Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal: By the numbers

A lot about this match played out like I expected before kickoff.

Manchester United are a pretty dreadful defending team, when Arsenal wanted to they were able to get the ball up the field against them without too much trouble. They are a pretty poor pressing team (this will probably change over the course of the rest of the season) and can be bypassed with short passing if the team keeps its cool with the short passing. They thrive on capitalizing on mistakes to create attacking chances but outside of those can really struggle to create dangerous moments.

My biggest prediction was the team that made the fewest mistakes would win, in the end, I think that was ultimately right with Arsenal being the more error-prone of the two teams.

Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal: By the graphics

Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal: By the numbers

17 – Shots for Arsenal, including 7 on target (tied for the most this season) and 1.3 expected goals (xG)

13 – Shots for Manchester United, including 9 on target (tied for second-most allowed and the highest as a percentage of shots allowed) and 2.0 xG (1.2 excluding the penalty)

55% – Arsenal’s possession in this match, tied for 4th highest this season

193 – Touches in the final third 5th most this season. Manchester United had 155

21 – Touches in the penalty area for Arsenal, 7th most this season. Manchester United had 20.

10.8% – Percentage of final third touches by Arsenal that were inside the penalty area, 2nd lowest percentage this season.

4 – Successful dribbles for Arsenal, the 5th time this season Arsenal have had 5 or fewer successful dribbles

21 – Progressive passes for Arsenal, tied for the 5th fewest they have had in a match this season. Manchester United had 28.

27 – Passes by Arsenal that were pressured by Manchester United, the fewest Arsenal have faced this season. Arsenal pressured 65 of Manchester United passes for comparison.

22 – High-pressure events by Manchester United, the fewest Arsenal have faced this season. Arsenal applied high pressure 28 times against Manchester United for comparison.

When I look at these high-level stats, it looks like a game that was roughly even and on balance if this match ended in a draw that wouldn’t have been an “unfair” result. What stands out to me is that the errors that Arsenal made seemed almost entirely unforced, and Manchester United were ruthless in punishing the mistakes. When teams are pretty even that is usually what provides the difference (plus it helps when the penalty you commit isn’t given some extra scrutiny but can you really expect VAR to help you twice in one match at Old Trafford?).

What stands out in this match was also how inefficient Arsenal were at getting the ball into dangerous locations. In the run-up to this match, Arsenal had gotten better in my view of using their possession with a purpose but regressed significantly at turning their final third possession into entries into dangerous locations.

That was incredibly frustrating because this was a match where Manchester United didn’t seem like a dominant defensive force but rather Arsenal seemed to mishit or not look to be aggressive when the chances presented themselves.

Passivity after scoring a goal strikes again

5 – Shots for Arsenal in the opening 14 minutes, 2 shots for Manchester United

3 – Shots for Arsenal for the rest of the half, 6 shots for Manchester United

49% – Possession share for Arsenal in the opening 14 minutes

36% – Possessions share for the rest of the half for Arsenal

84% – Pass completion rate for Arsenal in the opening 14 minutes, 88% for Manchester United

74% – Pass completion rate for Arsenal for the rest of the half, 84% for Manchester United

32 – Pass attempts in the final third in the opening 14 minutes for Arsenal, 10 for Manchester United

20 – Pass attempts in the final third for the rest of the match for Arsenal, 81 for Manchester United

78% – The field tilt (share of final third possession) for Arsenal in the opening 14 minutes

26% – The field tilt for Arsenal for the rest of the first half

12.2 – Passes allowed per defensive action in the opponent’s half in the opening 14 minutes, Manchester United’s was infinite as they had 0 defensive actions in Arsenal’s half to start the match

18.3 – Passes allowed per defensive action in the opponent’s half for the rest of the half, Manchester United’s were at 13.1.

59 – Starting distance in yards for Arsenal’s possessions in the opening 14 minutes of the match, Manchester United averaged 72 yards

77 – Starting distance in yards for Arsenal’s possessions for the rest of the half, Manchester United averaged 64 yards

This isn’t an exact repeat of what happened against Crystal Palace but it rhymes as they say about history repeating. Arsenal get an early goal and then become very passive and drop significantly further back with the line of engagement. Mikel Arteta says that this is not how he wants his team to play after going up a goal, I think I believe him too because there have been times where Arsenal haven’t done this, but it is becoming a worrying trend that the message is not getting across to the team.

The loss of total control in this match wasn’t nearly as bad as the Crystal Palace match, Arsenal were able to string together passes with 7 sequences of 5 or more passes after the goal, and 4 of 7 or more passes, what seemed to happen is that at the first hint of pressure the ball was launched up the field for Manchester United to start another attack. Watching the match there wasn’t anything that looked to me like a suffocating press for the whole match Manchester United registered just 22 pressures in the attacking third, which is the fewest that Arsenal have faced in the Premier League this season. Yet Arsenal struggled to play through it, Arsenal completed just 78% of the passes that started in their own half and that was significantly less than the 85% that my expected passing model predicted.

It really feels like Arsenal got caught up playing the shirt and stadium, rather than the actual team. Perhaps the memories of the mistakes at Anfield were in the back of players’ minds, regardless it was an issue and one that seems to happen with far too much regularity.

Arteta goes with experience in the double pivot

124 – Pass attempts (60 for Partey, 84 for Elneny)

86% – Pass completion rate (82%, 89%)

14 – Final third entry passes (5, 9)

7 – Progressive passes (5, 2)

1 – Penalty box entry pass (0, 1)

39% – Percentage of passes that went forward (36%, 42%)

2 – Shots (1, 1)

0.10 – Expected Goals (xG) (0.07, 0.03)

3 – Dribbles completed (3, 0) of 3 total attempts

8 – Progressive carries (7, 1)

3 – Turnovers (dispossessed plus miscontrol) (2, 1)

2 – Tackles (0, 2)

4 – Interceptions (2, 2)

10 – Ball recoveries (5, 5)

Arteta made a big call in this match with his double pivot choice going with the more experienced Mohamed Elneny over Sambi Lokonga. On the face of it you can see the justification, Sambi had struggled at Anfield (but bounced back nicely against Newcastle) and Elneny partnered well with Partey well against United the last time they went to Old Trafford.

I thought it was a mistake before the match for two reasons: 1) Elneny had played 63 league minutes before this start and had not really been an integral part of the team. 2) the performance that was good happened well over a year ago (November 1, 2020) and there wasn’t much other evidence of him and Partey playing together well after that.

In the end, I don’t think that Elneny was bad. He played a very Elneny type game passing at a high rate, playing things generally safe, running around a lot but not really doing anything of note. That being said, I don’t think that he was really supposed to do much more than that anyway, instead, his choice seems like one designed to unlock Thomas Partey to have a bigger influence on the match, and I’m just not sure that happened in this match.

Partey’s stats look decent enough, but there weren’t any wow moments and there were a few what are you doing moments where he gives the ball away or misplays a simple pass. He wasn’t the only player to not meet expectations in this match but the big changes to the team seemed designed more to increase his influence and it didn’t come off.


Sources: Opta via Whoscred, StatsZone and my own database. StatsBomb via fbref.

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Thanks. I haven’t seen any praise for Odegaard’s corner kicks here yet, so I just wanted to mention that they were excellent and on another day he’s have had an assist or two. But yeah, we were second best overall. The bad guys passed better and were just that more incisive. We missed Saka’s dribbles; maybe Pepe could have contributed too, but this did not seem like the sort of game he would shine in.


Yeah, it is insane how much better we are at corners than the last few seasons. Odegaard, Saka, and ESR have been top quality, and the movement by Gabriel and White (and Partey at times) to get on the end of them is exciting. We’ll score many more goals from corners this season, to be sure.

Bleeding gums murphy

We are in 19th place for big chances crested. One ahead of bottom club Norwich who are on 6. Something needs to change.


We’re in fifth.

Bleeding gums murphy

Ah I wish my friend you are looking at wrong season. Bournemouth and Fulham are still in league you are viewing. I was wrong though and we have moved up to 12 big chances created. We have are 5th from bottom.

Thierry Bergkamp (non negotiable)

Maybe he means league position


I am not sure that the passivity was as bad as Crystal Palace. I think that after our goal the number of bad passes went way up. Especially in our defensive 3rd. I think some of the numbers you shared echo that. Is that passivity or bad judgement – both?


I suppose when you drop deep it’s harder to play out from the back, because there’s no out-ball and the space in front of the goal becomes more congested. The best teams at playing out from the back are probably very aggressive in their positioning (Liverpool, City, etc).


I think the difference with the best teams like Liverpool and City, especially the former, is that they aren’t afraid to concede a goal. They don’t want to, of course, but it doesn’t hit them the same way it hits us, and I think that is down to confidence and experience. City and especially Liverpool know that they will score another, and likely another, time permitting. They ooze confidence and composure as a result. As we become better at putting our chances away, our confidence and the quality of our performances should mature.


That’s a good point, we looked terrified when we went behind and didn’t start playing again until we conceded twice. We didn’t have the belief that we could get another goal even though we obviously could.


Our press was pathetic once again. Is it actually a tactic to just have Auba chasing the ball around the forward line while the rest of the team play positioning?
“Our front players have to put people on the ball under pressure every single time…that’s what I demand”.
Maybe by this he literally means whichever player is our “front” man is expected to chase the ball around and that’s it. It’s beginning to look like that is the extent of our press. We put them under no pressure when playing out.

Wrighty’s hats

I saw a few times ESR was marking someone behind the halfway line when he really should have been marking their right back further up – you’re right, we should be marking and pressing as a unit from the front. Not to pick on ESR as I’ve noticed others doing it too, including Saka, Gabi, MO, Laca – all the guys who should be pressing high along with Auba. We do it sometimes all together (which is when it’s most effective) but most of the time just one or two players at a time. Then when whoever wasn’t doing it… Read more »


It’s too regular to just be players not listening. I’m becoming less and less convinced arteta is actually interested in a proper press. It played out in this game again (auba’s ineffective one man presses) and that’s the statistical trend on the season as Scott highlighted after Liverpool loss. I think he noted we’re 19th in the league in “pressues”. So what are we? A team trying to play a higher Tempo football while competing for possession control and executing no press. That’s a weird combination that doesn’t really mesh.


The squad needs to be deeper with better players.

We are getting there, but we will always struggle against the top teams when we have to fall back on average players that don’t offer competition to the first XI…….Elneny is a good example, yes he wasn’t terrible but he’s not good enough, along with at least 6 other players in the squad.

We need a dominant CM….Partey has been disappointing, maybe he needs better quality next to him


We have a more dominant CM. And atreta benched him.


Yeah, he should have played but he’s still young and learning – especially in the big games.

Zakaria or Kessie on a free, to replace Elneny, is a no-brainer


We have a young team. Konga has been awesome. He needs to play. Is this a developing team or do we fall back into the trap of “experience” in big games that has disappointed us for the last 5 seasons?


I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player play as badly, relative to their talents, as Partey last night. I don’t know what’s got into him. His judgement has gone and defensively he’s invisible… when he first arrived he was like a magnet for the ball, breaking up plays with his strength and aggression. Now he seems to drift around unable to make a difference. People can question Arteta’s decisions or not (personally I don’t think the decision to play Elneny really made a big difference, one way or the other), but it’s hard to legislate for such a talented… Read more »

Naked Cygan

The Tavares long throw at the end was priceless. I haven’t seen anything like that before.

Scott Willis

I had almost forgetten about that one.

A Different George

I am pretty sure the decision to start Elneny was so there would be a safe way to play if Partey were well-marked in the centre. Every team will try to force the ball to the fullbacks, especially Tavares, or to Lokonga, rather than allow a pass to Partey. Elneny solves that problem, because he is much less likely to lose the ball and makes it safer to play Tavares. If Partey had had a good game, then the decision to play both Elneny and Tavares would have been completely justified.


So essentially, If we won the decision the play Elneny would have been a good one. We didn’t and it wasn’t. A very winnable game against a very mediocre united team that had holes all through it that we failed to exploit and then what was meant to be a more structured midfield leaked chances like a sieve. Very disappointing result and compounded by ineffective substitutions. Why is Eddie even on the pitch for a minute over the rest of the season? Laca was useless and looked half engaged. Where is Pepe?! He may be crazily inconsistent, but at least… Read more »


Mental toughness is needed by every member of the team if we are to get something against any of the traditional big four we’ve lost against. The narrative that the team is young and needs time to blend bla, bla, bla,bla… doesn’t completely cut it for me, if you ask me. The other teams whose average age is more than our so called “youngest team” in the league that we are routinely defeating are holding up their own against this so called big teams that we tend to crumble against. A perfect example is Wolves defeating Man U. The problem… Read more »

Naked Cygan

We have been mentally a weak team since Vieira and Gilberto left. Wenger never really replaced them. Auba is a great guy, but I don’t see him as a natural leader out there pulling the team together. We need some strong characters out there that can lead this team when we are 1-0 up and 3-2 down. It also helps to have a manager who has a game plan.

Once a gunner

I hate to say it but fact remains that the only true leader in that is Xhaka, Tieney, Gabriel may be Lacazette


Tactics were poor. Clearly Arteta went with El-Partey for structure and we saw the opposite we were a large meshed sieve on the break. They cut us to ribbons – we played totally into United’s hands. Look at our positioning map. A classic Arteta doughnut with everyone poured forward and naturally we got exposed on the counter. Too easy. This one falls squarely on Arteta. He was poor in this game.


The numbers just solidify the feeling you get by watching the game.
We could shoulda won but we were to timid to do that.
Maybe Partey is used to do so from Athletico and he is drowning the whole team down…now that I think of it White Ramsdale Garbiel Tomi all are used to do that on their previous teams


The numbers confirm manure were there for the taking – leaky mids and defense, but we left ourselves far too exposed against their dangerous counters – I mean they have three of the best counter attackers in world football in that team (Ronaldo, Fernandez, Rashford) so we play Mo-Partey? Perfect game for Lokonga to pick that leaky manure team to shreads. The tempo was too slow and the attacks became all too predictable as the game wore on (Tavares crosses). I mean Arteta just got outcoached by Michael Carrick…yikes.


Passivity after scoring—that is one of the biggest areas for growth for the team this season. We will earn an additional 5-7 points by the end of the season if they can overcome this problem. Also, interesting to see how much more Ramsdale went to Gabriel rather than White. Wonder if building up through the left with Nuno and ESR was a tactical direction from Arteta…


It was very interesting to witness on the liveblog how there were a few people with one agenda only: to scold and berate Elneny at every opportunity. In fact many of the bashings he got didn’t even coincide with him doing anything you could berate him for. It looked like a campaign Russia would do on any Western online surface they want to spread a narrative on. And it was very sad to see how it worked. More and more people joined in with very simplistic, even primitive reasoning to back up why they jump on the bandwagon. It’s spectacular… Read more »


The narrative here and in the main blog seems to be that somehow Elneny was a reason we lost the game, while shit defending and Odegaard doing a Xhaka impression were the main reasons. I think a draw would have been fair. I don’t think many of us expected Arsenal to be at the same level as United this season, yet we are competing well with them, spurs and Leicester. I’m pretty happy with our progress, to be honest. Memories are so short, last season was dire in comparison


It’s not too blame Mo, he had a decent game, but he’s limited. Particularly with United sitting deep and inviting us on. We were beaten by old school, counter attacking tactics laid out by the genious Michael Carrick. We needed more penetrative passing from midfield (lokonga). If manure want to overload partey we need the other mid and creative players to take advantage, but with the ball forced through Mo we were forced into side to side play and ineffective crosses to an out of form striker who’s crap in the air anyway. That all was apparent at half time… Read more »


I like Elneny a lot for this exact reason, under appreciated, unnecessarily criticized, and misunderstood as a footballer. He’s a possession/retention guy. That is what he does and he does it with admirable consistency. Is he as talented and dangerous as Partey or Xhaka, no, not a chance. But he’s far more consistent than Partey and makes far, far less costly errors than Xhaka. He’s a solid value squad player and fans need to focus elsewhere when looking for the reasons we lost to United. It wasn’t Elneny. Truth is he was one of our better performers on the night.


I fully agree, but that impacts how we play. That’s not on elneny, he was solid like you say (and in the right situations he’s a really effective player), that’s on arteta – his tactics and team selection.


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