Charles Onwuakpa provides a detailed tactical analysis of the Premier League game between Manchester City and Arsenal that ended 3-1.
No European team this season can boast the kind of form Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are in right now. The league leaders came into this game after a strong 2-4 win in last week’s Champions League match against Napoli.
Arsenal, on the other hand, had suffered a frustrating 0-0 draw on Thursday vs Partizan and looked to improve their away form after trashing Everton with a five-goal haul.
Manchester City picked their regular starting XI throughout the last five gameweeks with Kyle Walker and David Silva regaining their usual positions in Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3.
The surprises came from the visitors instead: Francis Coquelin was handed his first start in the Premier League since May, while upfront Alexis Sanchez was given a more advanced role with Mesut Özil and Alex Iwobi acting as inside forwards in what turned out to be a 3-4-2-1 formation.
Manchester City (4-3-3): Ederson; Walker, Stones, Otamendi, Delph; De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Silva; Sterling, Agüero, Sané.
Arsenal (3-4-2-1): Cech; Koscielny, Coquelin, Monreal; Bellerin, Ramsey, Xhaka, Kolasinac; Özil, Iwobi; Sanchez.
Arsenal press high initially
Wenger was probably expecting Fabian Delph to tuck inside as an inverted full back, which would have eased Arsenal’s man-to-man approach with automatic player references when pressing: Sanchez would have pressed Stones (and Ederson if needed), with Iwobi and Özil respectively closing down on Walker and Otamendi while Ramsey and Xhaka would have picked up Fernandinho and Delph -had he tucked inside, that is.
Guardiola, who always tinkers with his tactics, probably expected this kind of press and therefore asked his full backs to stay wide. Wenger’s men were now facing dilemma: press high or stay compact?
Özil in particular was caught in the middle of Delph and David Silva: had he pressed Otamendi, City would have automatically generated positional superiority by picking out one or two free men behind him, in the worst case the Spaniard, exposing Xhaka to a dangerous 2vs1 in centre midfield.
Otamendi is the free man here above (City are creating positional and numerical superiority).
Arsenal chose compactness, retreating into a 5-4-1 defensive shape: City could now control possession better at the back as well as manipulate their opponent’s shape, as explained later on.
City break in numbers
City though were very lively in the first 15 minutes, especially when they could hit the counter: they were good in pressing and recovering the ball quickly, which allowed City’s attacking unit to storm the penalty box in numbers during attacking transitions.
City are in a 6vs5 attacking transition with De Bruyne having three passing options in front of him.
The energy and pace at which City bursted forward was so high that it was quite frustrating for the home side how many chances -Sterling in particular- their players were wasting.
Arsenal were not always sharp when playing out of the back, so they often used Sanchez as a target man upfront, without much success though (he was dispossessed 7 times).
De Bruyne’s goal
City took the lead in the 18th minute thanks to a fantastic strike from Kevin De Bruyne, who has been outstanding for the club so far this season: the positional awareness to recognize space and the technical composure he showcased with his weaker foot are indeed impressive.
De Bruyne plays quick one-two combinations which give him time to attack the vacant space, such as in this situation behind Ramsey.
The goal proved it enough for the first half in which the visitors had had struggles in their defensive unit, especially with Coquelin not so comfortable in his libero role for this game.
While Arsenal did well in negating central spaces, this didn’t bother City as they were able to play penetrative passes but lacked the killer ball to wrap up the game.
Another area City had identified as a weak point in Arsenal was the space behind Monreal: they tried to take advantage of this by keeping Sterling wide, with the English winger looking to run in behind the Spaniard, just as in the situation which lead to a penalty for Guardiola’s side. The pace and momentum of Sterling when hit by Monreal’s nudge was always going to penalize the Spanish full back.
The penalty came very early in the second half and City slightly turned off as they conceded possession.
Wenger went for a more direct approach by bringing on Lacazette for an anonymous Coquelin & moving to a 4-2-3-1 system: this solution allowed Iwobi and Bellerin to combine on the wing and later on create space between Delph and Otamendi which allowed Lacazette to pull one back for the Gunners.
City soon woke up and started attacking once more as substitute Gabriel Jesus netted home their third goal of the game via an assist from David Silva (who though received the ball in an offside position).
Despite Wenger bringing on Giroud and Wilshere, therefore moving to a 3-4-1-2, in order to rescue a point, the game had been all-but-put to bed.
The result in the end seemed fair although City’s second half goals didn’t give a clear perspective of their dominance: they were the better side of course, but in general seemed sluggish in their final pass and a bit tired after so many games throughout the last three weeks.
With Manchester United losing vs Chelsea, Guardiola’s side seem to be in for a one horse title race now as they lead the Premier League table with an eight-point advantage.
Arsenal, on the other hand, suffered another away defeat against one of the top six and must look to bounce back in their next fixture: the north London derby.