
United, on the other hand, were clearly content to frustrate the home side. It certainly wasn’t a vintage Manchester United performance, but then again United this season have been anything but vintage. David Moyes called it a controlled performance, and it did take great tactical discipline from his side to limit Arsenal’s chances. But in attack they offered very little. Robin van Persie was often isolated up front and hardly got any support from his teammates. The Dutchman was expected to hold the ball up and that’s not really his game.
Moyes was forced into making a sub at half time with Rafael unable to continue in the second half. Rio Ferdinand was brought on with Chris Smalling moved out wide to right full back. Rafael had played quite well in that first half, managing to push forward on a number of occasions while also keeping Cazorla and Gibbs in check. With Smalling being drafted out wide right, I didn’t expected United to attack much down that side, and they duly obliged, despite the right flank being their preferred route to attack in the first half.
Boos rained down at the final whistle of an uneventful match at the Emirates, with the only real excitement coming from whether Rooney or Wilshere might be the first to bite Mark Clattenburg’s head off. Moyes might be pleased at the result and defensive discipline, on a night where most United fans at the stadium would struggle to return home to Manchester, shut out by the horrid weather conditions just like their team had shut out the table toppers.