All posts by Joel Shooter

Sports journalist focusing on football tactics, their usage in matches and how they have developed over time. @joelshooterfoot

Manchester United vs Arsenal

About 15 years ago, Manchester United versus Arsenal was the hottest fixture in the Premier League calendar. As the cliche goes, it’s the game you would be looking for as soon as the fixture list came out.

But nowadays, as much as the Sky Sports marketing team are trying to pretend otherwise, it just doesn’t have the same gravity.

The days of the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry are over, along with the two side’s title hopes for the foreseeable future. There are no furious wrestles for top spot in the Premier League, but a desperate clammer for the Europa League. 

The Solskjaer-Emery rivalry just doesn’t feel like it will have the same kind of bite to it. And it’s a rivalry that, should the current form of both sides continue to slump, probably won’t be around for much longer. 

Both sides currently sit outside the ‘top six’, but a win for the Gunners would see them fly up to fourth, behind Leicester City on goal difference. A win for United, meanwhile, would put them level on points with their London opponents.

The two sides have already met twice in 2019 since Solskjaer took over. The first was in late January, near the start of the Norwegian’s now baffling winning streak. It was a game and a result that actually felt like more than just United’s players being happy that someone with a nice smile had taken over as manager. 

Solskjaer displayed some real tactical nous. Jesse Lingard lingered in kind of false nine position, teasing the Arsenal backline. Romelu Lukaku would then use his pace and power to exploit this space, and drift wide to pillage the inevitable gaps left by Sead Kolasinac. 

It was a result that felt like it gave some real substance to United’s burst of form under Solskjaer. Something that showed that it wasn’t just a new manager buzz that was spurring them on. 

But fast forward a couple of months to their Premier League meeting in March, and the Red Devils slumped to a disappointing 2-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium. The wheels had come off whatever vehicle Solskjaer was at the wheel for. 

It was Arsenal’s first victory against Man United since May 2017, having lost three of the four games since. But now they seem the slightly more likely side to pip the points tonight based off recent form.

United capped off a disappointing 2-0 defeat to West Ham last weekend with a midweek scare against Rochdale in the League Cup. A strike from 16 year old Luke Matheson sent the match to a nervous penalty shootout, which United were able to edge through on. 

The signs aren’t encouraging for the Red Devils, although they were able to pull off what now constitutes as a surprise victory against Leicester this month. 

United have generally struggled in games which they’ve seen a lot of the ball, such as against Crystal Palace. But when facing teams that want to play and have their share of the ball like Leicester and Chelsea, the Red Devils have been able to release their counter-attacking weapons. 

This has the potential to trouble Arsenal’s defence, with David Luiz and Sokratis both struggling this season. Sokratis lacks speed and has looked shaky in possession, while Luiz’s recklessness has seen him punished several times already. 

Isolating both in one on one situations could see them struggle, although United will be without Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Both players’ direct running abilities would have been a serious danger to the Gunners’ centre back partnership.

Instead, it is likely to be Mason Greenwood who they will face. Unless Solskjaer decides that Lingard should be played up front, like he surprisingly did against West Ham. 

Greenwood has certainly shown potential and willingness to run at opponents, so if he can fully realise his talents against the Gunners then he could be a threat. 

But that is not to forget Arsenal’s own talents up front. Alexandre Lacazette remains sidelined but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicholas Pepe both look set to start, with Dani Ceballos in the team to help supply them. 

Arsenal’s front line this year is incredibly promising, in stark contrast to their defence. United, meanwhile, have bolstered at the back with Harry Maguire, who looks to be forming a good partnership with Victor Lindelof. 

But with Martial and Rashford injured and a lack of a creative attacking midfielder, the Red Devils look very light in attack. It will be a fascinating battle between two teams who have greatly mixed abilities throughout each of their sides. 

Leeds Blow Derby Revenge

It was the same old story for Leeds United at Elland Road for the Championship’s early kick off, as the Whites conceded in stoppage time to make it 1-1 against a Derby County side they had previously dominated. 

United bossed the first half, and took the lead through a Max Lowe own goal before Mateusz Klich put a second half penalty wide. That miss proved costly, with Chris Martin sliding in the Rams’ only shot on target of the game in added time. 

“I said to the players ‘stay in the game’ because the way they play – which is really good – they’re expending a lot of energy. To keep this going for 90 minutes is difficult I think”, said Derby manager Phillip Cocu. 

The Dutchman was proved right, as Leeds appeared to blow themselves out after a furious first half.

Marcelo Bielsa’s men went about their business in fine fashion pressing and haranguing Derby, making sure they barely got a look-in. 

Clear openings were slow to come by, but did eventually come as Jack Harrison saw his close range effort saved by Kelle Roos after excellent work from Stuart Dallas on the right. 

The opener was to come just a minute later though. A Kalvin Phillips free-kick was turned back across goal by the flailing leg of Patrick Bamford. Dallas arrived to turn it towards goal and although his strike was saved by Roos, it rebounded back in off the unfortunate Max Lowe. 

Dallas did nearly have his goal soon after as Roos turned over the Northern Irishman’s effort from the edge of the area, before beating away a Jack Harrison strike from a similar range. 

Bamford continued to struggle in front of goal for United after his early season form. The former Middlesbrough man blazed over the bar after being put through on goal at the end of the first half.

The second half saw then saw a completely different Leeds to the first. Perhaps it was the hot weather or the early kick off, but the home side looked sluggish after half time, and their previous intensity fell off a cliff edge. 

More fine play from Dallas on the right saw Bamford hit the post from close range a couple of minutes into the half, but from then on the Whites’ foot was off the accelerator. 

A quiet second half played out, before Bamford earned his side a pivotal penalty in the 69th minute. Pablo Hernandez played the centre forward in, and his weaving run into the Derby box drew out a clumsy challenge. 

Klich stepped up with a slow run-up, just as he had last week against Barnsley successfully. The run-up itself went well, selling Roos completely the opposite way. But Klich, almost comically, was only able to roll the ball the wrong side of the post. 

What was left of United’s energy reserves now seemed to completely dissipate, especially from Klich who had previously had a superb game setting the tempo in midfield. 

Derby began to ease their way back into it and shifted higher and higher up the pitch, with Leeds becoming increasingly bedraggled. 

The moment for the Rams finally came in added time. A ball from the right found Jamie Paterson on the edge of the area, who had made a positive difference for Derby since his introduction. 

He turned neatly and laid the ball on a plate for fellow substitute Martin, who cooly placed the ball past Kiko Casilla. 

Regardless of the fact that Leeds had slipped off in the second half, it was a somewhat undeserved point for County. Leeds will be ruing missed opportunities as more home points slip through their grasp.

Is Zidane What Real Need?

Just over a year ago, Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid were claiming their fourth Champions League in five years, and their third in a row. A far cry from the side that crumbled against PSG on Wednesday evening.

They managed to hold off a Liverpool side yet to reach the heights of last season, helped by two calamitous errors from Loris Karius.

This Real Madrid side that ruled Europe was packed with individual brilliance, from back to front. Yet, particularly in the last couple of years, it has felt as though this is a side lacking in the collective.

There was no particular style of football you could really label Los Blancos with aside from that of being a pure winning machine, which some may very fairly argue is the most impressive and important style of all. 

While their individual brilliance saw them through Champions League nights, it generally failed to sustain Real properly throughout a league campaign. Throughout their five year period of continental dominance, Los Blancos only won La Liga once. 

On the flip side, you have Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. A superb collective that can dominate over a season in the league, where a one off bad result can be bounced back from. But the chaotic nature of the Champions League knockout stages does not allow for such things. It’s hard to deny that there is a strong element of luck in pretty much all knockout competitions. 

At times, it has felt like fortune favoured Real. Spirited and deserving opposition performances were put to the sword with moments of fortune and brilliance. Overhead kicks have seemingly been a particular feature of Real’s recent dominance in the Champions League. 

And who could deny the wondrous ability of their players. A front three of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric creating in midfield anchored by Casemiro.

Even in defence, Real Madrid had more excellent attackers. Marcelo and Dani Carvajal probably spent most of their time in the opposition half, and Sergio Ramos’s goal threat from set pieces is admirable.

But this attacking brilliance felt like a problem lying in wait – a lack of coherence and defensive stability. Casemiro was thrown in at the base of midfield, but at times it appeared to be more like Pritt Stick trying to hold an aeroplanes wings on. 

There was a fragility covered up by superstar moments. Real’s midfield and attack had little defensive nous aside from their Brazilian anchorman. And Marcelo’s frequent raids forward left so much space in defence, not helped by Ramos’s instinctive drive to attack the ball. 

It’s miraculous that these weaknesses were never really exploited. It felt inevitable that they would be, and that the time would soon come to shift on Los Blancos’s brilliant but ageing stars. 

Now we skip ahead past their disaster of 2018/19, with Ronaldo’s departure and the chaos of Julen Lopetegui, to the present day back with Zidane. 

There has been some forward shift. Eden Hazard has taken up the number seven shirt, and Vinicius Junior emerged into the first team last season – a child of the 2000s. 

But in defence, there are still issues. Ramos is a conundrum – there is no denying his incredible and combative defensive ability, particularly in one on one duels. But he is reckless, often darting from his position and leaving space in behind him.

However, Real Madrid seem to struggle to cope without him. He was missing last night against PSG as Los Blancos fell to a 3-0 defeat. That was thanks to a two match suspension he picked up for deliberately getting a yellow card in the first leg of Real’s last 16 tie against Ajax. We all know how that second leg went. 

Nacho Monreal also being suspended won’t have helped Zidane and Real, but their failings in Ramos’s absence shows their reliance on individuals – be it through their ability or character. 

Ramos is far from the perfect defender, but he is an aggressive leader and Los Blancos seem to struggle without him. They also, of course, have struggled since Ronaldo’s departure. Not only have they lost his show-stopping moments on the pitch, but also the leading character of the Real Madrid blockbuster. 

Marcelo, for all his frankly laughable defensive lapses, also seems to be a missed presence when he is not in the side. Even when he hits crosses woefully behind their intended recipient, they get finished off via overhead kicks. Some of those sparking moments seem to be fading.

And perhaps this shows what the strength of Zidane was and is. Somehow fashioning this unwieldy band of superstars into a single minded and driven unit, capable pulling off spectacular moments to win big matches – matches they arguably sometimes did not deserve to win. 

But now there is a rebuild going on. The superstars from that team are dispersing, waxing and waning. Zidane has an entirely different task on his hand to when he first took up the Real Madrid job. Old structures will have to be knocked down for new ones to be built, and Zidane may not have the right managerial talents to do so. 

The Battle for Sixth

10 to 15 years ago, the Premier League was a far simpler place. The established top four were Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Generally, the excitement came from seeing what order those teams would finish in. 

Nowadays, we have a top six after the rise of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. And not just that, we appear to have a few more teams who are looking to gate crash the big boys. 

With the recent declines of United, Chelsea and Arsenal, sixth spot, at least, is starting to look like it may be up for grabs. One of the teams vying for it is Leicester City. 

Harry Maguire is 26 years old. He’s probably just about old enough to vaguely remember Man United’s treble, and certainly old enough to have grown up in a time when the Red Devils still dominated English football. 

It’s a frame of mind that may have stuck in his head over the summer, as he eventually got his £85 million move to Old Trafford. At the moment though, a move from Leicester to United could arguably be seen as reducing your chances of finishing in a coveted European spot. 

The two teams now go head to head on Saturday, and it is already looking like the match could be an important marker for both sides this season. 

The Foxes have some excellent players, and their midfield is packed with talent. Wilfred Ndidi has proved himself superbly in a holding midfield role, and Hamza Choudhury is developing into a fearsome player. 

On the more attacking front, Leicester have the talents of James Maddison and Youri Tielemans. Maddison adapted brilliantly from the Championship to the Premier League last season, creating the more chances than anyone else in the league. 

Tielemans, meanwhile, was arguably one of the most underrated transfers of the summer. The talented young Belgian impressed in the second half of last season, and has started this season in great form with a goal and an assist from his opening matches. 

Kasper Schmeichel is a fine keeper, and the Foxes have good options at full back with Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell. And who could forget Jamie Vardy, who has started this season excellently. Keeping him fit will be key to Leicester’s top six charge. 

Things seem to be coming together nicely under Brendan Rodgers at the King Power stadium. The same can’t really be said for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the north west. 

It would be foolish to label United’s squad as being generally limited. They still have David de Gea. Paul Pogba – for all that pundits like to slander him – is a brilliant player, and they have the talents of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford up front. 

But nothing seems to have really gelled for the Red Devils. Really, they are a counter-attacking side with two pacy forwards in Rashford and Martial combined with the superb long range passing of Pogba. 

But teams are happy enough to sit back against them. Maybe it’s a hangover from 10 years ago when you’d expect to be beaten by Manchester United, or perhaps most managers have cottoned on to the fact that if United have a lot of the ball, they tend to struggle. 

United lack any true creative presences further up the pitch. Pogba seems to operate better from deeper positions and while they do have a former No10 supremo in Juan Mata, his powers are fading as the pace of the game appears to be getting away from the Spaniard. 

All hope should not be lost though. Maguire and Victor Lindelof have the potential to become a solid defensive partnership, and their backline has been further strengthened by the addition of Aaron Wan-Bissaka. 

And then there is the form of Daniel James, who has exceeded all expectations. His first goal for United may have been a tad lucky courtesy of a deflection, but it seems to have given him great confidence and belief – he is now scoring fine goals for both club and country. 

But United cannot be solely reliant on Pogba hitting long balls to Rashford and Martial, and James smashing in screamers. They need to forge more of a style – perhaps they would be better off hunkering down and attempting to focus on counter-attacking. For the moment at least, they lack the personnel to truly dominate and successfully wear down the opposition. 

They come up against a Leicester side who have a highly technically proficient midfield, one that arguably has the potential to cut through most Premier League sides. 

Getting an edge over United on Saturday will be vital for Rodgers’ and his side, while Solskjaer will be looking to stop the rot at Old Trafford after just three wins in his last 16 games. 

Worries lie beneath England win

Gareth Southgate picked out England’s fixture against Kosovo as a real test for the Three Lions, and on that front he was certainly correct. 

Pitted against a nation that declared independence in 2008, had it’s national side accepted into FIFA in 2012 and were unbeaten in all five Euro 2020 qualifiers, England flapped in the first minute and went behind after a Michael Keane error. 

They quickly made amends though, thanks to the excellence of Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho. Five first half goals in reply saw the game effectively sewn up by half time. In attack, England have little to worry about. 

But after the break, Kosovo came out with fire in their bellies – a kind of fire that comes from being a proud new nation – and hit two goals within the first 10 minutes of the second half. 

Kosovo were admirable to watch. They turned up to the game with guns blazing, and were not afraid to throw players forward in attack. This was at times to their detriment though, as England’s scintillating attack tore up the other end of the pitch. 

Sitting back and soaking up pressure was clearly not the Kosovan game-plan, and their willingness to get in England’s faces rattled the Three Lions in defence. 

To say ‘in defence’ is a tad misleading, however. That would generally suggest that it was the act of defending was the main issue for England. It can be and the Three Lions’ defending is at times questionable, but that wasn’t the real issue of the night. 

The real issue was a sloppiness in possession, in defence. Kosovo’s first and second goals came from sloppy passes under a bit of pressure, first from Michael Keane and then from Declan Rice. 

There is a lack of surety in possession from England’s current central defensive trio – Keane and Harry Maguire in defence, with Rice the deepest lying midfielder. Keane and Rice both displayed lapses in concentration against Kosovo, and while Maguire is the strongest of the three he is not entirely unsusceptible. His poor defending led to Kosovo’s penalty.

What’s interesting is that all three had an excellent pass success rate – Maguire with 94%, Keane 91% and Rice 92%. But in key moments under pressure, when Kosovo got in their faces, they looked highly fallible. 

Kosovo caused England issues, and top level international teams could rip through them. Back in June in the Nations League semi-final, England found themselves more and more dominated by the Netherlands, crumbling in extra-time after two possession errors in defence. 

The culprit that day was John Stones, but England’s problems lie deeper than just lapses in concentration. There is a lack of coordination and movement to get the ball into midfield successfully, something which is hindered both by the man on the ball and his teammates around him failing to provide adequate options. 

What’s frustrating is that Southgate potentially does have the personnel to turn this around. England need more quality in possession but James Maddison, Harry Winks and Mason Mount are struggling to get a look in. 

Winks has fulfilled the role of a deep lying midfielder for Tottenham on many occasions now. Maddison created more chances than any other player in the Premier League last season. And Mount has been climbing above Ross Barkley in the Chelsea pecking order. 

But Southgate persists with a more technically limited midfield of Rice, Henderson and Barkley as the sole creative outlet. 

England need more quality in possession to cut out the silly errors and help build from deep to feed the forward line. They cannot be solely reliant on the brilliance of their attacking trident, who were able to run riot on Tuesday night but will likely be starved of service against stronger sides. 

Southgate has made it clear that he intends to play the ball out from the back, so why isn’t he utilising the personnel to do so? Injuries and lack of game time have hampered some such as Stones and Joe Gomez for this round of international fixtures, but Southgate has little excuse when it comes to the midfield. 

It is painstakingly clear what England’s problem is, yet little is being done to resolve it. The likes of Maddison won’t necessarily fix everything, but what is frustrating is that this solution has not been properly tested. 

Time is running out for Southgate to prepare for the Euros, and England need to fix this as quickly as possible.