Manchester City, as of November 16th, are 8 points clear at the top of the table. Not only have they started the season with 31 out of 33 points, they are playing football from another planet. Guardiola seems to have finally found the right pieces and tactics to succeed in the Premier League, and the results are phenomenal. They have combined positional play with a transitional system, ranging from slow build-ups to extreme counter attacks.
Arsenal, on the other hand, have had an irregular season. They have changed systems several times, failing to find one that suits the players well. They entered the Etihad with many doubts as a team, moreso after Wenger decided to start the match with an innovation in defense.
As the right side shows, Wenger aligned Coquelin at the center of their back 5. Arsenal played with a 5-4-1, with Iwobi and Ozil playing as wide midfielders. Alexis played as a lone striker. City, on the other hand, commenced with their usual 4-3-3. Delph played his now usual inverted fullback role. Speedsters Sterling and Sane played out wide.
Now, let’s take a look at the tactical approach to the match.
Arsenal Possession Strategy and Manchester City’s Mid-block
Manchester City commenced the match with a steady 4-5-1 mid-block. Arsenal planned to overcome it with a compact attack, transitioning together as a unit before getting to their ‘danger zone.’ Let’s take a closer look at all of this, since a video explanation is clearer than a simple word description:
As the video shows, Arsenal opted to play as a whole unit. They had slow transitions and patiently knocked the ball around until building their possessions into City’s central axis in front of their box. Upon doing so, Arsenal looked to exploit the box with 4 players, all adapting to whatever path the play takes. Bellerin did most of the overlapping, as Kolasinac seemed to be outpaced by Walker very often.
City, on the other hand, defended with their usual 4-5-1 mid-block. Kevin De Bruyne played the only man-oriented pressing in the whole team. Arsenal used this to move City’s structure into a 4-4-2, which they are more uncomfortable in.
City Possession Strategy
Now that we discussed Arsenal’s possession strategy, let’s take a look at City’s approach with the ball. Their versatility allows them to constantly switch between a possession system to a transitional one. This match, they decided to perform direct transitions to hurt Arsenal’s defensive system. Below, a video explaining their main possession strategy in the first half:
As the detailed clip shows, City’s attack was far too quick for Arsenal. Sane and Sterling’s electrifying runs out wide provided numerous scoring opportunities, as in every match. Aguero acted as a pivot, connecting their initial phase of the counter attack with their chance creation in the final third.
City’s WW Formation
Throughout the last couple of seasons, Pep Guardiola has attempted, in numerous occasions, to align the team in a MW Formation, that is to say, a 3-2-2-3. Below, Guardiola’s lineup to face Juventus in the Champions League.
This campaign, Guardiola has switched to a more convenient WW Formation, meaning a 2-3-2-3.
The first line of 2 is composed of both CB’s, the line of 3 includes the CDM and the two full-backs, while the following 5 are the central midfielders and the attackers.
Take a look at this extremely short clip that merely shows Manchester City’s positioning when playing under this formation:
As the brief clip shows, City’s back “W” are positioned much differently than their attacking “W”. Delph and Walker (mostly Delph) perform inverted fullback roles, therefore Guardiola has them tuck inward rather than provide width. The width, however, was always provided by the wingers. This forces teams to defensively stretch out as much as possible to mark Sane and Sterling. Silva and KDB, as shown, position themselves extremely near the attacking line. This feature was not seen in Barcelona’s Pep, since Iniesta and Xavi did not begin matches with such high positioning.
First Half Recap:
The first half had quality opportunities for both sides, with City having the better chances. It concluded 1-0 with a long shot from Kevin De Bruyne. City’s transitional approach continued throughout most of the game, with Arsenal opting for a change in game plan for the second 45 minutes.
The second half saw a FAR more aggressive Arsenal side. They vowed for more aggressiveness and direct transitions. Their high-press was higher up the pitch, with the purpose to either force City to go long or make their passing options ‘higher risk’. Here is a video explanation of Arsenal’s high pressing approach during the second half:
The clip illustrates a very aggressive Arsenal side, with more high-pressing and man-marking on the wings. The Gunners, to say the least, did not have their high-pressing strategy all that clear. It seemed like there was no synopsis from Arsenal’s tactical analysts to come up with a good high-pressing strategy against one of the best teams in the world when playing out of the back. For the reasons explained in the clip, Arsenal’s high pressing strategy was not effective. They had to bring down Fernandinho after their 2 central midfielders were beat with just 1 pass.
Sergio Aguero would double the lead, from the spot, just 5 minutes after the break. Shortly after the clip showed, Monreal went shoulder to shoulder with Sterling before a penalty was awarded for the ‘Citizens’. Although I don’t like getting into controversial referee topics, it’s safe to say that the referees completely altered the final result in the match both by calling a wrong penalty and by later allowing City to score off a clear off-sides. While not wanting to further elaborate on this topic, I felt it should be included in the match analysis because, as stated, it completely altered the final result of the match. Not to say City would not be able to win without them, but fair refereeing should always be the case.
Arsenal Ditch Their Slow Build Up for a Transitional System
Not only did Arsenal approach their defensive system differently in the second half, their possession approach was also adjusted to what Wenger thought best suited the team. They ditched their compact build-up for direct transitions, causing City more trouble through fast breaks. Below, a move-by-move breakdown of Arsenal’s different tempo in possession:
The video shows how Arsenal maintained their same chance creation strategy while completely altering how they got to the danger zone. A good sign of the team’s versatility. They constantly looked for Iwobi to take the final decision in the final third, deciding which path the play would take before attempting to hurt City.
2nd Half Recap:
Arsenal’s transitional system caused City more problems in the second half. The entry of Lacazette gave the team a focal point in attack, while providing electrifying pace down the wings with Bellerin (fullback) and Alexis (winger).
The match ended with a 3-1 win for the ‘Citizens’, with Guardiola’s side being far superior. Arsenal seemed to get some of their tactics right while completely getting many wrong. Their high pressing strategy seemed to lack a definite solution to any of the problems the opposition presented them. Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, and Jesus scored the home goals, while Lacazette was Arsenal’s only scorer.
To conclude, City had a dominant display at home against Arsenal. They did, however, lack control of the game at times during the match. These problems arose when Arsenal started their direct transitional attacks. Manchester City were very good at using Sane and Sterling to stretch out Arsenal’s defense before causing damage. Overall, Arsenal’s strategic approach was not the most suited.
City are currently first in the Premier League, while Arsenal sit 6th (11.16.17).