What went wrong for Arsenal? – tactical analysis
Following the end of Mikel Arteta’s playing career, he departed the Emirates to work with Pep Guardiola. They dominated the country and were one of the best teams in Europe. Decimating domestic competition with style producing mesmerizing passing sequences and setting outstanding goal-scoring records, Arteta was credited with a lot. Many individuals such as Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane credited him on their individual improvement. Once he left the Etihad to return to the Emirates it was always going to be an anticipated battle when he would come up against Manchester City and his former peer Pep Guardiola.
Since Arteta’s taken the wheel, Arsenal has looked great in and out of possession. Implementing many ideas seen in Pep’s Manchester City team such as the 2-3-5 shape and positional play ideologies. With so much time to prepare for their first-ever bout against each other in the Premier League, due to the 3-month break, this possed a mouth-watering matchup. During this tactical analysis, we’ll detail the usage of goalkeepers as playmakers, Manchester City’s pressing tactics, Arsenal’s dysfunctional play through the thirds,
The hosts provided few surprises in their team selection. Youngster Eric Garcia was one however as he made his 2nd Premier League start of the season at right-center back partnered with Aymeric Laporte. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva would be deployed as two advanced midfielders and Ilkay Gundogan would be left as the single pivot in midfield. Gabriel Jesus got the nod over Sergio Aguero at striker despite the Argentine scoring 10 goals in his last 12 appearances against the North London club.
On the other hand, Arsenal set out with many surprises. Mesut Ozil, Alexander Lacazette, David Luiz, and Nicolas Pepe would all be left on the bench. Kieran Tierney would make his fourth Premier League start since arriving from Scotland but Bukayo Saka would also feature as a traditional winger in the lineup. The team would be set out in a 4-3-2-1 of sorts that through tactical analysis we see morphed into their 2-3-5 in possession.
Goalkeepers the first attackers
When starting to talk about the tactics of these two teams we will look at the starting points of their play: the goalkeeper. During the Premier League winning seasons that Arteta was an assistant of Pep, their possession-based game model featured the usage of Ederson massively during possession phases. Utilizing the Brazilians passing range to find isolated forwards in advanced positions and making incisive passes between the lines in the defensive third to play through pressure. On the day the two coaches would challenge their goalkeepers to be large influencers from deeper positions.
In Arteta’s tactics, Bernd Leno’s passing range would target the space in-behind Manchester City’s high line. With this. Arsenal could look to bypass City’s entire defensive block to go through on goal or at minimum their first two lines of pressure. This was a very common pattern, but aside from bypassing pressure Arsenal wouldn’t directly take advantage of this despite the pace of their forwards.
In the opposite goal, Ederson was acting as a deep playmaker breaking lines of pressure. He completed 88% of his passes in total, pulling all the strings in the defensive third. When playing out the back the two center backs would split, in-turn stretching Arsenal’s first line of pressure. With the goalkeeper as the primary ball progressor in these situations, it made it even more difficult for Arsenal to press. When Gundogan would drop to create a vertical passing option, Guendouzi would follow him. However, when a City attacking midfielder would drop into the left half-space Willock would not track these movements and Ederson could consistently make incisive passes between Arsenal’s lines of pressure to find Silva or Foden in space. From here they could receive, turn and directly run at the defensive line.
Similarly, Ederson’s passing range was utilized to attack the opposition defensive line. Instead of being more direct though he would find players in space in advanced positions. This also unlike Arsenal would directly lead to a goal scored. Ederson would find Walker pushed up on the right flank and Mahrez inverted into the right half-space. With a first time pass into the interior channel Mahrez was in-behind David Luiz who dragged him down for a penalty.
City’s press stifles progression
One of Pep Guardiola’s ideologies is to keep the ball in the opposition half as much as possible, he does this by having his team defend more in their half than in their own. This was especially achieved against the Gunners and assisted in limiting them to 32% of possession. Through tactical analysis, we can see City’s specific plan to manipulate the passing options of Arsenal when playing out the back.
Manchester City initially presses in a 4-3-3 shape. When Arsenal would play out the back, the center back carrying the ball would first be pressed, with the run curved to cover his passing option to a fullback. This would be done with the objective of getting him to make a back pass back to Leno. When successful, the striker would press Arsenal’s goalkeeper and a central midfielder would press Guendouzi. Therefore removing any vertical passing options while maintaining pressure on the ball carrier and moving into what resembled more of a 4-2-3-1. Leno’s only options would be to pass long.
If worked to the fullback would trigger the near sided central midfielder to press from the second line, using the byline as an extra defender. This would prevent one of Arsenal’s most common patterns of play that we’ve detailed in many analyses, where the left-back and left-sided midfielder make a rotation in which sees the fullback be positioned high and wide while the left-sided forward inverts. As Ceballos would drop into the vacant fullback space to make a back three, Mahrez would already recognize what was happening and close him down while Walker would advance from the last line to engage Tierney.
Arsenal’s dysfunction playing through the thirds
Mikel Arteta’s team only created two chances for the entire 90 minutes. Despite being against Manchester City, this is a bit surprising considering how good they have been under Arteta. Without Mesut Ozil in the team, there was a clear lack of presence between the lines. The majority of Arsenal’s attacking five were attempting to receive the ball in-behind the defensive line. Thus, players on the ball in the middle third would almost never have a vertical passing option. This also would play into the difficulties of playing through pressure as there was never a midfielder dropping into a pocket of space past pressure to make a new passing angle.
Here is a perfect example where Mari carries the ball into space. Four Arsenal players, including Willock, are making movements away from the ball to attack the defensive line. Ceballos is checking over his shoulder and his beginning his own movements away too. This leaves Mari with a sideways pass option to Tierney which is a pressing trap.
Diagonal runs disorientate Arsenal’s defense
As we mentioned before, Arteta received praise for improving the movement of individuals such as Raheem Sterling in the attacking third during his time at City. On the day the monster he created would destroy him as these movements created problems for Arsenal’s defense.
The defending Premier League Champions will occupy the right-sided zones with three players, two occupying the half-space and one the right flank. From here they’ll look for the attacking midfielder to make underlapping runs in-behind the defensive block or the player in the right flank will look across for the left-winger making a diagonal run in-behind a defenders blind side. This has become more common with the inclusion of Mahrez who can execute these fantastic passes. This pattern would create their opening goal.
Overloading to create space
Another common pattern of Guardiola’s team this season has been to overload one side in the middle third to make a quick switch to an isolated forward on the underloaded side. From here the likes of the skillful Riyad Mahrez can take advantage of defenders without support. Scottish youngster Kieran Tierney would however hold his own in these situations and usually read the play before Mahrez could receive the ball.
On the left side of the pitch, they would create a 5v7 situation with the right-back Kyle Walker inverting, dragging the left-winger Aubameyang toward him as well.
When this ball is worked through this into the attacking third this created problems for Arsenal when defending their penalty box as City would have a numerical advantage on the opposite side. We can see below that this leaves Tierney in an impossible 2v1 situation. When De Bruyne receives the ball he chooses to engage him but then that leaves Mahrez wide open inside the box in a great shooting position.
Another Red Card for Arsenal
In the 49th minute, David Luiz’s red card would see Arteta’s men down to 10 players for the third time since he’s taken over. From this point on, Arsenal conjured one shot to City’s 10 and two big chances created. City would slice through the defensive block using rotational movements to create vertical passing angles and Arsenal’s outnumbered midfield could not keep up.
Following going down a man, Arsenal switches to a 4-4-1 out of possession. In this situation, City’s two advanced midfielders drop into the half-spaces attracting the press of the Arsenal double pivot, this limits the passing angles of Gundogan but Mahrez comes inside to create a new passing angle beyond the double pivot.
With more space further up the pitch, this allowed for Laporte to become their primary deep playmaker. Carrying the ball into space he could scan the pitch with time and space to identify the most progressive passing option to break down Arsenal’s defensive block. Laporte completed the third-most passes on the pitch during this period with 100% accuracy, 19 of the 29 of them forward passed.
During this tactical analysis, we saw the extraordinary tactical masterclass produced by one of the greats of the game, Pep Guardiola. Manchester City executed their tactics as if they never went on break, showcasing the results of a proactive long-term project.
It was always going to be a tough battle for Arteta, Arsenal hasn’t won an away game against the top 6 in their last 25 attempts. The team was indecisive in possession, made the wrong decisions in attacking transition and the youngsters could not keep up against the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. All in all, it was a tough game to come back to especially with team selection being limited by fitness.