Both Manchester City and Arsenal were under scrutiny in the build up to the fixture, in which both teams were planning to make a statement of intent to the rest of the league. Arsenal had suffered just their second defeat of the season midweek to Everton. Manchester City, and more specifically Pep Guardiola, were under the microscope as fans, journalists and pundits alike were beginning to question Guardiola’s ability to adapt his tactics to the English Premier League.
Guardiola caused controversy from the very moment he began his reign in Manchester, after loaning Joe Hart to Torino in favour of Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo, for his supposedly better distribution. Bravo was a necessity to Guardiola’s bigger picture, as his style demands a goalkeeper capable of building an attack from the back with his superior distribution.
More recently, Guardiola’s quotes have stirred further debate as he insists he “doesn’t train tackles”, causing critics to entertain the idea further that Guardiola’s tactical arrogance to the Premier League will be his downfall, despite observing “the ball is in the air more than it is on the ground” in the English top flight. This adds a heightened element of randomness to games, making Pep’s tactics of attempted positional and tactical dominance obsolete at times.
With Alexis as their figurehead, in recent weeks Arsenal have adopted a high press to win the ball back high up the field. Out of possession, Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1 would become 4-4-2 with Ozil joining Alexis as another pressing body from the front. At times, even Coquelin has played as the higher centre midfielder between him and Xhaka, in order to win the ball. Playing this high would be uncharted territory for a player of such an exclusively defensive skill set, however this allows Arsenal to be better organised for counterpressing. By winning the ball back quickly in dangerous areas, Coquelin has created chances whilst the opposition were positioning themselves looking to counter.
Arsenal took the lead early through Theo Walcott. This season Walcott has played neither exclusively as a winger nor a striker. Instead, Walcott can often be found operating in the right half spaces in between, with Bellerin overlapping around the outside. Walcott starts wide, and often finishes attacks a lot more centrally. In the build up to the goal, Bellerin carried the ball from deep within Arsenal’s half and played the ball to Alexis, who had dropped between City’s defence and midfield lines. This was Walcott’s cue to make his darting diagonal run through to the centre, where he slots the 1 v 1 past Bravo from Alexis’ incisive pass.
Throughout the game, Arsenal attempted to execute a deep block whilst defending, a tactic Arsenal have experimented with in big games last season, with varying success. Arsenal’s defensive line were frequently positioned just yards in front of their 18-yard box instead of man marking attackers. Consequently, it was often the role of Arsenal’s wide midfielders to track wingers when defending. When Arsenal eventually recovered the ball, Ozil and Alexis were often isolated due to their midfielders defending commitments and out numbered by Man City players, meaning players could press the ball, whilst others block passing options simultaneously. Because of this, Arsenal created very, very little after taking the lead.
Conversely, When Cech was distributing the goalkeeper invariably went long. Arsenal’s lines pushed up significantly higher than usual. This tactic reaped little reward though, as the likes of Alexis and co were dwarfed by Manchester City’s defenders and Manchester City more frequently than not would regain possession and build again.
With a midfield pairing of Coquelin and Xhaka, the Arsenal midfield struggled to control the game. Coquelin made just over half of his intended passes in the second half and the build up play from the two was substandard to say the least. Santi Cazorla’s presence in midfield was missed as he is much more suited to play that role; his superior pass selection in the build up from deep paired with his ability to distribute with both feet is an asset which is invaluable in midfield. Cazorla also offers press resistance through his low centre of gravity, which as mentioned before, would have been highly beneficial in this game in order to beat the press and gain space to pick out Ozil/Sanchez.
Manchester City started adopting a 4-3-3. Usually, Guardiola deploys one deep lying playmaker with interiors either side of him, slightly further forward. Throughout the game however, Toure dropped to play side by side with Fernando. The full-backs, Zabaleta and Clichy were both more advanced than Otamendi and Kolorov, forming a line of four in front of the centre back pairing in build up, with Toure marauding forward at times.
City’s front three were fluid. Sane, De Bruyne and Sterling all interchanged with one another throughout various times in the game. Sterling started the game as the lone striker and narrowly missed an opportunity to level early from a header. During the second half the Man City front men were in the right places at the right times to punish Arsenal. Man City had a few relatively high scoring chance shots and executed a total of 14. Arsenal had less than half of that at 6 shots in total, although the only notable effort was the goal in the fourth minute.
Sane equalised in the first half quicker than Arsenal scored in the first. David Silva plays a lobbed through ball to a more central Sane who uses his pace to allude Arsenal defenders to finish past Cech.
The second and decisive Man City goal was trademark Pep Guardiola. Kevin De Bruyne receives the ball from a Gael Clichy throw in. He then chest controls the ball and executes a half volley on the turn from inside his own half, for Raheem Sterling to latch onto near the corner flag. A fine example of his fantastic vision, and the technical capability he has shown to possess time and time again in City colours. Sterling then cuts in on his left and finishes, beating Cech at his near post. Overloading one side of the pitch to then quickly switch the play to an isolated winger with great pace and 1v1 ability against a defender has been a string to Guardiola’s decorated bow since his managerial career began. And today it was the difference.