United’s opening goal against Arsenal was a beautiful thing.
It wasn’t just that all 11 players scored, and it wasn’t just that United managed to get past Arsenal’s defence. It’s about how they created that situation – four back passes and then back to their goalkeeper from the level of the opposition box. This is the perfect embodiment of the value of retrogression.
The interesting part of the transfer begins with eventual striker Anthony against two Arsenal players. The Manchester United winger made a few strides, but it was the Arsenal player’s positioning that was more important in this case. All 11 players were back within their own three-point range, with little to no gap between the two lines. It’s hard to see how United can play in such a deep, tight box.
So Anthony did the right thing. There is little point in throwing a hopeful cross into a box here. He fell back to Diogo Dalot.
Dalot, in turn, stepped back slightly to Rafael Varane, who then passed the ball to Lisandro Martinez. True, both are lateral passes, but both bring the ball closer to United’s goal than the one they are attacking.
Then there’s the most obvious back pass – Martinez, who since joining Manchester United is clearly keen to be as forward as possible, he’s been returning to David de Gea.
And, at this point, traveling Arsenal fans cheered sarcastically, slightly echoing the Manchester United fans cheering Anthony’s footsteps. Arsenal fans are making a point – look where you are.
But oddly, United have taken Arsenal where they want to be. De Gea returns the ball to Martinez…
…Now, look at the shape of Arsenal. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it – it’s roughly like Mikel Arteta wants Arsenal to be in this situation.
But Jesus has moved 60 yards on the pitch and there is now a huge gap between United’s lines. The ball went to Tyrell Malacia and then to Christian Eriksen.
And, all of a sudden, Arsenal looked nervous. Albert Sambi Lokonga has come forward to try and shut down Eriksen. Granit Xhaka watches Scott McTominay in the infield. Arsenal’s defence was arguably not tight enough, so Bruno Fernandes was free to get Eriksen’s ball at his feet. Sure, it’s a good pass, but the real genius comes up front – stepping back to open up space to move forward.
Fernandes receives the ball and Marcus Rashford runs behind. This was crucial, not only because it affected William Saliba’s position, but also because it briefly forced Gabriel to retreat. Note that Gabriel was on the edge of the center circle when Fernandez received the ball…
… but, in response to Rashford’s run, he moved back three yards…
…which means he’s not close enough here to win the ball. It was a foul but the referee took advantage and the ball rolled over Sancho. Now, it feels like a very familiar situation for Eric Ten Haag’s team – they are about to move the ball from side to side and have already sucked the opponent to the side as if they were in As in the opener against Liverpool.
But first, it’s worth looking at Arsenal’s defence. When Anthony got the ball in the corner, they were well organized. Now they are in very bad shape and Gabriel has been eliminated.
So Sancho passed the ball to Rashford, which prompted Arsenal left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko – realising left centre-back Gabriel was out of position – to dart in and close him. Anthony in the distance is already calling the ball.
But that extra pass put Zinchenko in a bind. Rashford, the 11th player to touch the ball at Manchester United, passed the ball perfectly to Anthony…
… 30 seconds after he touched the ball before him and passed it back to McTominay, he could finish past Aaron Ramsdale for the first time.
Starting in Anthony’s footsteps, from him to McTominay, Varane, Martinez, De Gea, Martinez, Malaysia, Eriksen, Fernandes, Sancho, Rashford, Anthony . Only Martinez was involved more than once.
But more important are those back passes, which United are happy to take from the edge of the opposition box to their own and then push back.
It’s an increasingly common feature of top-flight football – Maurizio Sarri’s style of play is based on breaking into space when in possession, and when they have the ball in the back rather than in the opposition’s half, his team feel more dangerous. Antonio Conte’s Tottenham Hotspur team have also started to focus on this type of football – scoring a few goals by breaking through possession when they won 3-2 at Manchester City last season, he A video was posted on Instagram questioning why people were describing the goals as “counter-attack” goals.
Whatever you call these goals, it’s a perfect testament to the value of the back pass. United move Arsenal onto the pitch, then go through them, then move Arsenal to one side and take advantage of the space created on the other side. It’s hard to imagine United scoring goals like this in previous seasons. The era of ten witches is definitely coming.