Diamonds are indestructible. Well that’s what is widely believed. However, for one of the hardest substances on earth, the right amount of force in a certain place can break it.
A thin girdle (the edge around the circumference of the stone) or a shallow crown, the top face of the diamond, makes it more vulnerable to damage. If hit the right way a diamond can break. That’s what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer found at half time against Arsenal on Sunday.
It was all shiny when Manchester United switched to a 4–3–1–2 at the Parc des Princes against PSG. The change of shape in the second half jammed the center of the pitch, making it harder for Neymar and Angel Di Maria to play through. Giving Manchester United the upper hand in the remainder of the game.
Keeping the shape in Europe resulted in a 5–0 thrashing of RB Leipzig. Julian Nagelsmann’s post match comments to DAZN regarding the diamond was a bit peculiar. He stated that he hadn’t expected United to play a diamond in midfield, having not played one in the league before. They didn’t in the league, but the 2nd half of the PSG game should have alerted him.
It did alert Mikel Arteta though going into the weekend’s game. Arsenal played their customary hybrid shape but it was more about the movements, pressing and the marking that made it difficult for Manchester United’s diamond.
The quartet of Manchester United were matched with an Arsenal quartet and with only two central midfielders in Thomas Partey and Mohamed El Neny, it was Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s role to complete the equation.
Partey and El Neny man-marked Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes respectively. Up front, Lacazette regularly dropped onto Fred, while Aubameyang mainly blocked the passing lane into Scott McTominay and to a lesser extent dropped to mark him. The idea was to prevent Manchester United from progressive passing through the midfield.
Against this type of marking, a solution could be to exchange positions to confuse the opponent. But Arsenal knew when and when not to switch markers. Here, Partey is readying to press Pogba with Lacazette dropping onto Fred.
When Pogba and Fred were exchanging positions, Lacazette pointed out to Partey to keep his position to track Fred as Lacazette moved to press Pogba. This maintained the state that Arsenal were seeking throughout the game.
At other times Arsenal stuck to their markers. El Neny picking up Bruno Fernandes, Partey moving up to be close to Pogba, Lacazette dropping onto Fred and Aubameyang ready to move towards McTominay in case the ball was played towards him.
Once Bruno Fernandes moved out to attack a vacant space, El Neny followed him. Dropping deeper was Mason Greenwood followed by Rob Holding.
With Holding out of position there was space for Manchester United to attack, but the space which Bruno Fernandes and Pogba were trying to attack was denied by El Neny and Partey. The Arsenal duo in midfield were aware and stuck to their makers. Therefore, even if United reached Bruno Fernandes or Pogba from this position, they could easily be pressed by El Neny or Partey. In this scenario, the pressure Greenwood was under resulted in him losing the ball and Lacazette who was dropping to mark Fred managed to collect the ball and start the offensive transition.
El Neny man-marking Bruno Fernandes meant that horizontal movements from the Portuguese dragged the Egyptian with him vacating space in midfield. In the first half, Greenwood tried to utilize that space by moving to the center of the pitch. Once he did that, one of Gabriel and Holding would move out to track him. Eliminating the concept of the free man that Manchester Untied were trying to implement. All that while Aubameyang and Lacazette were eliminating the options of Fred and McTominay.
Another example here showcases Holding moving up to the center of the pitch to mark Greenwood who moved inside as Bruno Fernandes — outside of the picture — was on the right side, marked by Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney.
In the second half Manchester United switched to a 4–2–3–1 with Pogba out on the left. Arsenal however kept the same marking system with a small tweak. Hector Bellerin assisted Partey in picking up Pogba to keep the Ghanaian in midfield and deny Manchester United space centrally.
When Pogba moved inside, it was pretty much the same as the first half. Partey on Pogba, El Neny man-marking Bruno Fernandes, Lacazette dropping onto Fred and Aubameyang keeping busy with McTominay.
The switch of the markers was there as well when needed. Here, El Neny is marking Greenwood who dropped in midfield, while Tierney is picking up Bruno Fernandes due to proximity.
United’s lack of options forces them to circulate, giving Arsenal time to return to their original marking scheme. Out of the picture here El Neny was marking Bruno Fernandes, meanwhile Tierney moved out in case Victor Lindelof played the ball into Greenwood’s path.
And when it came to Lacazette-Aubameyang it was more of the same. The duo were marking United’s now double pivot, preventing passes into them and pressing them when allowed. Aubameyang’s early chance in the second half originated from this marking scheme. Lacazette pounced and won the ball ahead of Fred…
…then Aubameyang’s positioning centrally meant that Lacazette could find him easily. Aubameyang’s curled effort hit the back of Lindelof. Had it not, it would have proved a tough ball for David De Gea.
Despite the switch back to 4–2–3–1, Manchester United felt clueless. The lack of movement and an organized attack in possession have been Solskjaer’s main issues since his arrival. The change of a static shape without the required automatic combinations is like changing your faulty SIM card from one phone to another. The line will still have issues.
As for Arsenal, they managed to nullify Manchester United while keeping their structure and avoiding the creation of holes in the back line that could have been exploited by the pacey Marcus Rashford.
The trajectory of Arteta and Solskjaer started at different times, but it’s quite clear who is maintaining the bigger slope.