It was always going to be a tough task for the Gunners as they faced off against Manchester City on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium. Guardiola’s men came into the contest in red hot form having won their previous 17 games. City were strengthened even further by the return of Kevin De Bruyne, who has been eased back into the fold after a hamstring injury.
Matchups between Arteta and Guadiola always promise to be interesting from a tactical perspective. With each coach knowing the other well and trying to throw in wrinkles to surprise the opponent and gain an advantage.
In this game, however, it was Guardiola who got the better of his friend Arteta. City took the lead within the first 2 minutes of the match. After that, while they did not score another goal, they never really let Arsenal back into the game.
Once again, we saw that defensive solidity is the key for Manchester City this year. In Sunday’s contest, they kept their 15th clean sheet of the season – the highest total in the league. Stones and Dias again proved a formidable partnership, but the intelligent pressing from the frontline and an outstanding display from Fernandinho in the midfield made them very difficult to play through.
City Dominates Early, Finding Overloads and Dragging Defenders
The first 10 minutes were dominated by City. Their positional play and fluidity caused all kinds of problems for Arsenal.
Here is their general shape in possession. Cancelo moves inside to form the double pivot with Fernandinho. Leaving a back three of Zinchenko, Dias, and Laporte. The outside center back on the ball side (in this case Zinchenko) is allowed to move further out towards the wing. As we see often with City, Sterling and Mahrez stay very wide to the touchline to provide the width while Gundogan and De Bruyne occupy the half-spaces. Bernardo in this case is the free man; able to move across the pitch to create overloads and find spaces (this job is done by De Bruyne at times as well). The heatmaps below are a good indicator of how City’s attackers play. Mahrez and Sterling maintain the width while De Bruyne and Bernardo are constantly moving throughout the pitch.
As I have highlighted in the image above, City are content to completely vacate the space occupied by a traditional Center Forward during this phase of build-up. City look to drag Arenal’s Central Defenders out of position before making runs into this space. City’s attack is very fluid with players interchanging and making runs to exploit spaces and create numerical advantages.
City find success early and often in 1v1 situations down the right side with Mahrez. This is what leads to the goal in just the 2nd minute of the contest. City are able to create these 1v1 situations for Mahrez by creating an overload on one side of the pitch – dragging defenders with them – before quickly switching the play. ‘Overload to Isolate,’ this has been a staple of Guardiola teams over the years and it was effective in the early stages of the match against Arsenal. These situations are made possible by the intelligent movement of Bernardo and De Bruyne who are key in creating overloads.
In this play, Bernardo and Cancelo come across to create the overload on the left side of the pitch, dragging their defenders (Xhaka and Saka) with them. This leads to a 2v1 scenario on the right side, after Fernandinho finds Mahrez on the switch. De Bruyne then overlaps Mahrez before crossing.
We see the same principle at work again just a few minutes later, however this time its De Bruyne who comes over to create the overload. Once again Mahrez keeps the width on the far side.
This time the overload-to-isolate concept leads to Mahrez in a 1v1 situation against Pablo Mari after the ball is played across. This nearly leads to a 2nd Manchester City goal.
Arsenal’s Risky Response
As the xG indicator shows, Arsenal where able to slow City down after the first 10 minutes of the game; keeping them relatively quiet for the rest of the half. Part of this is due to Manchester City not being clinical in the final third, but also because of the changes Arteta made to the defense.
In response to the positional fluidity of City, Arsenal opted for an aggressive and fluid defensive structure of their own. The two holding midfielders (Elneny and Xhaka) frequently dropped into the backline to cover for the two central defenders (Mari and Holding). Mari and Holding would often push high up into the midfield to track their man. This, of course, is a bit of a risky tactic, and without proper communication could leave Arsenal open and exposed. There were a few occasions early on where the communication between CBs and CMs was not sufficient, and gaps were left open in the backline.
Here, Arsenal are still working out how to play in this system. Xhaka pushes high to cover Bernardo and Holding steps out of the backline to cover De Bruyne.
Later in the same play Gundogan pulls Pablo Mari out of position and higher up the field as well. This spells danger for Arsenal, because neither Elneny nor Xhaka are in position to cover the space left by the CBs. De Bruyne realizes this and intelligently makes the run in behind off the shoulder of Holding.
Fortunately for Arsenal, Dias is not able to find the run of De Bruyne, but the warning signs are there. If the ball is played to De Bruyne he has a good chance of scoring himself or crossing to Sterling for the 2nd goal.
Here is another case where the aggressive positioning of the CBs causes trouble for the Gunners. Mari is in a very advanced position in order to mark Bernardo. Xhaka is initially marking De Bruyne.
But as Dias carries the ball forward Xhaka makes the mistake of leaving De Bruyne to pressure the ball. De Bruyne is then the free man and is found by Fernandinho with plenty of space to advance the ball into.
The backline is exposed after this run from De Bruyne. As you can see, Mari and Xhaka are high up the field still, while Elneny has failed to cover the space vacated by Mari and is now on the wrong side of Gundogan. This leads to another 1v1 for Mahrez and an attempt on goal that, luckily for Arsenal, was blocked.
Using this aggressive man-for-man defense is a risk; one small mistake or momentary lack of focus by a player can lead to a chance for the opponent.
However, as Arsenal’s CBs and CMs became more comfortable in this system, the tactic began to work by denying City the numerical overloads in midfield that they had early on. In this example, Holding follows Bernardo into the space and doesn’t allow the ball to be played in to him. Zinchenko is forced to play backward and recycle the ball. Elneny this time is goal side of Gundogan and able to cover the space vacated by Holding.
Similarly, here Holding steps out to prevent ball progression to De Bruyne and Elneny is in the right position to cover Gundogan’s run.
When De Bruyne receives the ball a few seconds later, Holding is close enough to deny the turn and De Bruyne is not able to progress the ball forward.
Guardiola said post-match that, “Arsenal were so clever, they were almost man to man in the build up and left you with just the keeper.” He also stated, “after [the first 15-20 minutes] they were better than us.” While I think Pep is being a bit too humble here in his comments, it does go to show that Arteta’s formula made it tough for City to play their usual game. The problem for Arsenal then was that they were not able to create anything going forward.
Arteta should be given some credit for sorting out his players and giving Arsenal the platform to get back into the game. However, with such a heavy focus on defending, Arsenal did not offer much of a spark going forward. We will see in the next section how City were able to suffocate Arsenal and effectively kill the game.
City’s Defensive Tactics and Arsenal’s Lackluster Attack
Manchester City defended superbly throughout the match, limiting Arsenal to very few chances. When City pressed high, they used a staggered 4-2-4 shape. Early on, they found success pressing high and aggressively. This high press forced Arsenal to go long out of the back and the Gunners never really could establish a rhythm in possession as a result. As the game wore on City were more content to sit further back and not press so aggressively; they finished the game with a PPDA of 16.53 (on the higher side for City). Here is a look at how City setup defensively in the first phase and how Arsenal responded.
Arsenal struggled to find their midfielders between the lines as the front four were adept at covering; they were therefore able to effectively eliminate Saka and Elneny from the first phase of Arsenal possession. Fernandinho behind them had a great game as well. He was able to cover multiple players in his zone effectively. He started deep enough that he could help with long balls into Tierney and Aubameyang but was also able to step to Saka at the inverted LM position and prevent him from turning on the rare occasion that the ball was played through the first line. The 35-year-old Brazilian led City in tackles won, aerial duels won, and interceptions.
Here is an example of Arsenal attempting to play out of the press via Bellerin down the right. As you can see, City’s front four are pressing high and do not allow the ball to be advanced through the middle. Fernandinho maintains good distance to Saka making any pass into him a risky one. Bellerin is the Arsenal player with the most space.
However, once the ball is played out to him, City are extremely quick to shift their positions. De Bruyne moves off of Elneny to pressure, while Gundogan steps up to do the same. Fernandinho also shifts closer to the middle to provide the cover. Bellerin then turns the ball over, unable to handle the pressure.
Unable to play through City’s press effectively, Arsenal typically looked to play long. They primarily played down the left-hand side as you can see in the chart below.
This makes sense for the Gunners as Saka and Tierney have regularly been their most effective attacking players this season. Tierney would push very high up the field on the left touchline, while Saka would move infield to become an auxiliary Central Midfielder looking to win the second ball in support of Tierney or receive the ball through the lines. Aubameyang moved near the left-side half space to support the ball forward as well. While Arsenal were able to break through using this left-hand side on occasion, the final delivery from Tierney was lacking and nothing ever materialized.
On this instance, Xhaka’s pass beats City’s front four and Saka is able to receive in space between the lines. Fernandinho this time is not close enough to prevent the turn.
This breaking of the lines leads to a 2v1 situation with Tierney and Saka down the left side. But the final product from Tierney was not good enough to threaten City’s defense. Saka was Arsenal’s most dangerous attacking threat, but he was not able to get on the ball enough and this was one of the few cases where he had a chance to run at City’s backline.
City stuck with the 4-2-4 shape until they were deep inside their own half, at which point they would move to a 4-5-1 shape, looking to eliminate spaces between the lines and keep solidity in the middle zone. This became more important in the second half as Arsenal started to have more of the ball in search of the equalizer. City were able to control the latter stages of the game with great defensive solidity and ball possesion.
While Arsenal made some interesting and effective adjustments to get back into the game, they never really looked threatening in the attack. This is a testament to City’s solidity at the back and the effectiveness of their pressing game. Maybe other teams around the league will look at Arteta’s formula as a potential option to slow down Guardiola’s men moving forward this season. But City’s dominance in the first part of the game and their 1-0 advantage was enough for 3 points in this case.
As City have shown repeatedly throughout this season, defense will be the key to their title run. Guardiola may have been quick to heap praise on his former protégé after the game, but he too deserves credit for fixing some of the issues City faced early on in the season. They now look all but certain to finish as champions once again.