From time to time a match is played which feels as though it has a deeper meaner than who won or lost the tie. That was the sense that I got when seeing Arsenal and Manchester City line up against one another for the Carabao Cup final. In North London there is a definite sense that Arsene Wenger is coming to the end of his time as manager of Arsenal, at the same time in Manchester, at Manchester City, the club and fans alike are growing increasingly hopeful that the potential of their sporting project could convince Spanish coach Pep Guardiola to stay at the club beyond the three seasons that are his norm at a club.
Whilst Wenger and Arsenal were hoping to win the trophy in an attempt to salvage something from a season that has failed to get going. Manchester City on the other hand are eyeing a potential footballing dynasty and this trophy, which would be Guardiola’s first in England, would go some way to kick starting that dynasty moving forward.
For all that the Carabao (League) cup is seen as an unwelcome distraction in the early stages by the bigger clubs there remained the excitement of a cup final before this tie. With Arsenal having added the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrik Mkhitaryan (cup tied) there was a sense and a narrative that Wenger was finally looking to move back to the attacking style of play that had made Arsenal so good to watch over the first half of his tenure as manager.
One of the most interesting aspects of this final was the decision by both Wenger and Guardiola to start with their reserve goalkeepers, looking to keep faith with the players that had helped them to this stage of the competition.
For Arsenal we saw the Colombian international David Ospina start in goal behind a three man defensive line consisting of Shkodran Mustafi, Callum Chambers and Laurent Koscielny. Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal started as wing backs with Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey in the middle supported by Jack Wilshere. Mesut Ozil was give a free role behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Manchester City started with the Chilean international Claudio Bravo in goal in their now normal 4-3-3 shape. Kyle Walker played at right back with Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi in the centre of the defence and the Brazilian international Danilo at left back. Fernandinho retained his controlling midfield role with Ilkay Gundogan and David Silva playing in the centre of midfield. Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane were in the wide areas and Sergio Aguero started in attack chasing his 199th goal for the club.
Lack of depth in the Arsenal midfield
Manchester City under Pep Guardiola are one of the strongest sides in world football when it comes to ‘playing between the lines’ in other words they use clever movements and mechanisms to allow their players to drift in to spaces between the attack and midfield lines or midfield and defensive lines. With intelligent midfield players like Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne able to either drift off of their immediate markers or find the angles to play passes in to dangerous areas between the lines.
As such when in the defensive phase facing City there is increased importance on maintaining a compact defensive block to try to stop City from accessing these spaces as they attack the final third of the field.
Throughout this match we continuously saw Arsenal fail to defend these spaces effectively, Manchester City had time and space to play through the Arsenal lines and exploit spaces.
In this example we can see Arsenal set in two banks of four as Manchester City are looking to play from the edge of the final third. With the Arsenal defensive structure being passive there is no pressure on the ball nor is there a move to cover the space between the defensive and midfield lines.
Note the positions taking up at either side of the defensive block from David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Both are positioned in space able to exploit either the central areas or the wide spaces. Throughout the match these spaces were ceded to Manchester City allowing them to dominate the space in the Arsenal half of the field.
On this occasion the midfield line for Arsenal is slightly deeper, the line however is straight without evening a single player dropping in to a deeper area to link the two lines.
With the positioning of Sergio Aguero between two central defenders Arsenal are constantly worried about the threat of a ball played through in to his feet, given the speed with which Aguero can turn and shoot. At the same time De Bruyne is already in space between the lines and David Silva is positioned to move in between the midfield lines to attack and exploit the space.
Indeed the Spanish midfielder David Silva had an excellent match with his positional intelligence meaning that Arsenal struggled to come to terms with his movements.
David Silva exploits space
As we have already seen the Arsenal defensive structure left space all over the field for Manchester City to exploit, the chief protagonist for Manchester City in this was the Spanish international David Silva.
His role this season under Guardiola has been extremely interesting, playing from ostensibly a central midfield slot his role is more of a number 10 than of a number 8 or 6. Indeed for large parts of this season we have seen both Silva and De Bruyne operate in this role from the central midfield strata.
In this match Silva took his normal starting slot on the left of the central midfield and his ability to drift across the field to play in the wide areas, the half space or the central areas led to Arsenal being unable to deal with his constant movement across the field. Indeed David Silva capped an excellent performance with the third goal for his club.
Look here at the space with which David Silva has in order to receive the ball. Danilo is moving forward with the ball from left back and David Silva has drifted forward from his midfield slot in behind the Arsenal midfield line. You can see the near side player on the Arsenal defensive line gesturing for someone to pick up the run from Silva. He is aware that should he break the defensive structure to close down Silva the pass will be on along the outside to put Aguero through on goal.
Again here we can see the space and time that David Silva has in which to receive the pass. As Arsenal began to chase the game there were periods in which the midfield attempted to press Manchester City as they looked to play the ball forwards. Unfortunately for Arsenal though City were extremely comfortable when playing through the press and having a player like David Silva constantly moving in to space enabled them to move the ball forward.
Here City are playing in to the centre of the field and Silva has intelligently moved in to space but remained closely connected to the man in possession of the ball, the ability to always offer an out pass was a huge help to his teammates throughout.
Manchester City Press
Whilst Arsenal were relatively poor in their pressing movements against City the same cannot be said of Manchester City, this does not however mean that City committed the majority of their players to press in a counter pressing system. Instead we often saw just three City players press the Arsenal defence, these three players however did so intelligently and effectively.
Here we have Arsenal trying to build from the back with a clear 5v3 advantage in this area of the field. The intelligent positioning of David Silva however means that as he is closing down the man in possession he is using his cover shadow to prevent the easy pass in to the free man behind him.
Sergio Aguero is doing the same on the far side and is poised to press the goalkeeper should the ball be played back. On the near side Leroy Sane is covering the potential pass out to Bellerin.
In positioning themselves intelligently and being aware of passing lanes and angles City are effectively negating the numerical superiority that Arsenal have in this situation.
A similar situation here with the ball back with Ospina. Both Aguero and Silva are effectively cutting off passing lanes to the two central options for the Colombian goalkeeper. Leroy Sane on the near side however has to cover two Arsenal players with no option to use his cover shadow, instead he positions himself between the two players confident that his pace will allow him to cover should Ospina look to play the ball to either near side player.
Again in this example we see City outnumbered 4v3 as Arsenal look to play out. With David Silva covering the lateral pass we see Sergio Aguero gambling on the ball being played back to Ospina.
Throughout the entirety of the match we never saw Manchester City allow Arsenal comfortable possession in their build up phase.
In the end Manchester City ran out comfortable 3-0 winners. Arsenal struggled to maintain possession of the ball and their defensive structure was poorly set out and unable to deal with the game intelligence and movement of the Manchester City attacking players.
It remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of one of the great footballing dynasties for Manchester City but if that does indeed come to pass and if Pep Guardiola stays on in the long term then we will be able to look back and identify this match as the point in which it all began.