Tactical Points from Arsenal’s convincing defeat at the Etihad
By Vinay Shankar (Tactical Analyst)
Despite the nature of the defeat, there were a lot of interesting tactical takeaways from the game.
Arteta’s gameplan to counter City was focussed around the midfield trio, starting with a 4-3-2-1 formation.
After Xhaka’s injury, the role of Guendouzi as a single holding midfielder was incredibly crucial with positional discipline from the Frenchman becoming incredibly important.
After the frantic start, both teams focussed on blocking out passing lanes rather than actively pressing from the front with the fitness levels of both sides being understandably not at their normal levels.
City didn’t allow Arsenal’s starting centre-backs to play out down the flanks by blocking these passing options forcing them to consistently find Guendouzi, who struggled to progress the ball. The likes of Gabriel Jesus, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne pressed the Frenchman every time he received the ball, preventing him from wriggling free and holding onto it. The centre-backs were constrained to play it upfield at times with the lack of aerial threat upfront resulting in possession getting turned over all too frequently.
When City had the ball, Arsenal set up in a 4-2-1-3/4-3-2-1 type of formation. Guendouzi was tasked with pressuring De Bruyne near the centre-circle, with Willock and Ceballos staying back in wider roles assisting the full-backs. As the build-up reached the edge of the box, Arsenal packed the central areas with bodies, with Nketiah also dropping back to regain possession.
Considering the demands placed on the midfielders for this type of a role when the team doesn’t have the ball, it’s very much understandable why Mesut Ozil was left out of the squad for ‘tactical reasons’. Marking Silva and De Bruyne around the edge of the box requires enormous discipline and energy and there were a few instances of miscommunication while marking them but Leno bailed them out every time.
Despite the disaster defensively, it has to be said that Arsenal played out from the back much better after Luiz came on to the field. While there was a lack of end product to highlight this point, his fearlessness on the ball is something no other Arsenal defender has and this asset is going to be a big miss if he leaves. The obvious counter-argument to this would be that a defender’s primary role is to ‘defend’, with the ball-playing capabilities being a useful value addition.
The other big tactical selection was the use of Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as inverted wingers rather than traditional wingers. This tactic, I suspect, is to do with the roles of Walker and Mendy at City. Walker always tucks into the midfield in the ‘inverted fullback role’ whereas Mendy rushes forward at every opportunity. If Auba was positioned on the right, he would have to track back and assist Bellerin every time which would limit his goal threat considerably as compared to the opposite flank. Walker not overlapping down the right allowed Auba to stay up field when City had the ball and quickly counter if there was a turnover in possession.
There were a few occasions, especially in the first 30 minutes, where Arsenal created turnovers but were not decisive enough with the pass with Ceballos the main culprit. One quick ball on the inside of Walker would have set Aubameyang free but the lack of match fitness does play a big factor in these crucial moments.