The game progressed as many projected. Manchester City asserted their will by pouncing on early goal-scoring chances. They took an early 3-0 lead after recording a mere four shots on target over the first half. The second half was much of the same as Arsenal failed to establish anything on both sides of the ball. The Gunners still remain winless against Manchester City under Pep Guardiola in Premier League play.
In his biggest tactical test thus far, interim manager Freddie Ljungberg showed he still has a long way to go in repairing the team’s core issues.
Manchester City had no problems building against Arsenal’s defensive setup
Any team that employs a pressing set up against Manchester City knows the pros and cons that come with such an audacious tactical plan. Success in this aspect of play will not only halt Manchester City’s free-flowing progressions downfield, but it will also prevent them from establishing possession in the final third. On the other hand, Guardiola’s side are a team known for finding open space anywhere on the pitch and making their opponents pay for their positional mistakes by generating goal-scoring opportunities.
In what has become the theme of the season, Arsenal were once again without a clear plan in place for their pressing setup. Players were constantly out of position. The double pivot duo of Matteo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira often drifted into unnecessary areas of the pitch. The quadrant of attacking-minded players were often caught ball-watching rather than seeking to take matters into their own hands by dropping to press. Worse of all, Guardiola’s side made sure to take advantage of nearly every significant positional miscue from Arsenal.
The Gunners’ press was essentially non-existent because they failed to win the ball back on a consistent basis throughout the game. They finished the contest with an atrocious 18.13 passes allowed per defensive action in the opposition half (PPDA) according to Understat. Manchester City prevailed on pushing play from their own half to the final third and sprayed passes at will once they comfortably established their presence there. As a result, Arsenal simply watched as Manchester City completed over 600 passes at a 91% completion percentage.
For instance, see this early sequence from the game where Manchester City maintain possession in their own half after winning the ball back seconds ago. Guendouzi, Ozil and Pepe all carelessly decided to press the ball carrier, Rodri, in an attempt to close down his surrounding space. City negated this unorganized press as Foden made an off-ball to provide a passing option. The end result of this sequence was Raheem Sterling’s ninth league goal of the season.
And here, Manchester City once again undermined Arsenal’s lackadaisical press and overall defensive shape. On this sequence, Rodri faced gradual pressure from an overloading trio of Arsenal players on the flanks. However, he was able to find a wide open Gundogan to dish off a pass to and progress into Arsenal’s own half. The issue here is that Gundogan did not even need to hustle to get into position or make a veering run into the area. Since surrounding players like Aubameyang did not make any attempt to mark him, Gundogan was able to wait for the ball without facing the threat of an immediate challenge from an Arsenal player. Just another example of Arsenal’s ineffective defensive structure when in the opponent’s own half.
Against a unit as compact and organized like Manchester City, no team can afford to be complacent when out of possession. There must be continual effort and precision to maintain a strong presence on all sides of the pitch in order to not free up any available open space. Unfortunately, Arsenal were on the wrong side of this and it was illustrated on each of their three goals allowed in the game. The lack of cohesion from the team when out of possession derailed their hopes of ever restricting the production of Manchester City’s profound attacking system.
Arsenal had no answer for Kevin De Bruyne
In Manchester City’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Kevin De Bruyne orchestrated play as the central attacking midfielder. However, his tasks in this game did not just revolve around positioning himself in the center portions of the pitch and also in creating goal-scoring chances. He took it upon himself to assist in the build-up of play and freely moved across the pitch at will, which made it even more difficult for Arsenal to contain his activity on the pitch.
De Bruyne’s success in the first half -- he scored and assisted a pair of goals -- centered on the fact Arsenal seemingly did not make much of an attempt to mark him out of the game. It seemed as if whenever De Bruyne received the ball, he was able to dribble upfield without any subsequent challenges since no Arsenal player sought out to press him. Wherever De Bruyne was positioned on the pitch, he had the time and patience to survey his surrounding area because of how much space was often granted to him. Thus, De Bruyne took advantage by hovering over to both flanks and accelerating into the final third with unmarked runs.
This play is one example of Arsenal’s inability to negate his on and off ball production. As he retrieves the loose ball, he immediately sets his sights on navigating into Arsenal’s own half -- a sequence seen far too often in the first half. To give the best playmaker in the league that much space and time on the ball is illogical by any means.
In the second half, Ljungberg made the adjustments of keeping a player near De Bruyne at all times when Manchester City controlled possession. But in the end, it was all for nothing considering the 3-0 score and the fact De Bruyne simply countered any incoming pressure by switching play over to the adjacent side of the pitch.
Ljungberg can learn a thing or two from Manchester City’s tactical approach
Both teams in this fixture rolled out the balanced 4-2-3-1 formation with each garnering contrasting results as the final score indicated. But Manchester City’s success in this fixture goes beyond the array of world class players; it comes down to coaching and setting up the right game plan in place for the team.
As illustrated in their win, each Manchester City player knew their role and they conformed to dealing with all tasks at hand. Players knew exactly how to react to different situations on the pitch and they possessed an array of solutions to counter any tactical game plan from the opponent. This is mainly why they have become such a well-oiled unit.
Ljungberg can certainly learn and implement several of Manchester City’s tactical strategies to his own side. But this is not to say he should emulate every single facet of how Guardiola sets up his team on a game-by-game basis. Instead, he could look to make minor tactical tweaks that could go a long way in reconstructing the team for the better in the long-term.
For one, Ljungberg may look at how Rodri and Gundogan conducted play. Both midfielders were constantly moving and striving to provide a passing link to the backline when faced with pressure. They each had the knack to position themselves in pockets of space, ready to receive any pass coming their way. Guendouzi and Torreiria each could use a few pointers on improving their overall positional play and movements while operating in the double pivot role.
Ljungberg needs any tactical help he can get, so why not just look at other managers tactical setups for any possible guidance or inspiration.
With this game in the books, Arsenal will now prepare for an away league match against Everton next weekend.