Man U v Arsenal

31 01 2010

Although perhaps not the most popular player at the club, Nani played a central role in United’s victory over Arsenal. Constantly at the heart of attacking moves, Nani gave Gael Clichy trouble throughout. His inclusion in the starting eleven prompted a fair number of questions, but not only did Nani give his doubters something to think about, he showed Ferguson saw something most of us didn’t.

On the one hand you could argue that one good game on it’s own doesn’t have much value. Which, to be fair, is true. By that same argument it could be said the Ferguson got a little lucky that his decision to start Valencia on the bench paid off. But that doesn’t take into account how Manchester United approached the game.

According to ESPN’s Soccernet, United played 49% of their attacking football down the right flank. In addition, a look at the average position of the United players throughout the match show that there was continuous and intentional overloading of that side of the pitch. The image below is a screenshot of Soccernet’s Average Player Position tool, which for some reason flips the image, showing Nani and Rafael working on the left. I could have flipped it back manually, but then the numbers would have been backwards.

You can see Nani (17) occupying a very attacking position, high up on the right side of the pitch, leaving space for Fletcher (24) to slide over, knowing he was well covered by Carrick and Scholes in the centre. In addition you can see Rafael (21) positioning himself as more of a midfielder than a defencder, occupying a space on the right roughly in line with Carrick. Between the three of them they leave the Arsenal defence either outnumbered or dragged out of position.

Nani, Fletcher and Rafael causing trouble for Arsenal on the right wing. Unfortunately the diagram doesn't know left from right...

By contrast, you can see no such arrangement on the left. There is no obvious left winger according to the diagram, with Park (13) staying relatively central and just over the halfway line and Rooney (10) only marginally left of centre. This leaves Evra (3) as the widest player on the left flank, ready to overlap should the situation warrant it, but the focus of the United attack is clearly on the right.

Evidently it worked, and impressively at that. They managed to embarrass this Arsenal side and cause Clichy no end of trouble. Nani may have played wonderfully today, but it was in a system designed to allow him to shine. Taking nothing away from his performance, and of course Rooney’s though that seems to go without saying at the moment, Ferguson deserves a good deal of credit for the way he sent out his team tonight.