Premier League: How Pep Guardiola’s tactical tweaks crushed Arsenal’s title dreams – tactical analysis
The momentum in the title race was always going to be affected by a Manchester City win, but their 4-1 triumph over Arsenal was so dominant that it may have shattered the challenger’s hopes.
Manchester City’s performance was spectacular, ending the game before the 60th minute and forcing Mikel Arteta’s team to slog through the rest of the match. After three draws in a row, Arsenal were crestfallen that such a critical game would have such bad timing.
Pep Guardiola has once again transformed his system this season, drawing inspiration from Roberto De Zerbi at Brighton to defeat Arsenal. In this tactical analysis, we will explain what Guardiola’s new tactics are and how he got the best out of Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland. Also in this analysis, we will discover why it’s probably the reason the pair had their best game of the season.
In the match between Manchester City and Arsenal, Guardiola fielded a 4-4-1-1 formation. Ederson started in goal, with Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias, John Stones, and Manuel Akanji forming the backline. Silva, Gündogan, Rodri, and Jack Grealish started in midfield, with Kevin De Bruyne playing just behind striker Erling Haaland.
On the other hand, Arsenal started with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Aaron Ramsdale was in goal with Ben White, Gabriel, Rob Holding, and Oleksandr Zinchenko making up the backline. Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka started in central midfield with Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard, and Gabriel Martinelli playing behind striker Gabriel Jesus.
During the match, Xhaka was substituted with Jorginho, Saka with Reiss Nelson, Odegaard with Emile Smith Rowe, and Martinelli with Leandro Trossard. However, Guardiola’s tactical transformation proved too much for Arsenal, and Manchester City emerged victorious. Guardiola brought in Riyad Mahrez for Gündogan, Phil Foden for Grealish and Julian Alvarez for Kevin De Bruyne.
Guardiola’s new system saw the biggest change in how Manchester City built up from the back, with a shift to a 4-2-4 formation in possession. This departure from their usual approach was significant. In contrast, in their recent Champions League match against Bayern Munich, Manchester City employed a 3-2-5 system, which is typical of Guardiola’s approach. Throughout the season, we have seen Guardiola use variations of the 3-2-5 and 2-3-5 formations in possession, making the shift to a back four all the more noteworthy.
During the game, Manchester City employed a tactical approach where Ederson or one of the centre-backs held onto the ball while waiting for Arsenal to apply pressure. Most of the time, they would wait patiently, using this as a tactic to lure Arsenal into high pressing them.
Once Arsenal had committed to this high press, Manchester City would execute their practised passing sequence to easily break through the Arsenal press. Manchester City often utilised quick combination play, where one player passed to a third man who was making a forward run.
Haaland played a crucial role in Man City’s chances, receiving the ball with his back to the goal and setting up De Bruyne numerous times in the game. This tactic was repeatedly used by Man City and proved effective. Although Haaland has struggled with this aspect of his game this season, he has improved significantly recently by dropping deep on the right side of the pitch to turn or pass inside, as he did in the first goal where De Bruyne received the ball after an excellent acceleration attacking the space.
In an attempt to disrupt Man City’s play, Arteta had six players press the defensive line and the two midfielders. However, this left gaps when Bernardo Silva and Grealish dropped down to receive which the full-backs had to cover, creating opportunities for Haaland to get past his defender in the duel and score. As a result, Zinchenko and White were unable to support the centre-backs in transitions.
Manchester City’s Counter-Attacks
In terms of counter-attacking, Guardiola was inspired by De Zerbi’s Brighton. Brighton is successful in luring the opposition’s press and launching counter-attacks with their players running behind the defence.
During the match, it appeared as though Manchester City was continuously on the counter-attack when they had the ball. They were deliberately waiting for Arsenal to press high and then quickly dropped their midfielders and forwards to execute swift one-two passes and send their attackers through on goal.
Guardiola surprised everyone with his new tactic, using a 4-2-4 formation which involved Kyle Walker and Manuel Akanji playing as wide full-backs during Manchester City’s build-up play. This strategy effectively distracted Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, forcing them to sit higher up the pitch and vacate the crucial central midfield zone. Normally, they would sit off a little and close the gap.
Furthermore, Arsenal’s usual energy and aggressiveness were missing in this game, which allowed Rodri and Gündoğan to play too comfortably with at least one of the two always free.
This system with two midfielders is crucial as it allows Manchester City to create a box in midfield where Gündogan and Rodri can easily combine off one another and pass it forward to Haaland, who can then lay it off to De Bruyne. During the match, Arsenal attempted a high, man-for-man press, with two players sticking tight to midfielders Ilkay Gündogan and Rodri. However, this strategy drew the visitors forward and left a gap between the defence and midfield lines.
Manchester City utilised several tactics to create deadly attacks against Arsenal throughout the game. One of these tactics was using quick combinations in midfield, and when City did not have an option to pass through the midfield, they found either Haaland or De Bruyne dropping into the midfield space.
Another tactic used by City was playing a long ball to find Haaland, who was often isolated one-on-one with Rob Holding. Haaland’s strength allowed him to bully Holding, leaving an easy layoff to De Bruyne. This change in Guardiola’s possession system was crucial in creating these opportunities for Manchester City in both halves of the game against Arsenal.
Manchester City’s press
During Arsenal’s possession, Manchester City executed an impressive oriented press that caused significant issues for Arsenal, as they struggled to make consecutive passes.
Arteta opted to employ a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Zinchenko positioned wide instead of in an inverted fullback role, which made it difficult for him to be involved in the build-up play and support the team’s progression. Gabriel Jesus’s dynamic movement off the ball, as he dropped deep or wide to receive, meant that City’s centre-backs were not pinned down, allowing them to anticipate many of Arsenal’s plays. As a result, Arsenal’s midfield was forced to drop deeper and deeper to receive the ball, and they were unable to advance into the opposition’s half.
Manchester City has frequently employed a 4-4-2 set-up in their defensive structure this season, even against Bayern in their recent Champions League match. This system has proven highly effective in allowing City to press aggressively, particularly against Arsenal’s 3-2-5 formation. With four midfielders and two forwards, Manchester City is able to gain a numerical advantage over Arsenal’s three defenders and two midfielders.
City’s press was incredibly aggressive, with centre-backs such as Ruben Diaz and John Stones following Arsenal attackers like Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Martinelli deep into their midfield to maintain the pressure. Rodri also joined in on the high press, matching the movements of Arsenal’s midfielders. The man-for-man marking by City prevented Arsenal from finding space to receive and play out of the back, and Arteta struggled to find a solution to this in the second half.
Manchester City’s press remained effective throughout the match, making it difficult for Arsenal to play out from the back.
Manchester City produced a commanding performance against Arsenal and likely dashed their title aspirations for the season. Guardiola’s innovation and ability to draw inspiration from other teams, such as Brighton, has helped propel his side to the top of the table. Unfortunately for Arsenal, they were unable to overcome the press and ultimately fell short in this critical match.
One of the most concerning aspects of this Manchester City team is their ease in transitioning between tactical systems. Even when opponents attempt to disrupt their usual flow, as Arsenal did on Wednesday, Guardiola’s side simply finds another way to inflict damage.