Connect with us

Talking Tactics

Tactical Analysis: Arsenal’s Learning Curve on Display vs City


Arsenal faced Manchester City for the first time since the FA Cup Semi-Final 2-0 victory, back in July. This time around, both teams looked to alter their tactics, before and during the match, in order to win the three points.

This report will analyse the game and the tactics both managers deployed.


Ever-present Bernd Leno retained his position in goal, with the German having Tierney, Gabriel, Luiz, Bellerin, and Saka in front of him. Xhaka and Ceballos played in a midfield two, with Aubameyang, Willian, and Pepe forming the attacking trident ahead of them.

Pep Guardiola opted for a less than conventual line-up. Ederson started in goal, with a back three of Walker, Dias, and Ake ahead of him. Who the wing-backs were, was open to debate. On paper, it would appear that Foden and Marhez played as wing-backs, with traditional full/wing-back Cancelo slotting in alongside Rodri and Bernardo Silva. Sterling partnered Aguero up top, both of whom were coordinating who would drop into pockets and who would offer height.


Arteta set Arsenal up in a 3-4-3, which morphed into a 4-3-3 when in possession. Arsenal looked to create as much space as possible through stretching the pitch. However, this somewhat came at a cost, as City had many players in between the lines and could play quick interchanging passes upon winning the ball back. Arsenal’s out of possession 3-4-3, was very disciplined and Willian aided the midfield 2, helping to create a 3 v 3.

Guardiola nullified Aubameyang, though the deployment of Kyle Walker in a back three. Walker’s recovery pace allowed him to get back goal side of Aubameyang and either force him inside into traffic or tackle him. Cancelo looked to play in a narrow position, in the midfield. Ake moved as a wide centre-back/ left full-back to cover Foden, as he went forward. It was then job of Rodri and Silva to help plug any gaps in the defensive line. City looked to overload down Arsenal’s right, with Ake, Silva, Foden, Sterling, and Aguero, all drifting over to that side. This drew Arsenal over and created space on the City right, for Marhez and Cancelo to attack.

City took up three different formations depending on the pressing height of Arsenal. When Arsenal had the ball at the back, City formed almost a 4-2-4. Upon Arsenal moving the ball into midfield, City could transition into a 4-4-2, and then when City had to defend in a low block, they would sit in a 5-4-1.

Arsenal's learning curve against City

The image above shows the average position of both sets of players. The image shows City significantly overloading down their left, leaving Marhez with space


Expected Goals and Pressing

Arsenal really struggled to create high quality chances and this is reflected in their 0.70 expected goals. Saka’s saved shot, after a one-two with Aubameyang, was recorded as Arsenal’s best chance of the game, with a 0.28 measure. The next best was Pepe’s header just after half time, which measured at 0.22. Aside from those two chances, Arsenal created very little. City ended the match with an expected goals of 1.53. The quality of chances they created, was typified through Sterling’s goal, which measured at 0.56. The other notable shots came through Aguero and Foden, who recorded 0.29 and 0.24 respectively for their efforts.

After the match, Mikel Arteta was very pleased with how his team pressed and defended, as one unit. This was reflected through Arsenal allowing City 14.2 passes per defensive action (PPDA). This is impressive, especially given Arsenal dropped off and in fact, before Arsenal did drop off, they were limiting City to just 8.7 PPDA, which is rarely done, even by the most effective pressing sides. City had a PPDA of 10.1, which was typified by their high aggressive press and determination to prevent Arsenal from playing out from the back.

Manchester City in possession

When City looked to build up play, they stretch their back three wide across the pitch. Foden and Marhez would also look to push wide. Arsenal initially pressed high, creating a 3 v 3 against City’s back three. To counter this, one of Silva or Rodri would drop in and create a back four, whilst the other played slightly higher. Guardiola knew that this would draw one of Arsenal’s double pivots forward, with Xhaka and Ceballos attaching themselves to the City midfielders, Silva and Rodri. This high press meant City could play through the pressure and both Foden and Marhez could have 1 v 1s with their respective opponent, due to Arsenal becoming disjointed. Arsenal were unable to double up on Marhez, due to Cancelo operating narrow in the half-space, drawing Saka inside. This left Tierney to defend alone.

It’s from this pressing high where the goal comes. City play through the Arsenal pressure and work the ball out to Marhez, who plays inside to Aguero, who is against Ceballos with space (due to Xhaka pressing high and getting caught the wrong side of the ball). Sterling offers height, pinning the Arsenal back line, allowing the ball to be worked out to Foden, who is 1 v 1 with Bellerin. Foden gets his shot away and Leno parries, but Sterling is on hand to tuck home the rebound.

Arteta looked to change this high press, asking for his double pivots to drop off and protect the space in front of the back five, rather than following up the front three. Upon doing this, Sterling began to drop deeper, off the front line, picking up the ball in front/alongside the Arsenal midfield. The time and space afforded to the City defence and midfield, allowed them to pick their passes and overload down the left, with Foden, Ake, Sterling, and Silva. Arsenal countered this by shuffling over to that side, but this left space for the likes of Marhez and Cancelo on the right, who would wait for a switch of play, before attacking the space.

Arsenal’s build-up

City deployed 6 players to press deep into the Arsenal half and prevent the build-up from Leno. This created a 6 v 7, as Arsenal aimed to build-up. Once Leno played the first pass, City would look to create a strong side and create a 5 v 5 in the process. In the image below, you can see Aguero (10) shuting off any passing option to David Luiz and Bellerin, through his body positioning. City then looked to jump press the Arsenal player receiving the pass.

Arsenal tried to counter this with one of Ceballos or Xhaka dropping into the back line to offer another option. This did help Arsenal beat the first wave of City pressure. However, due to losing a body in midfield, City could overwhelm the midfield and look to win the ball back. Ideally, one of Aubameyang or Pepe could have read this and tucked into midfield, helping to restore parity.

As previously mentioned, when Arteta decided to drop Xhaka and Ceballos deeper in order to create compactness, space opened up for City in front of the Arsenal defensive shape. For Arsenal, this space had positives as well. Silva moved much higher up and Rodri moved into a slightly more traditional defensive midfield position. This meant, on the occasion Arsenal broke through the pressure (either when successfully building-up play or through a player press breaking), Arsenal could catch City players the wrong side of the ball. This therefore allowed them to isolate the likes of Aubameyang and Pepe, against the City defenders. Aiding this was City’s diminishing counter press and players such as Ceballos being adept in beating the press.

Arsenal's learning curve against City

In the image above, Gabriel (6) receives off Leno. City create a strong side and shut off any free passes. City then proceed to jump press the Arsenal midfielders; Saka (7), Xhaka (34) and Ceballos (8). City win the ball through Cancelo (27) jump pressing Saka


In truth, it was a very interesting match with many talking points. The two managers looked to both nullify one another, whilst also sticking to their principles and trying to attack. Before Arteta made his changes (disengaging the high press), it felt as though City could cut through Arsenal at will. After the change, Arsenal became more compact and protected the central areas better. Arsenal showed a little naivety at times, with both Bellerin and Tierney struggling in the 1 v 1s and over-committed in the duel, not showing their respective City player onto his weaker foot.

As we all know, Arsenal have a long way to go, but there were signs that Arteta is taking this team in the right direction. Whilst being competitive should be a given, it has been very rare in the last couple of years that Arsenal have shown the ability to compete with Manchester City and stay in the game for the 90 minutes.

More in Talking Tactics