Manchester City – Arsenal: Defensive Mistakes Open The Door For City Walkover (3-0)
Both teams came to the game with adjusted defensive schemes and mostly familiar attacking shapes. Arsenal kept things relatively even in the early stages before defensive errors from David Luiz helped City into a comfortable lead, and the defender getting sent off on top of that. From this point, City could pick Arsenal apart with ease and add a third goal late on.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
The first Premier League matchday following the coronavirus lockdown and ‘Project Restart’ featured an intriguing matchup between Manchester City and Arsenal. From a narrative point of view, the game was especially interesting because it saw the first managerial clash between Pep Guardiola and his former assistant Mikel Arteta.
Both managers are advocates of positional play, and by all accounts they both share an incredibly high level of attention to detail in their coaching and analysis. Without Arteta on his bench, Guardiola also recently made the move of bringing his former mentor Juanma Lillo in as his new assistant coach. Lillo is very much one of football’s most interesting thinkers, so fans may also look forward to seeing what fresh ideas he might be bringing to the table for City.
City find themselves in a strange place in these upcoming games though. They have no hope of winning the title and – as things stand – are banned from qualifying for next season’s Champions League. They are, however, still in the FA Cup, having knocked out Sheffield Wednesday in the last round. Guardiola’s side will also be waiting on the resumption of the Champions League, where they still hold a 2-1 lead over Real Madrid in the round of sixteen.
Arsenal have no such European competition to look forward to as they found themselves beaten by Olympiakos in the Europa League. They are, however, still in with a small chance of qualifying for the Champions League next season, especially since City’s European ban likely means that fifth place will be enough to qualify. Arteta’s side are unbeaten in the Premier League in 2020, and before the lockdown managed to string together three consecutive league wins for the first time this season with wins over Newcastle, Everton and West Ham.
The headline news from Arsenal’s team selection was the exclusion of Mesut Özil from the Arsenal squad, with Joe Willock being handed a start in midfield alongside Matteo Guendouzi and Granit Xhaka. Eddie Nketiah led the line up front, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang starting on the left and Bukayo Saka on the right of Arsenal’s 4-3-3 shape.
Meanwhile for City, youngster Eric García started at center-back next to Aymeric Larporte as Fernandinho was left on the bench. Further ahead, İlkay Gündoğan supported Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva in midfield, while Riyad Mahrez, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling led the line in City’s 4-3-3 system.
City in higher pressing.
Relatively balanced start
In one sense, the game started unpleasantly for Arsenal, as Granit Xhaka was forced off through injury within just a few minutes of kickoff to be replaced by Dani Ceballos. In terms of the game’s flow though, Arsenal would have been relatively happy with the start, as the City domination that many would have expected did not materialize for a while.
Arsenal were not overly impressive but were able to keep the possession shares somewhat equal and overall prevented a pattern of City dominance early one. Arteta’s side often tried to build up from the back, albeit with fairly limited success against City’s pressing.
Guardiola’s team have shifted into a 4-4-2 formation when without the ball for much of the season, usually with one of the nominal central midfielders stepping up alongside the striker to form the two man front line and leave four in midfield.
In this game however, City instead stayed in their 4-3-3 shape, with the wingers oriented quite narrow. Mahrez and Sterling would make curved runs to try to cut the passing lanes between Arsenal’s center-back and fullback.
Gabriel Jesus would then drop back slightly to look after Guendouzi in the defensive midfield zone for Arsenal. The City central midfielders could flexibly cover Willock and Ceballos as well as applying pressure in wide areas.
Familiar attacking structures
The player roles in Arsenal’s attacking structure were relatively similar to the ones already assigned previously in Arteta’s time as manager. For example, in midfield the left central midfielder Ceballos would usually act a bit deeper as Xhaka would previously, while Willock had the more advanced role that Özil has played before.
Meanwhile, City were using something resembling the asymmetric 4-3-3 formation seen at several points throughout the season. Although Kyle Walker did have some high-speed excursions down the right side, he mostly stayed deep and narrow, either in the defensive line or moving up as a second defensive midfielder alongside Gündoğan. This familiar role was especially appropriate with Walker’s recovery pace well placed to combat the similarly rapid counterattack of Aubameyang if needed.
City in possession.
Mahrez then held the width on the right where he could receive switches of play A pass from one side to the other. as usual. This game also saw quite a few position swaps between him and De Bruyne though, as the Belgian drifted out to the wing while Mahrez went to the halfspace. If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace.
On the left, Sterling had a very free role and threatened with runs in behind across the Arsenal defensive line. Mendy provided the overlapping When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. presence while David Silva sought small-scale combinations where possible. Gabriel Jesus also dropped off the front line often.
Overall, there was a high degree of movement in the front line for City, which Arsenal struggled to deal with once they got forced back into their own third, City’s combinations in the final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. were quite strong.
Arteta’s defensive scheme
Guardiola was not the only one who had diverged from his usual defensive scheme. Arteta has also mostly used a 4-4-2 shape when defending with Arsenal this season. In this game though, he deployed a 4-3-3 shape that could also appear as a 4-2-3-1 when matching up against City’s midfield.
The matchup with City’s midfield was rather intentional. They firstly tried to mark Gündoğan as the deepest midfielder for City, either through Willock pushing up or Guendouzi, nominally the deepest midfielder, pushing forward towards Gündoğan.
Guendouzi was often given this task because of the roles of Willock and Ceballos. The aforementioned duo would track De Bruyne and Silva into deep areas in order to prevent them getting free between the lines, which of course left Guendouzi as the closest player to Gündoğan.
Particularly early on, Arsenal were not content to sit back as they looked to pressure City high up the pitch. Clearly though, this was not sustainable at a high level all game, and eventually they had to play deeper, where City eventually started to make breakthroughs.
City capitalize on defensive disaster
A second injury for Arsenal less than half an hour into the game had seen Pablo Marí leave the field to be replaced by David Luiz. In injury time in the first half, Luiz missed a seemingly routine interception of a De Bruyne through ball, allowing Sterling to volley past a helpless Berndt Leno.
Just five minutes into the second half, a long kick from Ederson was nodded into the path of Mahrez via Walker. Mahrez’ first touch took him past Luiz, who dragged the Algerian down in the box. The result was a penalty for City and a red card for Luiz. De Bruyne converted the penalty, which essentially ended the game with City now 2-0 up against ten men.
Arsenal switched to a 4-4-1 shape in which Kieron Tierney tucked in at center-back and Saka switched to left back. Arsenal’s four-man midfield now struggled immensely to deal with the overloads in this area from City.
Arsenal were unable to both press the City defensive midfielder and have sufficient cover to prevent passes between the lines. City’s attacking midfielders gave connections in the gaps between Arsenal’s midfield four and could break through at will.
Both teams made a raft of changes but the game was decided very early in the second half. City did also finish the game with ten men having already used all their substitutes before a rather distressing head injury sustained by García in a collision with Ederson. Eventually Phil Foden added the third goal of the game in stoppage time, giving City the 3-0 win.
City may not be title contenders as this season reaches its conclusion but they are still certainly an attacking force. After a slightly slow start, they showed their strengths going forward, helped by some poor Arsenal defending. Guardiola’s side also showed a slightly different, perhaps more aggressive pressing approach than they often have this season, returning to a 4-3-3 shape with narrow roles for the wingers without the ball.
Arteta’s Arsenal are still very much a work in progress. They came to the game with a proactive attitude but eventually fell short, with some suspect individual defending accelerating their downfall.
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