Manchester City – Arsenal: Guardiola Outfoxes Arteta With Unorthodox Arrangement (1-0)
Manchester City were able to return to winning ways in the Premier League against Arsenal with a new system which featured an unorthodox distribution of roles for the players on the pitch. City’s new arrangement saw them have good control of the match, helped by their solid pressing and counterpressing. In the end Raheem Sterling’s first half goal proved to be the decisive one, allowing City to secure the three points.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
Manchester City have not enjoyed the smoothest start to the season so far, with just one win from three, albeit with three difficult fixtures. The win at Wolves on their first matchday was quite convincing, but they then fell to defeat at home against Leicester City with some bad defending on display. Then before the international break, City battled against the high intensity and man-marking of Leeds United in a chaotic game which ended in a draw.
Arsenal meanwhile had managed three wins from four in the Premier League prior to this match, alongside their EFL Cup progress. The opening day saw a dominant win over Fulham, followed by an unconvincing win over West Ham at home. They then lost at Anfield to an impressive Liverpool performance, before Mikel Arteta’s side won once again in slightly unconvincing fashion against Sheffield United.
Guardiola announced prior to the match that Kevin De Bruyne would be unavailable for this game due to injury. With their star man absent, City started with a midfield partnership of Rodri and Bernardo Silva. Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden took up the right and left flank respectively, while Raheem Sterling supported Sergio Agüero up front in what may have appeared at first as a 4-4-2 shape, but ended up being much, much more complex.
For Arsenal, their lineup suggested the familiar hybrid 3-4-3 system, which can turn into a back four when Arteta’s side have the ball. New signing Thomas Partey was available from the bench, but Arteta elected to start with Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka in midfield. Other important team news for Arsenal was in the front line, where Alexandre Lacazette dropped to the bench, replaced by Nicolas Pépé who scored as a substitute against Sheffield United last time out. This personnel change meant a more central role in the front three for Willian, allowing Pépé to take up his preferred right sided role.
Guardiola’s tactical twists
The most immediately interesting thing about this match was the evolution of City’s shape in and out of possession, and the distribution of player roles within. City’s starting shape with everyone in their nominal positions was essentially a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 arrangement, but this became quite flexible in both phases.
City in possession.
Firstly, in the defensive line, Guardiola surprised many by deploying Kyle Walker as the right center-back alongside Rúben Dias, meaning Nathan Aké was shifted out to left back, and João Cancelo starting from right back. The reason for this arrangement was likely for Walker’s recovery speed to be deployed in the channel that Aubmeyang occupies for Arsenal. This was indeed relatively effective, with Walker able to smother danger in this zone on a couple of occasions.
Cancelo’s role in possession was interesting. He would push inside into the right 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. often moving up between the lines, essentially occupying similar zones to the ones De Bruyne would usually move in if he were playing. His movement out of the backline left Walker, Dias and Aké as a back three initially.
However, often this was once again turned into a back four by either Rodri or Bernardo Silva dropping into a center-back slot. In these scenes, Walker, and Aké would sometimes occupy wider positions than one might expect for a wide center-back, and Dias would shift off to one side, opening up a center-back slot for one of the aforementioned midfielders to drop into.
Bernardo Silva’s adaptation to this role where he often ended up in very deep areas was impressive. He was lively and efficient on the ball, driving the team forward at times by carrying the ball through midfield with precise dribbling. He could still also push higher up in the left halfspace to occupy space between the lines.
Another interesting decision by Guardiola was deploying Foden in a wide role and Sterling centrally, when many would expect these players to play the other way around. Perhaps it is the case that Guardiola likes to have a left footed player on the left wing, in which case Foden fits the bill, even though it’s theoretically not his best position. Sterling’s central role gave him a lot of freedom in City’s attack, and he would often drop into deeper areas to support circulation.
Mahrez’ role was a fairly familiar one, tending towards the right touchline to use his one-versus-one threat against Tierney. In this sense, Cancelo’s positioning helped create a bit more space for Mahrez, as Bukayo Saka ended up moving up closer to Xhaka to mark him. Arsenal’s usual 5-4-1 defensive shape then often turned into a 4-4-2 shape due to Saka joining the midfield line.
City’s aggressive pressing
As usual, Arsenal’s game with the ball was heavily based around playing out from the goalkeeper. City tried to take control of the game by pressing them high up the pitch from their initial 4-4-2 arrangement.
When Arsenal faced Liverpool, it could be seen that Liverpool made sure to control the Arsenal number six space by having their striker Firmino covering this area alongside a central midfielder stepping up.
City seemed to have a similar strategic idea, as Sterling and Agüero would usually focus on controlling this space, rather than pressuring the Arsenal center-backs. This meant that it was often left to Mahrez and Foden to leave Arsenal’s fullbacks and move diagonally pressure the center-backs from outside.
Arsenal building against City’s high pressing.
Again, City’s flexibility was on display here, as they often shifted into a back three during pressing due to Cancelo pushing up to engage Arsenal’s left flank with Saka and Tierney. This essentially left Walker, Dias and Aké in a three-versus-three situation against Aubameyang, Willian and Pépé.
The role of Aké meant that City’s press worked slightly differently when the ball bypassed Foden and reached Héctor Bellerín. Instead of Aké stepping up, it was often the case that Bernardo Silva had to shift across from central midfield to apply pressure. This is a slightly unorthodox way of handling this kind of situation and in theory could have left City weak in the center of the pitch for follow up actions, but in reality they were usually able to manage the situation adequately.
City maintain control
Just after twenty minutes in, the decisive moment in the match occurred as Sterling was able to fire the ball past Berndt Leno on the rebound after the German goalkeeper had saved Foden’s shot. The situation arose after City had been able to build from the back, bypass the Arsenal midfield and catch the defense low on numbers. Prior to this, City had mostly controlled the game but not threatened too much.
In the second half, City’s share of possession was lower, but they managed the game thanks to their pressing and counterpressing, After losing possession, a team immediately moves towards the ball as a unit to regain possession, or at least slow down the pace of the counterattack. which allowed them to largely control the territory, even in the later stages as Arsenal chased an equalizer.
Guardiola’s main change to try and see the game out was bringing on İlkay Gündoğan for Agüero, which released Bernardo Silva to play higher up the pitch in a false nine A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. role, while Gündoğan played in midfield alongside Rodri. Shortly after, Arteta made his first roll of the dice, bringing on Alexandre Lacazette for Willian.
In the last ten minutes, Arsenal brought on more reinforcements in the form of Eddie Nketiah for Pépé, and debutant Thomas Partey for Xhaka. The changes were generally unable to have much impact going forward for Arsenal. In fact, probably Arsenal’s best chance of the match happened back in the first half, with Saka showing great individual skill to break through City’s defense and test Ederson.
Guardiola sought further defensive security in the final few minutes as Fernandinho made a cameo appearance in place of Foden. City were able to see the game out in relative comfort, giving them a much needed second victory of the season.
Yes! You can see where he made that sweet run! 🤩🔥
What a great performance from Joao!
— Manchester City (@ManCity) October 17, 2020
Guardiola will have felt that he needed to shake things up a bit after the first few games of the season, and he succeeded with this unorthodox selection of player roles. City were still not the chance-creation machine of previous seasons, but they gave a controlled performance and were good value for the win.
Arsenal played with intention and a coherent tactical setup as has been the standard under Arteta. However, they struggled to really get the upper hand in any phase of the game. In the end, City basically just had a bit too much for Arteta’s side.
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