Manchester City – Arsenal: Heavyweights In Constraints (0-0)

Eight center-backs, deep 4-4-2 formations and little shot activity. It’s Diego Simeone’s dream, but take a look closer and it’s a title-swaying game between Pep Guardiola and one of his former assistants. Just how did football end up in this position?

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

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For a league that sells itself as anyone could beat or compete with anyone, a trio of teams battling for the crown has been long overdue. Mikel Arteta has been making amends against his former professor, but that could still not be enough: although this being the last meeting between any of the three held massive magnitude.

This also isn’t to say that Arteta is still any form of an apprentice. Man City scored seven goals in their two meetings last season, in both the community shield final and the reverse fixture, the only guy that scored for City no longer plays for them. It’s Arsenal’s defense that has taken the limelight for their title charge, but in recent weeks, elements of the attacking flair from last campaign have come back into the picture. Martin Ødegaard and Bukayo Saka pack the punches from the right, but combinations between Kai Havertz and Gabriel Jesus could change the axis of the attack too.

Could this draw blood past the City armour? With both John Stones and Kyle Walker out, due to injuries sustained on international duty, Guardiola was without two ever-present figures in his defensive safety net. But there is a reason that City have picked up the reputation that they have built, come the second half of the season inevitability does start to come (even if the performances don’t always follow.)

Guardiola made two changes from their last game, a 2-0 win over Newcastle United in the FA Cup. Walker was replaced by Nathan Aké and Jérémy Doku came out for Kevin de Bruyne. Stones was fit enough to make the bench, but Ederson was still unavailable between the posts, Stefan Ortega kept his place in goal.

Arteta made just one change from their shootout success against FC Porto. Gabriel Jesus came into the forward line, replacing Trossard.

Arsenal shows their defensive muscle

This was never going to be a game about one system conquering the other, it was going to be what countermove was in place, to go against the countermove, that triggered the countermove, that Guardiola and Arteta set for one another. From City’s goal kick distribution, Joško Gvardiol and Manuel Akanji remained high and wide to keep Saka and Jesus away from the first line of pressure. This had more effect on Jesus as Bernardo Silva moved infield, whilst Phil Foden continued to stay wide on the touchline on the opposite flank.

From the start, Mateo Kovačić operated to the left of Ortega, staying on the left corner of the penalty box. With Aké and Rodri positioned further ahead of Kovačić, City used the pass to Kovačić as a safety route to disable the Arsenal high press. Even though this put pressure on Kovačić and towards this channel, it did create distance for Ødegaard and Havertz to pile on more intensity towards this channel. Saka was the man to approach Kovačić, and as Gvardiol dropped a touch deeper to create a passing lane, movements between De Bruyne and Foden were designed to create separation for the vertical pass back inside.

6th minute: City’s deep build versus Arsenal’s press. Kovačić sat towards the left side of Ortega and movements between Foden/De Bruyne attempted to open up Arsenal. But the intensity of the press put pressure on Gvardiol and both Rice and Saliba moved into positions to stop the vertical pass from connecting and to mop up the loose pass.

However, Arsenal had two of the best defensive options to disrupt this ball back inside. When pressure was applied from Arsenal’s right side, Declan Rice zonally covered the area that Silva and De Bruyne/Foden were trying to receive in. Gabriel covering Haaland also enabled William Saliba to step out of the defensive line and stop the vertical pass back inside from the left. With Rice leaving Rodri to zonally cover, and Jesus being dragged deep and narrow, it left room for City to circulate back towards the right side and move towards the opposition half.

Although City managed to get the ball far up the field, it did not mean that spaces inside were open. Arsenal were heavily compacted between the lines in their 4-4-2 formation, City still kept Akanji and Gvardiol out wide as they were the players with the most space, but access back inside was not available for City, even if Silva and Akanji situationally rotated their positions.

17th minute: Defensive pattern within Arsenal’s deep block. Central passes are blocked for Rodri, so circulation goes back towards the left and Arsenal matches this by pressing outwards to deny any form of access back inside. White steps out of the defensive line knowing he has zonal coverage around him to block of spaces behind him.

Jesus and Saka were comfortable moving back into the defensive line, which enabled Ben White and Jakub Kiwior to be more advantageous out of a narrow position, covering the halfspace movement that City’s attackers were trying to make. With Havertz and Ødegaard dropping more deep, players surrounded Rodri’s area and did not give the Spaniard space to dictate in the final third. Furthermore, Kovačić nor Rúben Dias were moving that far with the ball on their side, to try and shift Arsenal’s defensive block out of its shell.

City attacks fell into tedious patterns, circulating around Arsenal’s block and trying not to tread too far, so the back three remained regimented in their positions. As a result, the ball would only enter the box following crosses from the sideline and Arsenal had more than enough bodies to bat these crosses away.

City try to launch attacks earlier

Another defensive change was enforced on Guardiola, as Aké was replaced by Rico Lewis just before the half-hour mark. This resulted in the right side of the defensive line shifting one position to the left and Lewis taking up the right-sided role, but City changed the dynamics of their attack to try and harm Arsenal earlier.

It was Arsenal that was having the cleaner shots towards goal, thanks to the right side being assisted by White’s third man runs to make a cross towards the back post. The problem for Arsenal was that they had so little of the ball that they only fashioned this twice in the first period, two attempts for Jesus that ran wide of the post.

City tried to utilize more dribbles within their deeper buildup unit, which saw Rodri and Kovačić take up positions further up the chain and more players drop into the vacant space left behind to create a free man in the center. This did see Kovačić slalom behind Ødegaard as Silva joined the central circulation earlier, and the tempo of the attack would build as City built more spaces in the middle third.

32nd minute: Player rotations in the middle third, which led to City attacks increasing in tempo. Three-man combinations enabled Kovačić to break the first line of pressure, but the move still saw Arsenal have a massive defensive overload and the attempted pass through to Foden was overhit and claimed by David Raya.

However, they were still facing issues with the construction of their attacks. In this period, City abandoned the right side of the attack, Jesus and Kiwior could stay within the narrowness of Arsenal’s defensive structure. Although City was moving Silva and Lewis into central spots, the deeper dribbles and combinations were only being conducted through Rodri and Kovačić, so players stayed deep without engaging with the ball and fewer runs were being made against Arsenal’s last line. On top of this, the passes that were being threaded through were well anticipated by Saliba and Gabriel, who were excellent at defending the center zone.

City also tried to release long balls towards Haaland’s path (no, this is a team managed by Pep Guardiola.) and positioned Kevin de Bruyne deeper to disrupt the positioning between Saliba and Gabriel. However, this did not disrupt Arsenal’s defense enough, as Kiwior, Jorginho and White were all in a position to defend the second ball and support for Haaland was not in the best areas to sustain momentum. Just four measly shots apiece as Arsenal’s defense came out on top, but positioned too deep to create a consistent threat.

Restrictions keep restricting

Positioning within the pivot space changed once again for City, as Lewis was more central between phases and Rodri started to stick on the same line as Dias, whilst Akanji moved back onto the right sideline. As Kovačić moved back onto the left of the build, this created one of Arsenal’s closest chances to opening the score. Foden’s wall pass put Gvardiol under intense pressure from White and Saliba found Ødegaard, as Saka was making his classic out-to-in run inside of the fullback, Kovačić in this place. Saka squared the ball back along the six-yard line, but Jesus’ foot was just out of reach.

51st minute: City circulation that put them under threat. Wall pass from Foden to Gvardiol had City pinned and facing a numerical disadvantage as both Saliba and White followed the receivers; Arsenal collapsed onto this space. They entered the box but could not find a connection at the back post.

From that point, Kovačić was positioned on the same line as Lewis and Foden continued to drop back to support Gvardiol when Saka tried to press high towards that corner. City continued to restrict Arsenal on the ball, but Arsenal continued to restrict City off the ball: moments did break for De Bruyne to dribble after a long ball from the halfway line, but this was only to shepherd him out on the right side where City were forced to circulate the ball again.

Rather than the fullbacks, Guardiola wanted the two wide players in space to be his silky, ball-retaining wingers who came off the bench. Jack Grealish and Doku replaced Foden and Kovačić, and City started to pin Arsenal deep for longer periods again, but this isn’t to say that they were more dangerous. In fact, the most space that opened up came on spontaneous moments of counterpressure and quick deliveries back into the box came from it, Arsenal continued to swat these attacks down.

Arteta bolstered the defense up, as Takehiro Tomiyasu replaced Kiwior and Jorginho was replaced by Thomas Partey. With Grealish and Doku on the field, you would expect City to retain the ball for long periods against a deeper defensive block, but events did not pan out in this manner for the final quarter of the game. Arsenal’s long goal kicks led to two phases: either a City transition back against a retreating backline or small phases of circulation on the halfway line would be produced by Arsenal.

Up to this period, Arsenal was incapable of cleanly breaking through the lines, aside from the two earlier phases through White on the right. With five minutes left, City attempted to counterpress and Partey was able to break the lines to find Ødegaard between them. Substitutes Trossard and Gabriel Martinelli made wide runs towards the goal, and Trossard was found on the left. Perhaps a ball across towards Martinelli could have opened up a more dangerous chance, but Trossard tried to manoeuvre around Akanji and took his shot from an acute angle, saved by Ortega.


It’s no surprise that the game mapped out as it did, having seen two occasions between these two already follow a similar path. City is still well in the run, but not having beaten a team within the top five is an unusual turn for the treble winners. The result is more beneficial for Arsenal, but it’s their run-in that still poses some very tricky hurdles.

A game can be both high quality and boring. The cautiousness of Guardiola and Arteta took the reins, putting the restrictions that only they could place on each other and leaving with great expense as a result. Klopp is the ultimate victor and the more risk-taking coach who has Liverpool ahead of both of them.   

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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