Another spectacle at the Etihad stadium, another win for Guardiola’s men. Yet this time, matters almost got out of hand for the Citizens against the Gunners in what was considered a typical Premier League match: full of intensity, physicality, and counter-attacks; something Pep absolutely despises.
Manchester City had a tough away game against Napoli on Wednesday where they won 4-2 but at the expense of their fitness levels. Guardiola demanded nothing but a win potentially capitalizing on any mess-up from Mourinho’s men against Chelsea. On the other hand, Arsene Wenger wanted to bounce up to 4th place also taking advantage of a potential mess-up from Chelsea’s side. This highlights the beauty of the Premier League where any loss/draw may result in major shifts in the league table.
Manchester City (4-3-3) | Pep Guardiola
31. Ederson – 2. Danilo, 5. Stones, 30. Otamendi, 18. Delph – 17. De Bruyne, 25. Fernandinho, 21. David Silva – 7. Sterling, 10. Aguero, 19. Sane
Arsenal (4-3-2-1) | Arsene Wenger
33.Cech – 24. Bellerin, 6. Koscielny, 18. Monreal, 31. Kolasinac – 8. Ramsey, 34. Coquelin, 29. Xhaka – 11. Ozil, 17. Iwobi – 7. Sanchez
For Guardiola, the regular shape of 4-3-3 focusing on guaranteeing freedom for the midfield 8’s, Silva and De Bruyne, with Fernandinho shielding the defense and intercepting line-breaking passes. To counter the Citizens’ shape, Wenger deployed his team in a 4-3-2-1 “Christmas Tree” formation on paper. However, when defending they shifted to an extremely defensive 5-4-1 to close down the half-spaces that De Bruyne and Silva exploit, with Coquelin dropping between the two centerbacks and midfield line comprising of Ozil-Ramsey-Xhaka-Iwobi, leaving Sanchez roaming upfront alone.
At first, City gave the impression that they won’t be able to cruise through the match with the least effort possible. Many runs had to be made from the wingers and midfielders behind Arsenal’s back 5 taking advantage of the bad offside trap implementation from the visitors. Adding to that, City’s passing wasn’t as accurate as the rest of their games and many over-the-top passes were either too strong or too weak.
Whenever the hosts faced a dead-end, they’d pass the ball back to Stones/Otamendi in the aim of baiting Arsenal’s players to press them and opening up their lines vertically. This move was followed by either a pass to Aguero so he can lay it off, or a pass to a fullback to play it inside; a concept used by City where they keep on passing the ball around the opposition’s shape until they find a gap to play it inside and break their lines.
Made using TacticalPad
What helped in carrying out this phase of play is Arsenal’s unorganized press; the Gunners were closing down options but in a half-hearted manner and a simple back-pass to Ederson allowed City to find a spare man up-field. The disorganized press from Arsenal saw them get hopelessly outnumbered while their body positioning while pressing was also not optimal with poor coverage using their cover shadows.
City take control with numerical advantage:
A major principle in Juego De Posicion that Guardiola applies is having overloads all over the pitch to dominate the team defending against him. Below are several match events where City adjusted their structure to gain numerical superiority hence improving ball circulation:
Central defenders pushing forward
After Arsenal switched to 5-4-1, we’ve seen either Otamendi or Stones dribbling their way into the midfield line. This happened for two reasons: first, keeping 3 defenders at the back (with Delph/Walker) against a sole striker is useless and hence the additional player can be used somewhere else. Second, whenever Stones/Otamendi carried the ball into midfield an Arsenal player will step up to pressure them; creating a passing lane to City’s attackers and midfield 8’s. This tweak also allowed the back line to pressure the pass to Sanchez immediately in case Arsenal’s midfielders or defenders intercepted the ball and wanted to break away.
This is a tactic that Guardiola heavily encourages his defenders to do. John Stones is a good example for this, who carries the ball aggressively into the midfield when faced with no pressure. Jerome Boateng is another example who developed this trait under Pep’s tutelage.
Aguero dropping off
Xhaka & Ramsey were Arsenal’s central midfielders when playing the 5-4-1, being up against Silva and De Bruyne. When City’s midfield was pressured, Aguero dropped to midfield to receive the line-breaking pass from his teammates and forming a 3vs2 situation in the middle. Before, we rarely saw Aguero being proactive in linking up with the midfield; however, with Guardiola favoring Gabriel Jesus, a shift in mentality had to happen for City’s record breaker. His movement confused Arsenal’s defenders; should they follow him and risk exploiting channels for Sane and Sterling? Or let him free and risk the ball being advanced into dangerous areas?
Overloads on the wings
Pep always looks where space can be created within the opponent’s formation, that’s why he adjusts his team for each match accordingly. In Arsenal’s 5-4-1, the right/left midfielder and right/left full back protect each other from any potential overlap, but what if another player or two joins the wing-play? Well, that’s how City scored their first goal:
Two things to note here: First, the counter-press from City’s players immediately after the pass was intercepted. Second, towards the end of the animation, notice the moment Delph passes the ball to De Bruyne, a 4 vs 3 is shaping up on the wing. Sane with Bellerin, Ozil with Delph, Ramsey with De Bruyne, but Fernandinho totally free; credits to the Brazilian for offering himself as a passing option.
A point worth mentioning here is the position switch between De Bruyne & Silva; the Belgian is City’s best player by far and by switching to the left, he took advantage of Ozil’s lethargic defending who had one of his worst games. Furthermore, we saw the ball-near fullback mostly staying wide when attacking to stretch Arsenal’s defence, whereas the ball-far fullback would stay ready to sprint behind the backline for a diagonal pass from De Bruyne or Fernandinho. It all depends on the scenario and positioning of the players.
10 minutes into the second half, Arsene Wenger changed the team’s shape into 4-3-3 with Lacazette replacing Coquelin, pushing Sanchez and Iwobi into the wings. With Bellerin and Iwobi on one side, Delph faced a tough challenge due to his low speed compared to the aforementioned duo. Indeed, that’s the side City conceded the goal from:
A nice turn from Iwobi opened up space to pass to Ramsey who’s in perfect position to release Lacazette in the half-space and score.
After the goal, Arsenal got the morale boost they were looking for all match; applying constant pressure on Guardiola’s men and focusing on City’s left flank. However, City trusted their style of play and kept recycling the ball along their backline knowing that Arsenal’s disjointed press will create spaces for them to pass into, which lead them to scoring the third goal which in replay showed Silva in an offside position. But what happened during the goal build-up epitomized Arsenal’s attitude – the players stopped playing and lifted their hands up signaling an offside, wherein they should have played for the whistle and continued with their defending.
City currently sit atop of the table in what is considered Guardiola’s best start ever in his history as a club head coach with 8 points difference between them and Manchester United, who lost against Chelsea in the Stamford Bridge. Arsenal are still lost in despair, symbolized by the attitude of their star duo Sanchez & Ozil. Wenger might have missed a trick or two by not starting his club’s record signing in the French striker, who came on as a sub and scored Arsenal’s only goal on the night. The questions keep coming for Wenger while Guardiola’s side seem to be destined for greater heights.