For forty-five minutes, things were alright. Perhaps conceding within a minute was not ideal— indeed, Arsenal’s official twitter account had tweeted the match had started just as Sergio Aguero’s stooping header flew past Bernd Leno. But after a rocky start, Arsenal grew into the game and grew into their system, buoyed by Laurent Koscielny’s 10th minute equalizing goal from Lucas Torreira’s corner. With Arsenal back on level terms, the set-up that Unai Emery had chosen began to exert itself on the game.
Before the match, it seemed likely that Arsenal would use a back five, with Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sead Kolasinac as wing-backs. Instead, Arsenal were set up in a 4-4-2, with Kolasinac and Iwobi the wide midfielders. Manchester City’s own system was unorthodox, even for them, with a back four out of possession morphing into a back three. This had two ramifications: in possession, City always had a box in midfield of Fernandingo, Ilkay Gundogan, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne, with Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling out wide. Sterling in particular hugged the touch line, forcing Arsenal to defend in wide positions, with Lichtsteiner particularly uncomfortable.
There were further ramifications, then. To ensure that Arsenal weren’t outnumbered in midfield, Lacazette and Aubameyang often dropped deep to protect Guendouzi and Torreira, and pick up the two City deep-lying playmakers. This meant Laporte, Otamendi and Kyle Walker had time on the ball, with Laporte often making passes through the lines. City’s dominance and control of possession, against an Arsenal side just looking to sit back, meant they could exploit the width of Sterling and Bernardo Silva. This caused the fullbacks to push out wide, leaving Torreira and Guendouzi to cover their space, reflected in their defensive actions.
And yet, that meant there would then be space for City’s midfield, so to plug in the gaps, Aubameyang and Lacazette would drop even deeper into central midfield positions; it was no longer two banks of four and the two strikers, but rather, a bank of five or six and a bank of four or five.
This limited City’s ability to create chances until the end of the half, where a combination of excellent passing football, a lofted pass from Gundogan, and Lichtsteiner losing Sterling set-up the second of Aguero’s three tap-ins. It was perhaps harsh on the Gunners, but not wholly unexpected, as they had set-up to defend, offering very little on the break. There were two reasons for that: personnel, and set-up.
Sead Kolasinac has been Arsenal’s most creative outlet in recent weeks, and is tenth in the league in xA. But that has always come with at least one attacking player ahead of him, who is able to slip Kolasinac in behind. With Kolasinac as the left-midfielder, that option rarely existed for Arsenal, unless Guendouzi was freed to play him in, or Lacazette dropped off. Yet if the latter happened—as it did on one occasion—Arsenal lacked the numbers for Kolasinac to find: Aubameyang would often drop off, in search of touches of the ball, and Arsenal’s right-sided player, Alex Iwobi, is far better suited to the left, and is not the best at making goal-scoring runs either, as opposed to, say, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, unavailable through injury, or Aaron Ramsey, on the bench out of choice.
Arsenal’s attacking play this season under Emery has been based on getting fullbacks in behind, and offering cutbacks. But in playing two strikers and two wide players in a 442, and in deploying them the way they did so, Emery limited both the creative output of his wide players, and their ability to threaten City. Arsenal offered very little in the first half, not even winning a corner after Koscielny scored.
Yet, losing by a goal, and needing to inject more creativity into the side, Emery waited. By the time he acted, it was 3-1, and remarkably, Arsenal offered even less in the second half, getting outshot thirteen to nil. For all the defensive promise of the first half, the second half not only showed the gap between Manchester City and Arsenal, but, now that City had regained their lead, the limitations of the manager’s set-up.