Attrition. It was, at times, little more subtle than trench warfare; Manchester United’s ambition bent, it seemed, on the utter destruction of the visitor’s rhythm. The strategy worked, of course, negating the visitors’ superior technique to a series of personal physical duels and tactical battles at set pieces.
Indeed, United’s performance against Arsenal on Sunday was every bit an orchestrated David Moyes’ game plan; one borrowed, template and all, from so many Everton matches against superior opponents over the past decade.
In that Moyes will take much satisfaction. After all, the Scot has received plenty of criticism over the past four months, not least on these pages, where the manager’s conservative tactical approach, and seeming distrust of technical players, has frustrated. Now, with victory over the Premier League leaders to his name, Moyes can approach the coming months with renewed confidence and genuine belief.
Indeed, United’s win against the Gunners brings Moyes extra satisfaction, not least because of the considerable groundswell of media opinion that seemingly had Arsenal already crowed Premier League champions, and United destined to drop out of the Champions League places altogether.
Meanwhile, in the stands United supporters sang themselves hoarse, generating an atmosphere rarely matched in recent seasons. One inspired both by United’s predicament this season and the opponents. This was not, as some prominent Arsenal fans have blithely put it, ‘United’s cup final’, but it was certainly the biggest and most pivotal match of Moyes’ short reign in Manchester.
“We could have been 11 points behind, so now we’re in a good position. It was a big win, a real six-pointer,” admitted match-winner Robin van Persie.
“We are right in the mix, which is what we wanted. We knew what the other teams had done before us, and realised that it was a must-win game. It is different because of the way Arsenal play. They have a really specific way of playing, which I know of course, so you have to play a slightly different game to beat them. We did really well to close everyone down. It makes a big difference.”
Yet, there is also an unnerving sense of collective giddiness in a desperately needed victory. While the result fell United’s way, the performance was focused on work ethic, structure and spirit, and not the kind of attacking flair many Old Trafford regulars crave. Or, to put it another way: only a stepping stone to the level of performance expected.
The data provides some insight. On Sunday the Reds secured just 40 per cent possession in making 393 passes against Arsenal – around two hundred short of the same fixture last season. Meanwhile, Moyes’ side completed a criminally low 74 per cent of passes, driven in part by the deliberate predilection for simply gifting possession to the opposition in the latter stages. Little wonder the side created just chances in total, with two shots on target, including van Persie’s goal.
By the end, with Marouanne Fellaini on for the match winning Dutchman, United resorted to simply punting the ball long in the manner of a comatose pub side, still reeling after the night before the morning after. The 59 long-balls launched skyward represented 15 per cent of United’s total – coincidentally around the same amount played by ‘long-ball’ side Stoke City against Swansea City at the weekend.
To put some of the data in context, 12 months ago against the same opposition Sir Alex Ferguson’s side made 572 passes, at 86 per cent success rate, securing 48 per cent possession in the process. The result: Ferguson’s side created 14 chances, with six shots on target.
And while agricultural tactics might have been a specific plan for the Gunners’ visit – a highly successful one at that – much of the aforementioned antipathy to passing has become a pattern this season.
Still, Moyes was understandably jubilant in the aftermath. It was, after all, the biggest win during the manager’s short time in Manchester – potentially a campaign changing result at that. One which could proffer the Scot greater freedom to find his team.
“It’s another step in the right direction for us,” said the 50-year-old.
“We have got a lot of big steps to take here. It is going to take a while for me to get it all the way I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it puts out any statement. Everybody for years has known how good Manchester United have been. My job and the team’s job is to make sure that we do that again. We know that we are going to get a few bloody noses along the way.”
In fact momentum coming out of the Arsenal result should serve the Reds well in the months to come. True, United’s visit to Tottenham Hotspur in early December may prove disruptive, but as a general rule there are few terrors this side of the New Year. It is an opportunity for United to close the five-point gap to leaders Arsenal, before a January run that includes fixtures against Chelsea, Swansea City and Spurs again.
In that there should be little doubt about the impetus Sunday’s victory brings. Despite performances rarely sparkling this term United will surely be in contact with whomever is leading the Premier League by the turn of the year.
“We knew we had to win today at all costs,” said striker Wayne Rooney.
“It was the toughest we have been to play against and to break down. We defended really well and, thankfully, Robin got the goal for us. We could not afford to lose today. We knew a victory would put us right back in there and in a great position.
“It has given us a massive lift going into the international games. We’ll all go off to play for our countries and then come back as we’ve got a big push then until the New Year. That’s our aim.”
But in winning – “a marker” as defender Chris Smalling put it – there is also a risk. That the manner of victory, ground out through a defense-first approach, becomes the new normal.
After all, United’s propensity to throw away possession, to create fewer chances in past seasons, and to score less goals is significant and real. At the same stage last season the Reds had scored eight more goals and secured nine additional points, in winning nine of 11 fixtures.
And while the points total required to secure Premier League victory in May is likely to be less than the 89 United obtained in the past two campaigns, Moyes’ side is on course to top just 70. It is the genuine risk associated with a strategy that has often sought to contain first and attack second.