Individual mistakes let down a progressive Arsenal against Manchester City – tactical analysis
The Christmas and New Year’s Eve of the 2021-22 Premier League season was not the same this year with a lot of games being postponed due to the outbreaks of Covid-19 at almost every club. Most of the teams haven’t reached their halfway mark yet in terms of games played due to this. Amongst this, there were some interesting matches still taking place with one being Arsenal hosting league leaders Manchester City at Emirates Stadium.
Both Arsenal and Manchester City are in very good form at the moment with each of them are looking increasingly likely to achieve their goals for the season – which are to win the title and finish in the top-4 respectively. But this game could have had a huge bearing in both the race to the title as well the top-4 where if Arsenal slipped up it could open opportunity for the likes of Spurs and Man United to catch up and if City dropped points, it could be a positive result for Liverpool or even Chelsea who are trying to catch up to them.
Arsenal made one change to the lineup that beat Norwich City 5-0 on the boxing day with Tomiyasu coming into the side for Rob Holding and Ben White shifting back to his RCB role.
City, on the other hand, made three changes to the lineup that beat Brentford where Foden, Fernandinho and Jack Grealish made way for Raheem Sterling, Rodri and Riyad Mahrez respectively as Pep decide to rotate his team while also retaining the backline for this clash.
Arsenal’s front foot start gave them a deserving lead
Arsenal weren’t afraid to take their game that they usually would want to play under Arteta against City and set out exactly to go toe-toe with the defending champions. The key things were playing bold and being brave in possession, pressing City higher up the pitch to force turnovers and transitioning with guile and purpose.
Their 4-2-3-1 system shifted to a 4-4-1-1 out of possession, with Odegaard behind Lacazette mostly looking to mark the CDM of City, Rodri. Lacazette would often look to press the ball-holding CB by himself and if he couldn’t he would at least look to cut the passing lanes to the other CBs.
We can see in the above image how Arsenal set themselves without possession of the ball where we can see Odegaard marking Rodri while Lacazetter pressing the ball-carrying CB harder looking to force a turnover from him. The key thing to be noticed here is the positioning and staggering of the other 4 players behind the two as they have superbly spaced themselves leaving no passing lanes behind open and remaining compact. The wide players like Martinelli and Saka have also got a proper body orientation to ensure the wide pass receivers are maintained in their cover shadow.
Lacazette pressing the ball holding CB was pretty much key to Arsenal stopping City from stopping their central progression from happening. If that didn’t happen, City would find the chance to easily move the ball upfield and had the quality and instincts to find players in spaces through their CBs. We can see that in the image below where Lacazette is not pressing Laporte which means that he is able to reach and play a pass to Bernado Silva who make a dynamic movement forward.
When Arsenal decided to go toe-toe with City, they would be knowing the fact that most of the duels they contest will be 50-50 in the match and all of them need to be won else they would be punished badly by their opponents’ quality. This exactly happened, at least in the first half, where Arsenal were able to win their duels in these types of situations which would result in a turnover and transition immediately. They went with a man-man press higher up the pitch as we can see in the image below.
The players were positioned perfectly in these situations where the forward players were close to their markers while the slightly deeper players in the middle third maintained the distance so that it would result in a pressing trigger as City would look to make a pass to that free player but Arsenal’s defender would be stepping in at the right moment to win the ball back. We can see how in the image below they have a man-man with 2 City players and both of them need to be one where it would lead to a transition or would lead to City entering the Arsenal final third.
They would use the flanks especially really well and would ensure that the ball is one back after they suffocate City in these regions. We can see in the image below where City are forced to move the ball into the flank after finding it difficult to penetrate from the centre but Arsenal are one step ahead in setting another pressing trap here with the City players covered and marked very well and passing lanes being closed as well.
In possession, Arsenal were brave and also very direct when they had or won the ball back from their opponents. They hit the right channels made runs or passes into the right spaces to move the ball up forward very quickly.
In this game, both the full-backs were pretty much used high and wide when they had possession compared to the games before where usually Tomiyasu would probably play as an inverted full-back. He would also go wide in those games but against City, he played like a normal full-back providing width for his team and looking to play crosses from wide. This was particularly done to overload the final line and stretch the City defence laterally.
Tomiyasu moving forward gave City a lot of issues especially with his ability to play passes with both of his feet. Even with numerical disadvantage Arsenal’s full-back was able to string in play passes that moved the ball into dangerous zones for his team.
City’s uncanny issues with and without possession
While Arsenal were really good until the red card, City themselves did have some issues and made some strange choices both in and out of possession. The first thing was the positioning and the role of Bernado Silva. Pep usually instils a rigid and structured game plan with his players carrying specific instructions throughout the game and having specified roles too. But Silva in this game had a very free role that looked very different as such. Playing as an RCM in their 4-3-3, Silva often moved to the left wing to combine himself with KDB and Sterling.
The logic behind this could be the use of Nathan Ake (LB) very deeper forcing Pep to not have someone who would invert and play from the central positions. So we could say that he used Bernado to combine and rotate with KDB in these situations. But the issue was the staggering between the players and this gave them issues during counter-attacks. We can see that in the image below where Arsenal have won the ball and City are caught out in the left-flank with 3 players ahead while the opposite flank has one less player too due to Silva switching to the other flank.
This disjoint in the attack and defence during the transitions were seen where the players were pretty much confused about their roles in the lineup as such. Playing Ake in the LB played a huge role in this conundrum as the Dutch didn’t exactly play an inverted LB nor a traditional LB which brought in a dynamo effect of changes. We can see how there is no midfield and the team looks very isolated into two groups during the transition.
They basically went with a 3-2 structure instead of a 2-3 but the 3-2 was very much lopsided and didn’t show symmetrical attributes that are required to sustain it. We can see how City formed a diamond midfield in the centre but we see how KDB is ahead of Cancelo and Rodri while Bernado is playing more centrally with a lot of freedom with his positioning.
Another big issue for them was the shift of role for KDB. He has generally played as their RCM or more of a false-9 when Pep decides to play without striker but still drops deep and plays his signature crosses from the flank or half-spaces. But in this setup, he was mostly used in a role where Pep would normally position his inverted full-back. We can see his role in the image below.
This gave a lot of issues wherein general he had to normally take an additional touch or two than usual to keep the ball in play and progress it forward as it didn’t aid him with his natural angles. This situation had a direct effect on the Arsenal goal where he received the ball but took an extra touch to guide it in a manner that it could be carried forward. But Arsenal found this extra moment very vital and they won the ball leading to a transition in which they scored the goal through Saka. We can see him losing the ball in the build-up to the goal.
The lack of defensive cover in the immediate central space behind KDB here played a huge role as it allowed Saka to run into free space as Ake was in the wing when in general he was supposed to be or told to be in those regions to proactively stop the ball.
Both Partey and Xhaka were very solid in following the runs and also good in executing the interceptions if the ball was played to them when they were making runs into the half-spaces. We can see in the image below where Xhaka follows Jesus when he looks to make a run into the defence behind which resulted in City not being able to play a pass to him.
Manchester City’s best moments in the first half arguably came when they decided to build up with Ederson joining the back-3 as an auxiliary CB or when Arsenal didn’t press intensely giving time and space to the City players to play passes. We can see that in the image below where they overload the last line with Ederson’s presence that makes it difficult for Arsenal to press them and leads to an easy build-up phase.
City gain upper hand with the red card
The crucial events of the game happened within a few moments from each other and both were moments of madness from Arsenal. The first was the penalty given by Xhaka which was as a result of sticking back to principles decision from Pep from the start of the second half where he decided to play Bernado as a proper RCM that immediately led to him winning the penalty. This can be seen in the image below.
The second moment happened immediately after City scored where Gabriel committed a needless foul that resulted in him getting sent off and reducing Arsenal to 10 men with more than 30 minutes left to play.
As told before the key aspect of Arsenal’s pressing was to press the centre-backs having the ball. But after the red card, Lacazette was told to not press and to take the role of Odegaard in marking Rodri resulting in the CBs being let free.
City sustains their lead and looks promisingly as the runaway winners of the league once again. They have extended their lead to 11 points over Chelsea, who play Liverpool next where either of them are bound to drop points. Arsenal, on the other hand, have suffered an undeserving loss which might put them out of top-4 with Spurs and Man United having two games in hand while being just 2 and 4 points behind them respectively.