Mata and Herrera boost Man United youngsters as Walcott struggles
Arsenal have faced many different Manchester United sides since their last league victory at Old Trafford back in 2006, but few have looked as porous as the one Louis van Gaal lined up with on Sunday.
The Dutch tactician was a goalkeeper away from being able to name a full team of absentees, yet his patched-up selection grabbed a deserved 3-2 victory to record back-to-back Premier League wins at home for the first time since September.
Set up in a 4-1-4-1, United focused on the wide areas, with 18-year-old striker Marcus Rashford seeking out the flanks to stretch the defence. When the league debutant ghosted into the box to score twice inside four first-half minutes, the two preceding moves had come down the right via neat combinations and runs from right-back Guillermo Varela. Also involved in the goals were Juan Mata and Ander Herrera, whose free roles in central midfield provided greater fluency.
Arsene Wenger played Theo Walcott up front in a bid to outpace centre-backs Daley Blind and Michael Carrick, with Danny Welbeck positioned on the right wing as a further threat. But after Walcott had been quiet in the start, the two switched positions, only for Walcott to promptly lose the ball inside his own half and let United take the lead. Wenger later replaced Walcott with Olivier Giroud, but the late rally never came and Van Gaal's makeshift backline held out comfortably.
United attack down the flanks
Many have criticised Van Gaal for his insistence on elaborate positional play, but here both first-half goals came via moves down the flanks, crosses and close-range finishes.
Shelving his usual 4-2-3-1, the Dutchman tried a 4-1-4-1 that saw Mata and Herrera take up wide positions alongside Rashford. Particularly in the first half, Rashford received several passes down the left to draw out Gabriel Paulista and, on one occasion, the academy product bypassed the Brazilian to win a free-kick on the edge of the box that Memphis Depay drilled at Petr Cech.
That denoted a tendency for United to favour the left side, though the two first goals came down the other flank. Herrera won possession and found Varela, whose cross dropped invitingly for Rashford to convert as Gabriel made a mess of his clearance.
At that stage Alexis Sanchez was positioned infield, unable to track the Uruguayan, and the Chilean also let him escape for the second goal when Varela headed down to Jesse Lingard whose lofted ball was nodded in by Rashford -- his fourth goal in two starts for the club. By half-time, United had played most of their passes out wide, while Arsenal had attempted no tackles anywhere centrally or down their left.
Walcott selection backfires
That Rashford became the striker who troubled his centre-backs was not the plan for Wenger. Walcott's selection was surely meant to punish the lack of speed from Blind and Carrick, but United rarely conceded space behind the backline and Walcott hardly featured at all.
If anything, Welbeck looked more dangerous, drifting across the pitch. On seven minutes the ex-United striker moved out left to find Mesut Ozil, whose sumptuous flick led to Nacho Monreal missing a huge chance. As the half progressed, Welbeck kept receiving the ball between the lines, at one stage drawing a booking from Carrick.
Before 30 minutes had gone, Wenger switched the two forwards in order to shake things up. The move backfired immediately: Walcott soon produced a heavy touch inside his own half that gifted the ball to Herrera, who started the move that led to Rashford's opener. Later on, Welbeck stayed up front and headed in Ozil's free-kick, while Walcott continued to offer little; when he came off for Giroud on 63 minutes, he had received just 15 passes and completed six out of nine, while neither a successful dribble nor a shot had been recorded.
Mata and Herrera boost fluency
Yet United didn't only rely on mistakes to create danger. A key part of their success centred on Mata and Herrera, who started in a central midfield trio anchored by Morgan Schneiderlin. The abolishment of two holding midfielders created a new sense of dynamism, with Mata and Herrera taking up positions freely across the pitch.
This was combined with man-marking duties without the ball: the two stayed close Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey, while Schneiderlin watched Ozil, at one point tracking him 20 yards into the opposition half.
On the ball, Mata was particularly unpredictable in his movement and alternated between the two flanks. But he and Herrera also threatened the central areas.
Indeed, after taking the ball off Walcott for the opener, Herrera played a one-two with Mata before finding Varela, and for the second goal it was Mata who played in Varela as he sprinted down the right. In the second half, Mata cut inside to release Rashford, who set up Herrera's strike. In other words, the two playmakers were involved in all three goals.
Arsenal lack final flourish
Down the other end, United appeared to be at risk when an injured Marcos Rojo was replaced by youngster Timothy Fosu-Mensah 10 minutes after the interval. Certainly when Ozil made it 3-2 on 69 minutes, you expected Arsenal to press on.
While United have a good defensive record at home, their backline consisted of two midfielders (Blind, Carrick), a right-back who last season played for Real Madrid's reserve team in the Spanish third division (Varela), and an 18-year-old debutant who didn't even have a Wikipedia page (Fosu-Mensah.)
Yet Arsenal created no big chances at all. Their only efforts in the final 20 minutes were two harmless headers from Giroud and Laurent Koscielny. Perhaps even worse, they never had the kind of possession near the box that allowed opportunities to be fashioned frequently.
Van Gaal succeeded in pressing high to hamper their build-up play and, looking at Arsenal's passes towards the end, the picture seems more indicative of a cautious opening than a desperate search for an equaliser.
That generally summarised an Arsenal display that left much to be desired, while Van Gaal could salute his youngsters as well as a successful gameplan.