Arsenal – Manchester City: Something Old, Something New, Three Points Borrowed, League’s Sky Blue? (1-2)

Contrary to all expectations, an emboldened Arsenal fired their best shot at Manchester City. Familiar self-inflicted damage undid their hard work, but the outcome reflected a hard-fought victory for a side whose stars are aligning towards another Premier League title.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

At the start of the semester, Mikel Arteta risked expulsion. Pointless, goalless, and rock bottom of the Premier League, Arsenal were in turmoil at the end of August. Yet, his body of work soon regressed to the mean. Runs of results threaten to climb the standings, but patchy streaks point to the volatility of a project centered on homegrown youth. Even at their best, top spot in the class feels a mile away.

Pep Guardiola’s men are far from resting on their laurels. Remastering the art of total domination, they ended 2021 in the same ruthless form they began the calendar year. Embarking on a 10 game winning run, a fourth under the tutelage of their manager, faltering steps from rivals have merely roused them to widen their gap at the summit of the table. No room was spare for mercy toward his former protege.

A positive COVID-19 test forced Arteta to delegate control to his assistants at the Emirates Stadium on the day. Nevertheless, the choice of the lineup still fell firmly in his remit. In the end, the starting eleven had a familiar outlook. Rob Holding dropped to the bench in place of Takehiro Tomiyasu. The summer signing played on the right of the back four, and Ben White rekindled his partnership with Gabriel Magalhães. So would the men responsible for the end to last year now step up to the plate?

Turbulence of a much more violent kind shook Manchester City ahead of this fixture. Key figure João Cancelo was subject to a robbery at his home where he suffered facial injuries. Yet, the polyvalent fullback still took to the field from the off here at right back. Further afield, Rodri sat at the base of the midfield in place of Fernandinho while Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez acted as the wide men.

Lethargy lets down the favorites

At half time, City had controlled 65% of the play, giving the impression of dominance. A similar offensive structure was on show to the game against Brentford. The back four rotated to create an asymmetric back three. Left back Nathan Aké stayed next to the central defenders while Aymeric Laporte shifted centrally. Indenting from the right, Cancelo operated at a similar height to Rodri.

Manchester City’s asymmetric offensive structure from the first half.

Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva switched sides, featuring in different zones. The Belgian finalized attacks from higher in the left halfspace in the final third, whereas his teammate had a broader radius of action from the right. However, City barely exerted control in the way one might expect. Once in a while, Cancelo, Bernardo and Mahrez triangulated on the right flank to cut through the halfspace. But these scenes were sparse since Pep’s men could not pin Arsenal back into their box.

A more conservative orientation in light of fatigue shone a light on several defects. Above all, the relentless counterpressure of City hardly came to fruition. In turn, Aké endured a torrid day against Bukayo Saka on the break. Yet, for all its relevance to the dynamic of the contest, too much focus on the flaws of the favorites would detract from the quality Arsenal showcased.

Arsenal’s ammunition amps up the pressure

Working from a 4-2-3-1 shape, Arsenal stifled the threat of their esteemed opponents. From the front, Martin Ødegaard often moved forward next to Alexandre Lacazette to form a 4-4-2 block to press Laporte. The striker oriented himself to the left and Xhaka mainly swept across to mark Rodri. The wingers adapted their roles to the asymmetries on the flanks. On the right, Saka kept an eye on de Bruyne, forcing him or Sterling to receive the ball once he shuttled out to Aké. On the left, Gabriel Martinelli based his work on Cancelo, looking to avoid acting too passively around the right back.

Whether pressing high or in their half, Arsenal exhibited far more collective intensity and aggression entering duels. Tomiyasu would always pop out at speed if Aké sent the ball out wide, stopping Sterling from facing the goal. Moreover, more broadly, a better sense of balance between delaying, covering, and pursuing ball carriers controlled actions on the right where Mahrez pinned Tierney.

2nd minute: pressing sequence from Arsenal. Saka forces Aké inward, Tomiyasu hassles de Bruyne, and the rest of the team generate compactness in the halfspace while Martinelli detaches.

Arsenal’s sterling work translated to their play on the ball. Inconsistency might have plagued his tenure in North London, but Thomas Partey excelled here. He turned away from pressure effectually, while his ball carrying contributed to his team’s strength in transition. Arteta’s men repeatedly picked up pace switching the play from right to left, culminating in a well deserved opening goal.

The ball ran from back to front like clockwork, teeing up Tierney. The fullback drove into the left halfspace, breaking the lines to find Saka. His strike on the half hour mark beat Ederson, putting City on the back foot. Arsenal drew belief from the goal, resisting into the second half, but it was all too good to be true. City’s inroads on the right told eight minutes after the restart.

Catastrophic capitulation

Latching onto a pass from Mahrez, Bernardo darted through the halfspace to break into the box. The midfielder cut to the outside of Xhaka, before making the most of contact to fall to the ground. Taking a controversial lifeline, Mahrez stepped forward, dispatching a strike into the net. 1-1 on 56 minutes.

But the next turn of this dramatic phase almost returned the initiative to Arsenal. A long ball from Aaron Ramsdale set off a series of aerial duels that culminated into Saka bearing down on goal. In an attempt to sweep up the danger, Laporte guided the ball into Ederson’s path. Cue mayhem. Aké cleared a looping header off the line from an empty net, then Martinelli rifled an effort off target.

All of a sudden, matters fell apart at the seams. Ederson weighted a pass to Jesus on the halfway line. The striker chested the ball to his right, swiveling past Gabriel. Bundling into his compatriot, he had amassed a pair of yellow cards in mere minutes. The referee’s red card reduced Arsenal to ten men.

Rodri records the fatal blow

Echoing the 5-0 loss at the Etihad, Arteta’s men were a man down, forcing them to adjust. Swapping Ødegaard with Holding, a 4-4-1 block emerged. Ten minutes later, a second alteration saw Lacazette make way for Emile Smith Rowe. Martinelli led the line upfront, while he played as a midfielder in a 5-3-1 formation where Xhaka dropped into the back five as a left sided center-back.

Following the trend, their 5-3-1 setup did not collapse here. Pep moved Bernardo to the nine role, brought de Bruyne to the right, and put Ilkay Gündogan in his place on the left, but few clear chances arose. The game was heading to a draw save a grave error in its dying embers.

90 + 3rd minute: buildup to Rodri’s goal: White and Tomiyasu fall back to cover Laporte, splitting the defense. Holding is slow to cover the room in depth, offsetting his body shape to clear the ball.

Blocking a Cancelo effort from a short free kick routine, the hosts clung on manfully. City picked up the second ball, working the play to de Bruyne on the right flank. A 3-on-2 on the last line was under control, but Rodri ran off the back of Holding, letting his teammate dagger the ball into the box. Red and white shirts repelled Laporte, but Rodri slotted home the rebound. Winners always find a way.


A competitive performance from Arsenal was paramount in light of their run of form. Though Arteta’s men were not on their first streak of wins over lowly outfits, the goal count and crisper patterns gave spectators more optimism. Classically reckless blunders may have stunted their flow this time around, but the continuity of confidence into a contest with the runaway leaders bodes well for the near future. Ties with Liverpool in the Carabao Cup and on the road at Spurs remain daunting. However, if they put their best foot forward, Arsenal can at least relish the challenge of raising the bar in the new year.

Conversely, City emphasized why the league trophy will probably be adorned with sky blue for at least one more year. Off the back of shaky displays at Brentford and at home to Leicester City, fatigue at the backend of the Christmas schedule has taken a toll. Yet, Pep’s men found a way at the death where Chelsea and Liverpool did not, extending their lead to 11 points. And a clash between second and third means one thing is clear. The holders are firmly in the driving seat. Catch them if you can.

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"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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