Manchester City – Arsenal: Aké’s Advance Sees City Succeed In Drab Dress Rehearsal (1-0)

The fourth round of the FA Cup began with an absolute cracker of a match, as Premier League leaders Arsenal took on second-placed Manchester City. These two teams have two big fixtures against each other lined up, so while this was a knockout match, it also felt like a dress rehearsal for the upcoming main events.

Tactical analysis and match report by Neel Shelat.

We decided to make this article free to read. If you want to support our work, consider taking a subscription.

The two protagonists of this season’s Premier League title race are yet to face each other in the league. Whilst they both – like any other side – were always keen to challenge for the FA Cup, their eyes are also drawn to a bigger prize. Still, this match was a lot more than a regular knockout. In previous seasons, we have seen the psychological impact the result of such a game can have on title contenders, so this definitely was not a total write-off.

There has been a lot of discourse lately about Manchester City’s season so far and how much it has been affected by their transfer business. There has been some talk of how the arrival of Erling Haaland and the consequent stylistic shift of their front line has disrupted things, whilst key departures like those of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko have not helped.

Of course, City’s loss has been Arsenal’s gain in some ways, as both Jesus and Zinchenko have donned red shirts this season. Both have had injury issues too, though (with the former out for this game for that reason), so credit must go to all of Arsenal’s squad for what has been an incredible season so far. Having played half of their league matches, they are on fifty points, and therefore seemingly on course for a century.

That is all very far away, so let us turn our attention to this match now. Both sides mixed some star power with supporting cast in their line-ups, but both also seemed poised to use tactical setups that we are familiar with.

Manchester City lined up in a 4-3-3 that becomes more of a 3-2-2-3 in possession. Stefan Ortega started in goal with the inverting Rico Lewis, John Stones, Manuel Akani and Nathan Aké in the back line. Rodri had Kevin De Bruyne and İlkay Gündoğan ahead of him in midfield, whilst Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish flanked Erling Haaland up top.

Matt Turner got the nod in goal for Arsenal with Takehiro Tomiyasu, Rob Holding, Gabriel Magalhães and Kieran Tierney as his chief protectors. Fábio Vieira, Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka made up the midfield. Leandro Trossard made his full Arsenal debut on the left wing, alongside Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah in the attack.

Holding out for hope against Haaland

As ever, Arsenal looked to defend high up the pitch, especially from goal kicks, and this time, they adopted a fully player-oriented approach. The trouble was that Manchester City were using a box midfield with four players in the region, and Arsenal only had three there.

The solution, of course, was to push one of the defenders up. Partey was following Gündoğan, so De Bruyne was the free player that needed to be dealt with. Initially, Gabriel stepped up to him, but Arsenal quickly realised that keeping the center-back in the back line was a better idea, so Tierney started moving central to follow the Belgian international.

With that, Arsenal’s shape out of possession in the high block phase became a 3-2-4-1. This matches City’s 3-2-2-3 in possession player for player, but there was one rather uneven matchup. Try and spot it:

22nd minute: Manchester City look to play past Arsenal’s 3-2-4-1 high block by using a long ball from the gaolkeeper aimed at Erling Haaland.

The issue was that Holding was hung out to dry against Haaland. The Norwegian striker outmuscled, outpaced and outwitted his man on numerous occasions in the first half, especially early on, so he was the best outlet for Manchester City. The good news for Arsenal was that whilst he did help his side advance up the pitch, they were not quite clicking in the final third, so clear-cut chances were not to be found.

Lewis tries to stretch Arsenal’s defensive shape

In all of his previous appearances for Manchester City, Lewis has been used as an extremely inverted fullback. This means that he operates in midfield through all phases of possession including the deep buildup, unlike a more normal inverted fullback who would start out wide in the first phase, and then slowly move inside as their team gets forward.

As we saw above, though, Arsenal had a plan to contain him as Xhaka stepped up and marked the young Englishman, so he was not allowed to see much of the ball in the middle of the pitch. To try and mix things up, he started moving out wide to receive the ball and try to stretch the opposition’s defensive shape. This shows up quite clearly in Manchester City’s passmap.

Another thing we can see quite clearly in this visualisation is that this did not quite work. Lewis’ movement out wide was countered by Trossard closing him down or sometimes even Tierney stepping up, whilst the rest of the defensive structure remained unchanged. So, each of Manchester City’s midfielders were still being marked out of the match, and they could not really break through Arsenal’s block.

What stands out most in this passmap is just how right-biased City were. This was mostly down to Arsenal’s defensive setup, as Nketiah initiated the press with a curved run from his right and therefore forced Ortega to go the other way. Further, with Tierney moving into midfield to follow De Bruyne, it seemed that the opening in Arsenal’s back line was on their left, so City attacked down the right to exploit it.

In truth, Manchester City’s approach to beating Arsenal’s press seemed about right, but what they lacked was the right profiles of attackers to make the difference in the final third. With Haaland being used as a target man and moves developing down the right a lot, it might have been really helpful to have a right winger who excels at making off-ball runs rather than a ball-to-feet player, which is what Mahrez is. Quite clearly, changes were needed in the second half.

Aké’s advances in a 4-4-2 formation make the difference

And changes we got! Arsenal brought Holding off at half-time and replaced him with William Saliba, who was a better match for Haaland. The home side took about fifteen minutes, but they then came up with a double substitution which also completely changed their in-possession approach.

Julián Álvarez and Kyle Walker replaced Mahrez and Lewis respectively, as City switched to a good old-fashioned 4-4-2 system. Walker was not doing any of that newfangled inverting, as he darted up and down the touchline instead. Álvarez moved into a more central role on the left of Haaland up front (from where he did often drop into midfield), so De Bruyne played on the right but mostly tucked into the halfspace and allowed Walker to advance as he pleased. On the left, Aké was a little more conservative in terms of his positioning, but he too got forward on the overlap at times.

Indeed, it was he who made the difference. After a move that saw Álvarez receive the ball in space between the lines, turn and fire a shot from range, Grealish collected the loose ball in the box. He held on to it long enough for the Dutch defender to get into the box, who then picked out the far corner with a composed effort on his weaker foot.

Not a lot happened after that goal in the 64th minute. Manchester City were able to establish control on the game as possession was split half and half thereafter, but Arsenal were not allowed to register a single attempt on goal. So, a close and cagey FA Cup tie with very few opportunities ended in a one-goal with for the home side.


Neither side seemed overly concerned by their fortune in the FA Cup fourth round, but in the end, the team that named a slightly stronger lineup won the match. Without a doubt, though, both are much more concerned with outdoing the other in the league, so that is what they will continue to work on now.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that we should be in for a couple of cracking league contests. Matches between Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta’s sides have always been very intriguing tactical battles, so if two slightly weakened teams came up with this, the battle between the big boys can only be even better.

Use the arrows to scroll through all available match plots. Click to enlarge.
Check the match plots page for plots of other matches.


Be the first to comment on this article

Leave a Reply

Go to TOP